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The Smell of Crisis: Style and Rhetoric of Political Parties in and outside Crisis Situations

Christ’l De Landtsheer, Lieuwe Kalkhoven

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The outlook of political communication style is different in and outside crises. Depending upon the stress factor, there is a move from a cognitive, expressive, and content-oriented non-crisis style to emotive, impressive, and audience-oriented crisis communication rhetoric. This paper is meant to test a theory of a “crisis communication combination pattern”. Crisis style would, according to this “CCC-theory”, rely upon at least three cognitive and/or linguistic variables and it could be described as (1) a simplistic worded rhetoric, (2) full of metaphor power and (3) audience oriented use of modals. The empirical sections of the article investigate style and rhetoric of Belgian political parties in and outside crises during the period 2000-2005. Two cases represent clear examples of political ‘crises, whereas the third case deals with an election campaign (as a crisis-like situation). From the results of all three cases can be concluded that it is possible to “smell” the crisis in political style. In all cases, the CCC-value is in crisis time approximately three times higher than in non-crisis time. Additional results show that parties at the endings of the political spectrum achieve significantly higher CCC-indices than more centered parties, both in crisis and in non-crisis time. This suggests the overall presence of a crisis-like communication style in political discourse of extremist and very radical parties.

Keywords: crisis communication – rhetoric – metaphors – integrative complexity – modals – Belgium politics