Rhetoric and Public Relations

When I was teaching an Introduction to Public Relations course many years ago, I shared with my students my discovery of the ancient art of rhetoric and its similarity to PR.

At that time, all I knew of rhetoric (apart from sharing the modern-day pejorative view of it) was three broad categories itemised by Aristotle – logos, the appeal to logic; pathos, the appeal to the emotions; and ethos, the credibility of the speaker.

Given that rhetoric and PR are both about persuasion, or moving others to think and act differently, I thought that an understanding of rhetoric might be useful for my PR practice. I was especially concerned by PR’s apparent lack of interest in audiences/message recipients. Could PR learn from rhetoric?

In a recent online discussion, I was struck by the belief of many practitioners that PR should be a force for good in the world. This moral vision is often at odds with the reality – most of us are happy to trim our values and subordinate them to our need to earn a living. We all like to fit in. Strong corporate cultures, especially those driven solely by profit. shareholder value and so on, tend not to be too tolerant of individuals who point out unethical practice. Whistle-blowing is career-limiting.

In my recent readings (A Ciceronian Sunburn by E. Armstrong; University of South Carolina Press) I was struck by several things, not least rhetoric’s role in moral philosophy. In Cicero’s words, rhetoric aims at moving others to virtue through eloquence. In modern parlance, it’s about the quality of conversations and the co-creation of a better world. It is about valuing poets (story-tellers if you will) for their ability to ‘teach, delight and move others’ to virtue. It is about the quality of the ‘word’ as the instrument of motivation.

Rhetoric should be taught as part of all PR degree courses because it provides a theoretical basis to the art and purpose of communication.

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