The rhetoric of PR: Beyond the bias

Both rhetoric and public relations are at the receiving end of suspicion and criticism. When we suspect a politician or salesperson of being dishonest and trying to deceive us, we say they’re using rhetoric — all words and no substance. We tend to be equally skeptical of PR people, who seem to always spin the story in a way that favors an organization, which can feel like they’re lying or covering something up.

This suspicion of carefully constructed words isn’t a new phenomenon. It can be traced all the way back to Plato, who criticized the Sophists for using beautiful language to deceive their audiences. Perhaps Plato would have been just as skeptical of PR practitioners, if the field had existed in ancient Athens.

It shouldn’t surprise us, then, to realize that PR and rhetoric go hand-in-hand, that the practice of PR necessarily uses the principles of rhetoric that began in ancient Greece and, through centuries of theory and analysis, became an indispensably useful tool for PR practitioners today. But, because of the close link between PR and the lambasted field of rhetoric, there may be hesitance among those who study and practice PR to acknowledge their overt use of persuasion. Thus, “the importance of public relations activity is never fully revealed” (Mackey).

However, the fields of PR and rhetoric share important links that must not be disregarded. Namely, rhetoric is centered on effective communication, strategically crafting one’s message to be well received and perhaps acted upon by those that interact with it. So, too, PR practitioners carefully craft their message in a way that resonates with their publics and which encourage positive relationships and interactions with the organization. Strategic language use is ubiquitous in both practices, and, as Kenneth Burke believed, language is not neutral but is itself a form of symbolic action. Much in accordance with Burke’s belief that rhetoric is the key to human cooperation and peace, PR practitioners must use language in a way that builds trust and cooperation between people and institutions.

Rather than being deceptive and manipulative, the use of rhetoric in PR is essential to conveying meaning and purpose through language. “It makes no sense to suggest there is a separate, unblemished, pure rationality that can be conceived outside the languages and other symbolic modes of expression which are used to conceive and describe it” (Mackey). Language is the primary means through which humans express themselves, and now more than ever before do we have the channels to communicate with broad audiences and influence many different publics with the words that we say and write.

Far from the limited public forums and speechmaking of ancient Greece, today’s global society relies on the internet, through which much of our day-to-day communication takes place. By harnessing the important connections between people, language use, and our networked world, PR practitioners can make meaningful connections with the public.

Research for this topic was primarily found in Rhetorical Theory and Public Relations: From the Agora to the Postmodern by Steve Mackey