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Concentric Circle Theory of Public Relations

Instructor: Lisa Kuchta

Lisa has a master's degree in communication, has taught college communication and writing courses, and has authored a textbook on presentation skills.

This lesson focuses on the Concentric Circle Theory of Public Relations, developed by Elmo Roper in 1945. This theory describes how people use their spheres of influence to disseminate information throughout the public.

Concentric Circle Theory

Imagine you wanted to convince a large population of people to do something. For the sake of an interesting example, let's say you wanted everyone to start wearing his/her shirt inside out. What should your tactic be? If you stand in front of masses of people, show them your inside-out shirt, and start yelling out all of its benefits (no itchy tag or rough hems touching your skin!), your audience will likely ignore you or just roll their eyes. You need a better way.

The job of public relations is to spread information to the public, and often to persuade the masses to accept your version of events (like that shirts are better inside out). To be able to spread that message, you need to know how information moves among large populations of people.

For this, let us look to the Concentric Circle Theory, developed by pollster Elmo Roper in the 1940s to explain how political opinions are shared among the populace. The Concentric Circle Theory claims that ideas start with Great Thinkers and that those ideas are then spread throughout the population in circles, much like the ripple effect you see in water when a rock is thrown in.

The Levels of Dissemination

Roper identified six specific levels of diffusion, which he envisioned as a set of concentric (or nesting) circles. Let's look at each of these levels, starting with the center and moving outward:

1. Great Thinkers - These are the originators of ideas. They are influential and innovative. They spread these ideas to those powerful people around them who tend to think similarly.

2. Great Disciples - Disciples are people who have power and influence themselves, but they are not the idea originators. Rather, they are the students of the Great Thinkers or those immediately influenced by the Great Thinkers' ideas.

3. Great Disseminators - The Great Disciples carry and share the Great Thinkers' message to the Great Disseminators. These disseminators believe in the ideas and seek to spread them, even though they did not receive the messages directly from the Great Thinkers, as the Great Disciples did.

4. Lesser Disseminators - These are people who wield more localized influence (like pastors, community leaders, and others).

5. Participating Citizens - These are the millions of people who take an active part in politics or current affairs, but don't necessarily hold leadership roles.

6. Politically Inert - These are the vast majority of people who don't have strong opinions or activist roles, but who still vote, buy products, or otherwise make decisions related to the original ideas.

An Example of Diffusion

To use a concrete example most people have some familiarity with, let us consider the spread of Catholicism using the Concentric Circle Theory:

1. Great Thinkers - Jesus Christ (and God, of course)

2. Great Disciples - The twelve disciples. They were Jesus's inner circle, and they sought to spread his message and do his work.

3. Great Disseminators - High-ranking members of the Church, like bishops. They spread the Church's message to their own dioceses.

4. Lesser Disseminators - Priests and missionaries. They spread the messages to the basic population.

5. Participating Citizens - Church regulars and those who ardently believe in the teachings of Jesus and the church. They receive the message from the lesser disseminators.

6. Politically Inert - Catholics who do not attend regular services and thus do not receive the ideas from the clergy.

The Power of Personal Influence

Concentric Circles

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