Public Relations Inquiry as Rhetorical Criticism: Case Studies of Corporate Discourse and Social Influence

By William N. Elwood | Go to book overview

2
Scandalous Rhetorics

Barry Brummett

Medieval and renaissance humanists were given to using allegory to portray the concerns and institutions of their time. They sometimes did so for the arts and sciences. One of the seven liberal arts was rhetoric, the study of persuasion, which is the ancestor and umbrella term for public relations, advertising, marketing, and their suasive brethren. Rhetoric was often depicted allegorically as Lady Rhetoric, "a woman of loftiest stature and great assurance," wielding great power in the affairs of people ( Murphy, 1974, p. 45; Clark, 1957, frontispiece). Rhetoric has been studied and valued throughout the centuries as an "architectonic" art, managing the contributions of other arts and sciences toward the resolution of important issues in human affairs ( McKeon, 1987).

In this chapter, however, I will speak to another portrayal of rhetoric. The character of that good Lady has sometimes been impugned. There is a tradition that calls her the Harlot of the Arts, willing to put her skill to any purpose good or bad, as long as the price is right ( Condit, 1990). Rhetoric, it has been pointed out, can be used to lie and confuse. It can be employed (for a fee) to defend rapacious businesses and tyrannical governments. Dishonest car sellers persuade poor widows to buy junkers. Unscrupulous lawyers use it to secure the release of the guilty.

Specifically in regards to the teaching and practice of public relations, there is no shortage of pundits today who bemoan the employment of PR professionals in the service of wicked politicians and

-13-

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