The objective of trust

The readings on rhetoric were profoundly applicable to the classes I teach: Communications Management I and II. Taught as a continuum, the classes begin with defining PR, including the history and ethical implications, the core competencies of the communications professional, now and in the future, and then onto strategy and planning, beginning with the RACE formula (Research Analysis Communications Evaluation).

I teach my students about the communications objective/engagement continuum: awareness, understanding, acceptance and then behaviour change. It originally applied to employee engagement, but it easily works when explaining the various levels of communications objectives. But the article by Robert Heath adds an added layer: trust. He argues, and I agree, that the value that public relations has to society is that of trust. (Heath, Robert, 2000). “Trust is the ultimate goal, beyond understanding and agreement” (Heath, R., p. 80).

And if we think about it, and most of our readings, and much of the news that relates to our readings, it really all comes down to trust. “People identify with those they trust,” writes Heath. “They also trust those who enact and advocate narratives that they accept and enact” (Heath, p. 81). Let’s look at a couple of examples of misplaced trust, ripped from the headlines:

1. Ghomeshi. In his mea culpa “it’s them not me” Facebook post, he uses his popularity and power — just as the mass media use their power as discussed in this week’s readings on mass media — to build trust. He all but says, “trust me, it’s their word against mine” when he writes: “But I am telling this story to you so the truth is heard.” As we witnessed in the days following, his was not the truth we trusted, despite his position of power. To their credit, his public relations firms ended their relationship with them, ensuring their trust and their reputation stayed intact. They saw, as Heath outlines, that their own credibility was based on “unfailing demonstrated commitment to advance society because of the good of society, not the singular good of the advocate” (Heath, p. 81).

2. Bill Cosby. Cosby’s reputation as everyone’s favourite 80s-sweater wearing funny dad is faltering everyday as allegations of sexual harassment and drugged rape continue. “We may be looking at America’s greatest serial rapist that ever got away with this for the longest amount of time,” his latest victim has said. “He got away with it because he was hiding behind the image of Cliff Huxtable.” And the longer he stays quiet, the longer his source credibility disintegrates. This is one situation no public relations firm would be willing to take on. It’s just too late.

If we as practitioners of public relations adhere to the Bryant-Wallace “The Oath of a Public Speaker” (Heath, p. 79), we will all be doing our profession proud — a profession that suffers from the ironic shoemaker-syndrome (our own profession suffers from bad PR). Slightly amended it could very well be our own Hippocratic Oath, perhaps a necessary step when the notion of trust is becoming increasingly just that: a notion. We must all act in the public interest, as the CPRS definition of Public Relations states, not in the interest of Jian, or Bill, or a particular government. It’s our “do no harm” clause. Trust me.

Engagement but also communications objectives

Engagement but also communications objectives

Behind the rhetoric – female politicans are still searching for an equal voice

Our class readings inspired me to analyze the role of female politicians through a rhetorical lens. Interestingly, Sutherland and Sutcliffe (1999) found that the rhetorical tradition developed into a much narrower meaning throughout the centuries, one which “confined it to the public discourse of men of the ruling class.” (p. 10). This phenomenon is still alive today in the role and image of 21st century female politicians.

The First Lady ultimately set the stage for women in the public sphere, as they took on the role of compassionate supporters and motherly figures (Griswold, 2007). Despite the success of the women’s movement in the 1970s, the public image of female politicians is influenced heavily by the idea that political rhetoric is primarily ‘masculine.’ Griswold (2007) explains that “a woman, unlike a man in politics, must balance addressing her gender with a masculine and powerful rhetoric. If a female politician upsets the balance by coming across as too forceful, then she in untrustworthy, and in contrast, if she is too ‘feminine’ then she is deemed unfit to lead” (p. 3). Although female politicians have come a long way, media coverage reveals that lingering sexism towards female candidates is still very prevalent.

Sarah Palin is arguably the most sexually objectified female candidate to date. Throughout her political campaign, news sources emphasized her physical appearance and publicized her past participation in beauty pageants. The media used Palin’s former pageant career to dismiss her as a serious candidate with news anchors referring to her as the following: “The race for the U.S. presidency is not just one more beauty contest,” “Caribou Barbie,” “Presidential Barbie” and “Malibu Barbie” (Winfrey and Carlin, 2009, p. 330 – 331). The media’s objectification of Palin led the public to discredit her political agenda and view her as incompetent.

On the other hand, Hilary Clinton executed a much more mature and commanding image to the public. However, her sometimes “intimidating nature” and decision to pursue a more dominating leadership style was seen as fair game to many media outlets. She was often identified in the media as not being ‘feminine’ enough with headlines identifying her as “calculating,” “overly ambitious,” “cold,” “scary” and “intimidating” (Winfrey and Carlin, 2009). The media often criticized her attempt to assert a traditionally ‘masculine’ rhetoric and viewed her husband, Bill Clinton, as a source of necessary aid and strength.

In Canadian politics, this issue was brought to life after two female NDP MPs came forward with allegations of sexual harassment against two of their Liberal counterparts. It is interesting to note that the rhetoric surrounding this case is largely focused on the fact that Parliament doesn’t have a formal process to deal with these types of allegations. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has called for a new policy to deal with harassment issues, but the fact that there wasn’t one already in place is extremely troubling (to say the least). Canadian Parliament seems to be living in another decade when it comes to the treatment of female staff and officials in the workplace. Despite the bickering and finger–pointing between the New Democrats and the Liberals, Canadians are expecting more from all members of Parliament and want to see action and change so that future issues of harassment are properly addressed.

