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The OCR Glossary

Rhetorical Profiling

James R. Barker

Rhetorical profiling is a framework that accounts for the ability of an apparently heterogeneous, complex organization to generate relatively homogeneous action. The rhetorical profiling framework is important for image, identity, and reputation scholars as a mechanism for understanding how meaning construction within an organization, among stakeholders, or by third parties moves in particular directions—that is, to create certain meaningful realities and not other possible realities.

Rhetorical profiling extends from rhetorical constructionist theorizing, which casts organizational meaning generation as a function of rhetorical practices among an organization’s observers. Essentially, organizational reality becomes real, becomes meaningful, only through the rhetorical arguments that individuals use to construct that reality. For example, a CEO when faced with a failing acquisition may rhetorically seek to escalate commitment to the failing plan among key internal and external stakeholders by employing a number of rhetorical arguments: “We only need to give the acquisition enough time. We are close to a solution to the issues hindering the acquisition.” Other internal or external stakeholders may counter the CEO with their own rhetorical arguments for an alternative meaning for the acquisition’s progress: “This acquisition is causing our company to die a slow death.”

The rhetorical profiling framework posits that while predicting specific forms of organizational meaning making is exceedingly problematic, we can comprehend a set of general directions in which that meaning making will move given a particular rhetorical context and the types of arguments used within those contexts. These “general directions in which meaning making moves” become the rhetorical force that generates relatively homogeneous action in the face of an otherwise complex, heterogeneous organizational context.

This entry first defines rhetorical profiling, discusses its conceptual genealogy, and then describes how the framework serves to characterize relatively consistent patterns of organizational meaning making. The entry closes by discussing the implications the rhetorical profiling framework holds for contemporary theoretical trends consequent to the corporate reputation field.


As a rhetorical framework, rhetorical profiling depicts the arguments that characterize a particular context of relatively consistent meaning generation. The framework’s theory assumes that meaning making in an organization will naturally move toward relatively rational consensus as individuals seek to make sense of day-to-day and strategic organizational activity, such as in the earlier example: “the acquisition is doomed” or “we can make this acquisition work.” Rhetorical profiling draws on the concept of organizational topoi, derived from traditional rhetorical theory, to describe how rhetorical arguments form and gain legitimacy as validated meaning among observers. The framework assumes a traditional definition of topoi as lines of reasoning in a rhetorical argument, a definition similar to how institutional logics are defined in institutional theory or discursive formations in discourse theory.

Topoi are formed from sets of enthymemes, syllogistic devices that enable individuals to infer meaning by putting separate, but related, arguments together into a relatively stable line of argumentation that generates useful meaning. While these organizational enthymemes may not work exactly, and as simply, as one would expect in pure logic, syllogistic reasoning is quite useful for individuals in creating practical meaning out of ambient arguments in and around an organization: “The CEO says that the acquisition is going according to plan. But, the CFO just resigned. Thus the acquisition is actually doomed.”

Invention and Judgment Tests

For topoi to “work” as a rhetorical argument that generates useful meaning, organizational observers have to accept that the topoi—those lines of argumentative reasoning—will create meanings that facilitate the observers’ ability to solve the practical, everyday problems they face: “What does this acquisition mean? Is it failing? Is it succeeding?” To be accepted by an organization’s observers, topoi must pass two tests: (1) an invention test and (2) a judgment test.

To pass the invention test, an argument must appear to the organization’s observers as representing a reasonable meaning for explaining an observed phenomenon—the “right” interpretation of the phenomenon. A topoi line of argument passes the invention test if observers can understand that the meanings generated by the topoi are plausible and realistic: “The CFO quit because the acquisition is going to fail.”

The judgment test is more procedural. To pass the judgment test, the topoi must first pass the invention test; then, the topoi must also be understood as providing the organization’s observers with a sense of how to act in relation to the meaning called out in the topoi: “The acquisition is going to fail. If that happens the company might fail. I need to start looking for another job.” Or more positively, “I believe that the CEO is right and that the acquisition will succeed. I will support the CEO by telling coworkers what I believe.”

Rhetorical Legitimacy and Rhetorical Development

When topoi pass both the invention test and the judgment test, organizational observers tend to accept the line of arguments as both an adequate and a useful expression of how reality is. The topoi then have a sense of legitimacy, a sense of being a “right” argument, and the organization’s observers can draw on the topoi to generate similar meanings, thus creating relatively homogeneous action out of the otherwise complex nature of the organization’s heterogeneous context. Individuals can then use the topoi to further create meaning and envision concordant action that enables them to act in useful or practical ways.

However, the ability of an organization’s observers to employ the topoi in meaning making is contingent on the capacity for rhetorical development available for individuals. Rhetorical development refers to an organization’s rhetorical infrastructure, its system for facilitating both the generation and the flow of communication in meaning making. Some individuals work in or around organizations in which communication flows openly and readily, while others labor in organizations in which communication possibilities are quite circumscribed.

