Rhetoric to the Rescue: Serving the Public Interest with Rhetorical and Critical Approaches to Public Relations
A prevailing notion among public relations scholars is that public relations is an applied communication science. In this paper, I take issue with this notion and argue that scholars have to study public relations like any other social activity, that is, with rhetorical and critical approaches that look beyond the purpose of improving practice. Public relations as an academic discipline needs an understanding of how the public relations function works, and how it is influenced and influence power, rhetoric, resources, and so on. Such research endeavors have an obvious legitimate role in themselves, and cannot rest upon an obligation to point to ideal practices before or after criticizing current practices.
Rhetorical theory remains a relatively untapped source for public relations scholars in this sense. Not many rhetorical public relations studies exist, and those that do often have intrinsic value since they are based on case studies with little relevance for theory building. With the exception of crisis rhetoric (e.g., Benoit, 1995; Coombs, 1999; Hearit, 2006; Millar & Heath, 2003), there are few rhetorical genre studies and few studies that identify archetypical public relations strategies. Furthermore, even if the rhetorical approach in public relations “allows” for critical investigation of the organizational rhetoric (Heath, 1992), an administrative approach is often seen here too (L’Etang, 1997). Several authors explicitly link the rhetorical approach to instrumental goals of maintaining social order or gaining consent (i.e., Toth, 1992; Trujillo & Toth, 1987). Some scholars also posit that even when self-interest is the driving force of an organization, this is tempered by the response of other stakeholders, including the media. The underlying assumption is that “no entity can manipulate others forever, if at all” (Heath, 1993, p. 143). This leads to the conclusion that a public relations practitioner will have to advocate not only the needs of the organization, but also the needs, concerns, and point of view of the publics. In my view, this perspective only gives us part of the picture, as there are countless examples of organizations getting their way at the expense of the public interest.
In this paper, I first take stock of the limited number of critical-rhetorical studies that do exist (i.e., Bostdorff, 1992; Dionisopoulos & Goldzwig, 1992; Dionisopoulos & Vibbert, 1988; Hansen-Horn & Vasquez, 1997; Smilowitz & Pearson, 1989; Tompkins, 1987; Tompkins & Cheney, 1983). Particular attention is paid to some of the studies stemming form organizational communication (i.e., Cheney, Christensen, Conrad, & Lair, 2004; Cheney & Lair, 2005) that have suggested rhetorical strategy typologies that are broader than the ones found in the crisis literature. From this a program for rhetorical studies of public relations is suggested, focusing on the areas where archetypical strategies can be deduced. One prime example that will be developed is how organizations go about constructing an environmental ethos.
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