Is rhetoric wrong?

A rhetorical perspective of public relations often involves critical analysis of the words we carefully craft – but are we as crafty in forming meaningful messages as the critics claim? 

Being able to write persuasive prose, successful speeches and headline grabbing press releases is at the heart of what many in public relations would consider to be their role.  At the next session of the CIPR Advanced Certificate and Diploma qualifications, our students will consider communications and persuasive theories as well as looking at the importance of building relationships.  I anticipate a lively debate when we analyse the published materials of BP as a case study. 

A recent analysis by Surma (in L’Etang and Pieczka’s Public Relations: Critical Debates and Contemporary Practice) undertakes an analysis of Nike’s 2001 social responsibility report finding the company more “self-serving” than “other-oriented”, defensive and interested more in the “discourse of marketing” than the “discourse of ethics”.  I’ve been involved in producing such material myself in the past, but was never conscious of creating manipulative materials.  So if public relations practitioners are “guilty” of rhetoric in our work, should we be more conscious of this, or is it an inevitable aspect of PR’s partisan role?

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.

2 thoughts on “Is rhetoric wrong?”

  1. …but was never conscious of creating manipulative materials..

    Doesn’t this depend on your mission statement in the first place? Are you presenting for sale or a political platform for mass consumption or what?

  2. I’m not sure it really depends on the organisation’s mission statement or goals in respect to whether the materials we produce seek deliberately or unintentionally to manipulate. Even in an overt sales situation, an ethical approach should be taken if our customers are to remain loyal and not feel exploited.

    Should organisations really be judiciously using information in their annual or CSR reports that show them in the best possible light – even if that light shone for 5 minutes one day in December in outer Mongolia? The consequence of that must be that our audiences become increasingly cynical and we offer a massive opportunity for activists to criticise us. And, of course, PR will continue to be viewed as spin and style without substance if all we do is paint a nice shiny gloss with our words.

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