Public Relations Is An Ancient Art

By Thomas J. Roach

The Five Canons of Rhetoric Are All Facets Of Effective Business Communication.

Historically, what we now call the profession of public relations was the practice of rhetoric.

Arguably the greatest and most influential teacher of rhetoric was Aristotle. In the 4th Century BCE, Aristotle defined rhetoric as the art of discovering the best available means of persuasion. His students studied the five canons of rhetoric: invention, arrangement, style, memorization and delivery.

We still use these canons in all facets of business communication. Invention is a method for creating arguments. To invent arguments, the orator selects from three artistic proofs called logos, pathos and ethos.

The three proofs translate essentially to logic, emotion and character. Using the proofs, a speaker might make a logical argument, stir the emotions of the audience, or ask the audience to trust his or her judgment.

Aristotle believed ethos, the character proof, was the most important because trust is required before anyone will believe logical arguments or be open to emotional influence. This explains why organizations need to build trust with their communities before they get into disputes with zoning boards or NIMBY groups.

Arrangement is used when writing introductory and concluding paragraphs or ordering arguments in an essay or speech. The momentum created in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech is a powerful use of arrangement.

Style refers to word choice and tone. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s inspirational speeches with lines such as “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” are fine examples of style.

Memorization was a necessity in a time without laptop computers or even paper and pencils. Delivery was considered the most important of the canons by Demosthenes, the greatest of the Greek orators.

Demosthenes practiced delivery by going to the seashore, putting pebbles in his mouth, and shouting his speeches above the roar of the waves.

Today one practices delivery by getting messages out on Facebook, placing stories in the newspaper, and using meetings to cascade information from the front office to quarry.

Sometimes the term rhetoric is used to indicate meaninglessness. Today a disgruntled NIMBY member might say, “Don’t believe it; that’s just company rhetoric.” But in classical Rome the great orator and theorist Cicero challenged rhetoricians to strive for sincerity, logic and clarity of thought. Roman citizens studied rhetoric not just to be able to give speeches, but to develop the capacity to reason.

All modern democracies are founded on a similar faith in the ability of orators to articulate significant arguments and of citizens to hear rational public debate and discern the truth. If citizens really believed all political rhetoric was worthless, they could hardly justify a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
Significant changes in the late 19th century caused what used to be called the practice of rhetoric to become the practice of public relations. In part the transition was due to the disappearance of rhetorical theory from the curriculum in schools in the U.S. where it was replaced mainly with the study of grammar.

Consequently the penny press, radio, film and later television emerged in a theoretical vacuum. Today, after more than 100 years of mass media it is apparent that no communication operates outside the paradigm of rhetoric.

The canon of invention, because it reflects our internal processes of reasoning remains relatively unchanged, and each new manifestation of mass media is actually just a new method of delivery with its own unique application of style and arrangement.

All professionals practicing public relations are essentially rhetoricians.

Thomas J. Roach, Ph.D., has 30 years experience in communication as a journalist, media coordinator, communication director and consultant. He has taught at Purdue University Calumet since 1987, and is the author of “An Interviewing Rhetoric.” He can be reached at [email protected] 

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