Cautiously Optimistic

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Relationships vs. Rhetoric in Public Relations

with 4 comments

Relationships vs. Rhetoric - two sides of the same coin? Image Courtesy of iStockPhotoOne of the more interesting classes I have taken in my pursuit of a master’s degree in public relations has been a look at the theoretical underpinnings of the industry.

Normally we don’t think of what we do as having a basis in theory. You can’t just pick up a theory and hold it toward the light. It’s an abstract concept. But it is helpful to ponder some of the competing ideas that try to explain what public relations is, why people and organizations engage in it, and why it works (or doesn’t work).

In that class, we spent a great deal of time discussing whether “relationships” are at the heart of public relations, or whether “rhetoric” is the basis of all that we do.

I was reminded of that discussion by a recent article by John Trader in PR Daily, which listed the “5 key traits of a successful PR professional.”

The article outlined the following must-have traits for anyone wanting to “make it” in public relations:

  • Thick skin;
  • Resiliency;
  • Attention to detail;
  • Creativity; and
  • Relationship building.

In my experience, all five of these traits really are “must-haves,” but the final item intrigued me. There it was, plain as day: support for “relationships” as the bedrock of PR success. But reading deeper in the article, Trader described “relationship building” as the ability to “bridge communication chasms through quality conversations.”

That’s the point at which my PR professors would say “A-ha! And what are quality conversations made of? Rhetoric. The ability to communicate with others in such way as to persuade them of the rightness of your position, while being open to being persuaded if their arguments have greater merit.”

That is what a “quality conversation” is. Anything else is just a monologue.

As public relations practitioners continue to learn how to use social media to create and improve relationships with their publics, using the tools of effective rhetoric, it might be safe to say that instead of being in conflict with each other, relationships and rhetoric are actually the two sides of the same coin.

Follow me on Twitter at @charlesprimm.


Written by Charles Primm

February 17, 2012 at 6:43 pm

4 Responses

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  1. Charles, I totally agree with you here. I love learning more about relationship management within public relations. It’s an incredibly intriguing lens through which to view the field.


    February 19, 2012 at 12:01 am

    • Thanks Amanda. To me, the striking thing is that when I speak with practitioners in the field, they mostly agree that relationship management is the most important task they engage in on a day-to-day basis. Good writing is a critical skill, but the ability to create and build relationships with internal and external publics is a stronger predictor of a PR professional’s long-term success in the industry.


      February 22, 2012 at 10:25 am

  2. […] as I’ve written about before, is one of the tools of the trade for public relations practitioners. When you get down to it, all […]

  3. […] I have discussed before, there has been a struggle among PR professors as to what public relations is “really all […]

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