Rhetorical theory is one of the communications techniques used in public relations by persuading the public to a particular point of view. Heath defines rhetoric as the art of persuasion. Likewise Elwood defines rhetoric as “the communicative means that citizens use to lend significance to themselves and to extend that significance to others,” claiming that public relations itself is a rhetorical practice.
Sproul (1988) has his own explanation and description of the “new managerial rhetoric.” Sproul explains that historically, rhetoric has been a tool focused on more greatly, but not exclusively on reaching the mass audience through media as opposed to being aimed at a single individual.
Edward Bernays, whom many regard today as the father of public relations (Tench & Yeomans, p270) regarded public relations as an attempt to persuade a public to come to terms with a certain idea, by using a series of communication techniques and rhetorical messages.
Edward also explains, that rhetorical persuasion within public relations includes non- verbal and visual cues used by organizations and therefore tend to include symbols. This would allow for an organization to shape its identity. For example iconic corporate identities as created by Apple, The icon of an apple with a bite mark. An icon that is globally recognized and is immediately emblematic of the corporate personality and qualities imbibed by the organizations public relations practice.
Though rhetoric primarily concerns itself with the phenomena of communication, scholars believe that the advantage to this approach is that it allows public relations people to gain other perspectives on the situations in a way that problematizes the notion of truth. Truth is often a very contested terrain when interest groups are in public confrontation. With that being said, rhetorical theory cannot be sustained by lies and requires those who have a desire to keep the public informed so as to make ethical decisions
Pratkanis & Aronson, quoted in Tench & Yeomans (2006, p268) argue that we are overwhelmed with one persuasive communication after another everyday, “these appeals persuade not through the give-and-take of argument and debate, but through the manipulation of symbols and of our most basic human emotions.” Thus rhetoric could be viewed as part of a power struggle, rather than the condition of public relations discourse. Its use serves to manipulate and bewilder, positioning the organization and how the organization wishes to be perceived, rather than necessarily how it is.
Conversely Heath (2001) argues that any discussion about public relations emphasizes the subject’s rhetorical heritage as “the rationale for assuasive discourse” (p31). He argues what he describes as the human “commitment to rhetorical dialogue as the process for forging conclusions and influencing actions.”
Public relations itself is therefore a rhetorical process which assists in building society, whereby “through statement and counterstatement, people test each other’s views of reality, value and choices relevant to products, services and public policies.” Rather than taking a benign view of how publics interpret communications and make decisions, Heath argues that rhetoric recognizes participants have their own self interest as well as unselfish reasons to become engaged in any debate and that meaning is constructed in the interpretation of communications, rather than in the transmission of...