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Credibility – Image, Identity and Ethos (Anne Katrine Lund, Helle Petersen)

Credibility is a prerequisite for trusting anything which we read or hear.

Credibility is the cement of society. It is the prerequisite for us listening to each other.

It is important to distinguish between image, identity and ethos. We define image as a wish, by the sender of the message, to appear in a certain manner. It is something which organisations often try to buy, aided by image campaigns. Identity on the other hand is the persons or organisations personality or culture. Ethos is the surroundings perception of the persons or organisations credibility. Please note, that everything which is normally covered by a wider image concept is here divided into three: identity, image and ethos.

In order to be able to talk about a stable credibility all three must be identical. In an ideal world the identity will also reflect the image wish and the ethos perception by the recipient.

According to classical rhetoric, conviction is created through three appeal types: appeal via reason (logos), via the personal credibility (ethos) and via the feelings (pathos). Humans are not convinced by logos alone, but by a combination of logos, ethos and pathos.

Aristotle states that a convincing ethos consists of three elements:

1. Phronesis; wisdom and sound judgement

2. Arete; the moral character and good human properties

3. Eunoia; willingness towards ones audience

According to Aristotle, our perception is built on a sense of reason, competency, ethics, character and positive intentions.

Ethos in constant change

Ethos is not a static entity, but something which is undergoing constant change. The rhetoric researcher McCroskey describes ethos as being in a state of constant change, every time we are in touch with the person or the organisation. We have an expectation of the credibility (initial ethos), but this is adjusted with the new experience (derived ethos), which will form the foundation for our expectations the next time we are confronted with the organisation.

This is one of the reasons why credibility is a concept which requires constant work by the organisation. The customer, or the public might have been convinced of one ethos, aided by positive media publicity, but if they then experience a rude response when approaching an employee of the organisation, then the perception is changed instantly. In other words, the desires image must come to expression by all employees. identity and image must be close to each other before a relatively stable ethos can be established.

Employees have to act as ambassadors for the organisations’ image.

What is perceived as credible?

McCroskey splits the evaluation of credibility into two dimensions; on one hand, what we relate to; namely competencies and character, and on the other hand what we describe credibility with; composure, sociability and extroversion.

In the book “Gode Grunde” (“Good Reasons”) Klaus Kjøller puts forward five virtues for politicians, these are:

Virtue 1:  honesty, openness;

Virtue 2: idealism, altruism – meaning driven by the wish that as many as possible should be well – as opposed to egoism;

Virtue 3: technical competency, ability to survive, ability to adapt, energy, activity;

Virtue 4: internal cohesion, solidarity; about a person: stability, consistency in opinions and attitudes;

Virtue 5: ability to conduct self-criticism, sense of irony about oneself, sense of humour.

Commitment is important when deciding for or against a case.

“One does not understand things fully, until one can express what one thinks, in such a manner that others can understand it.”

“Persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible. We believe good men more fully and more readily than others.”

Aristotle’s words are simple and based on a common understanding of human nature. We are more likely to listen to and believe in people or organisations whose character we sympathize with. We value honesty and openness, as IBM’s director emphasis it here: “Trustworthiness is a very important concept both in relation to employees and customers. Fundamentally this is a question of being honest. Everybody agrees that honesty is a virtue, but not everybody lives by it (…)”

About a person who displays a clear presence in the communication:

“It should not be staged. It is about having enough self-confidence to be one self. We all play different parts in different relations at home, in the workplace etc. But it is not credible, if one is totally different: one should be just as friendly towards the check-out lady at the supermarket as one is to the boss at work, and towards the children at home. It is at least something which makes a big impression to me, when I come across people who rest so much in themselves that they are the same, in the different situations one experiences them in.”

A credible appearance demands competence, character and presence in the communication.

“To appear credible first of all demands, that the substance is as it should be: that one’s affair is right and correct, and that it in itself contains that which one can call material credibility.”

“it is important that one, from a purely psychological point of view, is oneself and does not stage-manage oneself. The content must be disseminated with a straightforward simplicity, without this causing a deception; also the choice of language must be accessible.”


– identity: competency (clear, consistent)

– ethos: character (open, honest, willing, humane, modest, humoristic)

– image: presence (committed, real, present, alive)



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