A Rhetorical Question: Is PR valuable?

The aim of this blog is to explore the ways in which ideas (brands) and people (stakeholders) evolve in harmony, learnin...

July 21, 2003

The aim of this blog is to explore the ways in which ideas (brands) and people (stakeholders) evolve in harmony, learning to offer and exchange mutual value.

‘Rhetoric’, as reinterpreted for modern purposes, deserves an extended mention.

It is the process which make this learning possible.

The art of rhetoric as practised by the Greeks was actually dismissed by Plato as being ‘as valuable as cooking’, and was to be actively avoided by those in power, as it would make them susceptible to persuasion, and distort their ability to determine matters of public good, namely:

truth (epistemology)

value (axiology)

and policies, or modes of being (ontology)

However, Plato’s pupil, Aristotle, hit back against this argument to argue that the very value of rhetoric was in nurturing susceptibility to argument. Rhetoric is the process which shapes knowledge – even scientific knowledge. It is the vital tool-kit in the proving ground of ideas.

Aristotle actually maintained that the skills of public speech would force protagonists (mutual stakeholders) to invent and hone their arguments. As a point of principle, through rational engagement, good ideas would chase out bad ideas; good values chase out bad ones; and good ways of being would supersede bad ways. Ideas, values and policies actually improve through the clash of propositions, identifications and purposes.

The problem with this line of argument, though, is that you have to wonder how this evolution might actually occur in daily life through our fragmented media. What would be the rules of engagement? What’s the dialectic? How does this learning process actually take place?

In the words of K.K. Campbell:

Truths cannot walk on their own two legs. They must be carried by people to other people. They must be explained, defended and spread through language, argument and appeal.”

If ideas, values and ways of being are to clash, they need a means of interaction through people. If brands are to evolve, their promises, values, purpose and policies (governance) must be clearly understood by those to whom the purport to offer value.

But this requires transparency, or at least a system of interaction between people and brands whose integrity and rules of engagement are understood.

Can we say this about the media today? Can we say it about marketers? probably not.

We should be living in the golden age of rhetoric. So where have all the rhetoriticians all gone? Into government; into academe; into print journalism; onto the web and some even into PR (heaven help us).

In these fields, to a greater or lesser degree, matters of opinion are still debated, with some sense that a higher and longer-term purpose is at stake.

Battles may be fought and lost over individual interpretations, but elements within these communities are, I would argue, to some degree cogiscent of the greater war that they are waging to advance human standards.

These communities of conscience are all aware that values and ways of being are also, permanently at stake. In the joy of the small victories, these communities still weep for the wars that are being lost over values and policies – the ground rules of human engagement.

For the mis-use of rhetoric devalues not just the user, but humankind. I have been appalled recently by the shenanigans which surrounded David Beckham’s transfer to Real Madrid. Not because of the sums of money involved, nor even because of our icon-worshipping society. What depressed (concerned me) was the clear lies told by Barcelona, Manchester United and Real Madrid to the media around the time of the negotiations. It’s not even that they lied and weren’t punished. It’s that we all colluded in the deception. We all knew they were lying. Lying is the new ‘no comment’.

This is an ontological catastrophe. (And it’s shit practice). The demeaning of everyday human relationship standards subtly shift the rules of human contact for the worse. To achieve marginal commercial victory, all sides abandoned the truth and their values and thereby undermined a basic rule of human relationships – truth matters. This is what happens when the marketing psyche permeates the field of sport. This is serious.

To add insult to injury, the recent Kasky vs Nike judgement in the US appears to offer a similarly depressing precedent. Nike’s (I believe, honest) attempt to engage in social rhetoric around child labour has been debased by the courts and deemed ‘commercial speech’. The danger, henceforth, is that corporations will not feel they have any right and certainly not a duty, to engage in shaping of matters of truth, of values and of being, despite the fact that billions of us devote the largest portion of our lives to these entities on an hourly basis. But if they cannot engage, then who can?

Finally, the fiasco which has now become a tragedy between the BBC and the UK government further rams home the delicately balanced influence of these rhetorical standards.

We must, at all costs, safeguard the rhetorical guidelines. They offer a metasystem of our basic humanity. If these interpersonal norms are trespassed, then any possibility of social evolution, brand learning and sustainability erodes (or even evaporates – a la Andersen).

This is our ethosystem. We screw with it at our peril.

How many would-be rhetoriticians work in marketing I wonder? How many in CRM see their role as furthering the concurrence of ideas, values and policies?

If they don’t begin to collude right now in safeguarding these standards of interaction, we may just all be doomed.

More optimistically, where language, responsibility and culture fuse, rhetoric achieves its highest state, and meaningful brands are born.

So to the rhetorical question: Is PR valuable?…I offer a rhetorical answer:

It can be and it must be. PR must act as the guardian of our relationship norms. Between brands and stakeholders – ideas and people. It can also be the facilitator of mutual learning.

Sustainable brands can only be built by sustainable processes!

NB. I am deeply indebted to Robert L Heath at the University of Houston for prompting this line of confluence between the academic world of communications theory, and the practicalities of brand learning. Do read his great article on ‘Crossroads and Pathways to Concurrence’. Journal of Public Relations Research, 12 (1), 69-91, published by Laurence Erlbaum Associates.

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