After diving deeper into the rhetoric surrounding Sarah Palin, Hilary Clinton and Canada’s recent harassment issue at Parliament Hill, it is clear that female politicians are continuously struggling to fit into a public sphere that the media and public deem as ‘masculine.’ To move beyond this issue, future political leaders need to openly discuss issues of sexism and harassment, as well as adopt a rhetoric that is neither defined as ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine.’ It is also crucial that journalists, PR professionals, members of the public and politicians hold the media accountable for acts of sexism against female (or male) politicians. It will be interesting to see where the future of politics goes and if it is possible to create a gender-neutral public sphere for political debate and societal change.

Thanks for reading and please feel free to share your thoughts.




Griswold, D. (2007). The politics of speech: engendering the public sphere. Retrieved from Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

Sutherland, C. M. & Sutcliffe, R. J. (1999). The Changing Tradition: Women in the History of Rhetoric. Calgary: University of Calgary Press.

Winfrey, K. L. & Carlin, D. B. (2009). Have You Come a Long Way, Baby? Hilary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and Sexism in 2008 Campaign Coverage. Communications Studies, 60, 326-343.

Public discourse in the Rhetorical Tradition and Habermas’ Theory

I was really jazzed by our course readings on Habermas. His theories were down-to-earth, practical, applicable to the modern world, and very relevant to the current events unfolding during the week of reading and discussing his theories (Oct 26-Nov 1, 2014).

The readings about Habermas reminded me of one of another theory we read earlier. I looked back on the moodle posts and found it on page 135 of Robert T. Craig’s “Communication as a Field” article, right in the title of the section: “The Rhetorical Tradition: Communication as a Practical Art of Discourse”. (Craig, 1999, p. 135) Aha, read on!

A double-check on the meaning of public discourse revealed “A fancy way of saying public discussion. When you have people on a panel show, they are having public discourse – in other words, discussing something in public.” (Yahoo Answers, 2012)
Rhetoric was defined as “the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing”. (Oxford, 2014)

Turning to Habermas, we find a description of public discourse in Peter Levine’s blog entry (Levine, 2012). Levine describes the way Habermas defines the public sphere as “the set of forums and institutions in which diverse people come together to talk about common concerns. It includes civic associations, editorial pages of newspapers, town meetings and parts of the internet.”

Back to Craig, who says about the rhetorical tradition: “This way of theorizing communication is useful for explaining why our participation in discourse, especially public discourse, is important and how it occurs, and holds forth the possibility that the practice of communication can be cultivated and improved through critical study and education.” (Craig, 1999, p. 135) I heartily agree with this statement!


Jian Ghomeshi

A very relevant section in the Craig article: “We know some people are better communicators than others, and that the best examples of rhetoric can rise to the level of great art.” (p. 135) How relevant to the Jian Ghomeshi situation! The parallel between Craig’s statement and Ghomeshi’s skill at communicating in the public sphere (radio) is striking.

An interesting question here would be how public discourse could be balanced, and be free communication, as we see Haberman’s theory described by Stowe (2010), “Free and open communication should be the basis of all social interaction”, if one of the communicators’ skillset far exceeds any other. We saw Ghomeshi’s incredible ability to gain sympathy and support in his Facebook post on Sunday, October 26, 2014 (Facebook, 2014). We then witness a deluge of public discourse over the weeks to come about the truth of that post, and the effect of his convincing words.

Both Habermas and the rhetorical theory see public debate as having the potential to convince and improve the world for the better. Gengrich tells us Habermas thought debate in the public sphere can “create the possibility of greater reason, justice and human freedom”. (Gingrich, n.d., p. 1) This is true in many cases, such as election debates, talk shows, town halls or public meetings.

Where public discourse does not always show greater reason, justice and human freedom, is in the public space of the internet. Unfortunately, this easily accessible, world-wide, open and free method of communication and debate is often besmirched by thoughtless people who do not take the time to critically think through their words before they bang on their keyboard and share their comments. Many people waste the opportunity to engage, enlighten and share ideas, and the internet becomes a place for insults, oversharing and meaningless cryptic comments.

Mike, Bree, Andy and Dayna

Case-Rowling family dinner discussion

This topic of public discourse led to much discussion at the dinner table, and has potential for many other private as well as public debates. Many of us would benefit to consider the question: “Where do you see public discourse in the modern world, and where does it work well?”





Craig, R.T. (1999). Communication as a Field. Communication Theory, 9:2, p 135-136. Retrieved from

Ghomeshi, J. (2014, October 26) Dear everyone [Facebook post] Retreived from:

Gringrich, P. (n.d.). An Introduction to the Work of Jurgen Habermas. University of Regina. Retrieved from

Levine, P. (2012, July 11). Habermas and critical theory (a primer) [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Rhetoric (n.d.) Oxford Dictionaries, retrieved from:

Stowe, M. (2010, March 20) Jurgen Habermas Concepts, Communication Theory and the Problems of Modern Society [Web log post]. Retrieved from:

Public Discourse (n.d.) Yahoo Answers, retrieved from: