Does rhetoric have a place in PR?

Earlier this week a journalist asked me how I got into PR. He was genuinely shocked to hear that I had studied philosophy at university (I’d be lying if I didn’t mention here that I also studied marketing as a postgraduate, but that’s not the point right now). I am often asked I how ended up working in PR, I assume I’m not the only person who is quizzed about this, and almost every time my response elicits some surprise. This reaction never fails to surprise me.

Unconnected to the conversation I began reading Sam Leith’s book on rhetoric, ‘You Talkin’ To Me?: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama‘, this week. You’re probably not surprised to hear that a PR Manager with a degree in philosophy is reading the latest book on rhetoric, but these two events got me wondering about PR skills. Should books on rhetoric be recommended reading for PR professionals? From my own experience of PR training and PR textbooks (I’ve read a fair few, particularly during my postgraduate studies) the process of setting objectives, writing a strategy, implementing a campaign and evaluating the results is all too often emphasised over the content of what is said and done or what in the past would have been called ‘rhetoric’. Is this a mistake I thought? Perhaps it is.

I’m not saying that a solid understanding of the PR process is unimportant, of course it is. My point is that maybe the balance between content and process needs to be redressed in PR education, so to speak.  A quick glance at the training section of the CIPR website suggests my hunch is correct.

Should we be teaching budding PR’s about rhetoric, the things to say and do to influence, persuade and bring about behaviour change? If Sam Leith’s conclusion in a recent post to Guardian.co.uk is accurate then is answer is probably ‘yes’:

Cicero’s rhetoric was adapted to the Roman senate. Churchill’s rhetoric was adapted to radio. Modern political rhetoric is adapted to headlines, photo captions, rolling news and Twitter. There’s more rhetoric around us than ever before. But the less rhetorical it sounds, the less conscious we are of how it goes to work.

Maybe the skills of rhetoric, persuasion and influence cannot be taught through formal training. Perhaps it’s something you learn on the job. Some say you’ve either got it or you haven’t. All valid counterarguments, but I say let’s think about training PRs in the content of what they say and do. I believe there’s a lot to be gained.

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