Archive for the ‘Theory’ Category

Filling up on rhetoric

As a public relations practitioner, there is probably a tendency to run from the word rhetoric due to its negative connotations and links with ideas of manipulation and falsehoods.  How many times are organisations and politicians (in particular) accused of spruiking ‘empty’  rhetoric?

But for the public relations theorist, rhetoric takes on a whole new light. It can be used to analyse the way organisations (and politicians) speak about their issues – trying to understand their intended meanings from the symbols they use. In effect it is a study of effective communication.

But communication can work in more than one direction, so we can also see it as a tool also for those with whom they are communicating. In this way, rhetoric is the issuing of statement and counter-statements – a ‘to and fro’ that is not necessarily manipulative.

 So when and why does it become ‘empty’?

One view takes into account the power of big business or government and their access to media to get their message across, forcing their messages on a passive public.  But why do they have this power?  Could the public, in a sense, create some of its own powerlessness?

When messages are presented in sound bites on television news, or headlines in newspapers, the messages are often distorted and the consumers of those media do not pick up on the intended meaning.  That is not necessarily a fault of the media.  They would argue that they are giving the readers/audience what they want – bite size information in a busy world.  And the organisation, keen to get any of its messages out through that media, conveniently shortens it and provides the sound bite that will pass through the editorial gatekeeper.

The danger of course is that a passive audience, perhaps encouraged by media keen to exploit the newsworthiness of conflict and disagreement, obtains and retains a distorted view of the issue.

While newspapers have always had the advantage of being able to give more space to discussion of any one issue, are we starting to see a new form of debate in which the previously passive public is ‘filling up’ on rhetoric themselves to balance out what was seen as ‘empty’ rhetoric from those in power?  Newspapers online are accepting comments from readers in a timeframe and quantity that was not possible previously.  Television news and current affairs programs are increasing in number and changing formats.  Examples such as Channel Ten’s 7pm project present a more detailed coverage of an issue, often including a debate can comment.  And the ABC’s Q&A program is allowing the audience to talk directly, and in real-time to those making the news.

The rise of social media and corporate and government use of it is also opening up the opportunities for the statements and counter-statements of rhetoric.  But does 140 characters really count?

While there may be an increase in the quantity of discussion coming from an audience that was largely passive in the past, the question of quality still remains.  Is it time to measure the rhetoric of the public also, and whether this is really adding anything to the debate?


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Facing public relations theory for the first time can be an overwhelming experience.  We refer to it in the singular, but in fact it is a collection of many different types of theories and concepts that relate directly to public relations or indirectly to areas in which public relations is involved. 

Confusion reigns when we look at this diverse range of ‘knowledge’ and see that not only do some of the theories overlap, but they often contradict each other too!  So how do we get a handle on all of this?

First, we need to acknowledge that we work in the field of social science where there is rarely a single answer to any question.  Second, we need to stop looking for THE holy grail of PR theory.  Third, we need to embrace the diversity of views that allows us to discuss, debate, disagree and argue in the process of uncovering new knowledge and ways of looking at the world.

In doing so, we will undoubtedly keep adding to the list of theories to learn. And this is a good thing.  We want to be able to explain why things work or happen the way they do.  We want to be able to use this to work out what to do next or to predict what will happen next so we are better prepared. Ultimately it is about making us more effective communication managers and creating an environment in which messages are understood, accurate information is passed and strong relationships are forged.

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Studying public relations theory in university courses can be a daunting task when you first open that text book.  At times it can feel like you a studying a foreign language with words you have never heard before and complex phrases that can make your head spin.  So is it all necessary?

Theory can help us understand more about our publics, our organisation, the media we use and how all of these interact.  Without this knowledge, we are stabbing in the dark to a certain extent.  Sometimes we will hit our target, but we will miss a fair deal also.  And even when we do make contact, it may not be in the most effective or efficient manner.

Public relations ‘technicians’ apply their craft on the basis of the ‘how-to’ manual of public relations, often using principles that have been derived from theoretical knowledge. But the public relations ‘professional’ will combine learning from various areas, including personal experiences and theory, and will understand why and when certain techniques will be the most effective.

Theory can tell us about the complexities of relationships and the power struggles within organisations.  It can help us understand why particular stories make it into the mass media when others don’t.  It can help us understand how our messages will be received and interpreted so we can make more effective use of our time and resources.

Austin and Pinkleton (2006) highlight the benefits of theory to public relations professionals, arguing that it:

  • explains why people behave in certain ways and how they are likely to respond,
  • enhances the strategic manager’s success,
  • results in more effective planning,
  • provides some control in a field notorious for its uncertainty, and
  • improves the probability of success, although it cannot guarantee success.

They also stress the need for practitioners to keep informed of theory as it evolves. Professionals need to continuously engage with developments in public relations theory, long after they receive their basic knowledge and training. Professional association helps keep the public relations professional up-to-date by networking with other professionals and researchers, through attending seminars and conferences in which new knowledge is shared and by helping set the agenda for future research.

For the public relations student, theoretical knowledge obtained at university is just the beginning. But it provides the time and place to build a firm foundation from which to launch a professional career.

Austin, EW & Pinkleton, BE 2006, Strategic Public Relations Management, 2nd ed, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, NJ

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