Rhetorical legitimacy and rhetorical development form the two axes for the rhetorical profiling framework. For example, an organization’s observers may be creating rhetorical meaning in a context of high legitimacy but low development. They may perceive the arguments by executives for, say, an organizational restructuring to be right, but they may have little rhetorical infrastructure in which to process and then act on the restructuring plans. For example, organizational audiences may have been told that restructuring is necessary given the organization’s financial position, but then, the organization may have a restructuring plan imposed on it with no stakeholder input. On the other hand, an organization’s executives may make a legitimate argument that restructuring is necessary and then set up a system for generating input and ideas regarding how to implement the restructuring and better shape the organization, actions that require a higher degree of rhetorical development in and around organizations.

The Rhetorical Profiling Framework

The rhetorical profiling framework depicts a model with four quadrants, or profiles, into which organizational rhetoric construction can be categorized according to axes of rhetorical legitimacy and rhetorical development. Each of the four profiles will then depict a generally consistent method for creating valid meaning from among the ambient arguments in and around organizations, which, subsequently, facilitates the emergence of relatively homogeneous action from a complex and heterogeneous organizational context. That is, each of the four profiles reflects a relatively coherent mode for generating meaning in an organization or about the organization.

Command and Control Profile

The command and control profile represents the mode with the least capacity for both rhetorical legitimacy and development. The organization’s executives see or project little need for rhetorical engagement with stakeholders. Managerial communication is primarily directive and lacks transparency with no desire for upward communication beyond what is directed by senior management.

Regressive Profile

The regressive profile represents organizations in which political conflict is rife, such as in the active resistance to a restructuring or the period of difficult contract negotiations preceding a strike vote. While managerial rhetoric may still reflect a lack of authenticity and transparency, the organization’s stakeholders have a higher degree of rhetorical infrastructure available to themselves, such as social media for planning strike actions or for offering counternarratives to executive-directed communications.

Progressive Profile

The progressive profile characterizes those organizations that reflect high levels of engagement with the staff but have limited resources for developing rhetorical infrastructure. For example, startup organizations may reflect high levels of engagement, which enhance the legitimacy and right purpose of the organization; however, the firm may lack the resources to invest in building infrastructure, such as networks, collaborative space, or connections to external stakeholders. For example, a key need of startup firms is a powerful ability to network to create the rhetorical infrastructure requisite for attracting investors.

Seat of Argument Profile

The term seat of argument is taken from traditional rhetorical theory and describes the point at which rhetorical legitimacy and development instill an optimal degree of support for the development of meaning in and around organizations. In such organizational contexts, individual sensemaking occurs with relative ease and people are comfortable in making decisions and taking initiatives. Organization meanings “make sense,” and stakeholders tend to be highly and readily collaborative. The seat of argument mode also reflects a sense of sustainability as once an organization has established a strong and robust rhetorical infrastructure with a high degree of legitimacy, the organization will tend to generate additional infrastructure and subsequent capability.


While intended as a rhetorical constructionist theory of organizational meaning making and action, the rhetorical profiles framework does offer a potential point of integration for several key streams of organizational studies and managerial literatures. The rhetorical profiles framework is closely aligned with the communication as constitutive of organization theoretical stream, also referred to as communicatively constituted organization theory, as the framework assumes that the organization is constituted by its communicative relationships and that the four modes of meaning generation illustrate different trajectories through which constitutive communication becomes manifest and shapes subsequent possible realities.

Rhetorical profiling is also well aligned with complexity theories of organizations and management, in that the framework assumes that the organization’s context is fluid and nonlinear but that certain general trajectories (modes of meaning generation) can be observed and their effect on potential meaning generation assessed. Essentially, rhetorical profiling is a theory of organizational movement—that is, how the moment-by-moment creation of reality by an organization’s audiences moves in particular directions as shaped by its dominant mode of meaning generation.

Rhetorical profiling is aligned with institutional theory in that the framework describes particular modes for how institutionalization proceeds in different ways for organizations with differing rhetorical contexts. The framework also reflects a more enhanced projection of sensemaking onto the organizations as the four different modes of meaning generation reflect different methods for making sense of real-time meaning making and possibility generation in and around organizations.

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Tourish, D., Collinson, D., & Barker, J. R. (2009). Manufacturing conformity: Leadership through coercive persuasion in business organisations. M@n@gement, 12(5), 360–383.

See Also

Audiences; Communication Management; Communicatively Constituted Organization Theory; Complexity Theory; Constituents; Institutional Theory; Legitimacy; Meaning; Message Design; Messages; Publics; Rhetorical Theory; Sensemaking Theory; Stakeholders

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