In the last PR Conversations post, Toni Muzi Falconi presented a revised conceptual framework that proposed an organization should apply six generic principles of public relations within the operative context of six infrastructural characteristics to determine specific applications.
The paradigm was subsequently developed with input from Rob Wakefield from Brigham Young University (the first scholar to theorize the paradigm a couple of decades ago), and Jim Grunig, who originated the Public Relations Excellence study in the mid-1980s/early 1990s from research into some 300 US, British and Canadian organizations.
Here we reflect the wisdom of these PR magi as they pay homage – and offer critical insight – to the proposed public relations paradigm development.
Toni Muzi Falconi (TMF): A few weeks ago, the Schumpeter piece in the Economist, discussed the challenges of global leadership, including the importance of understanding local cultural differences. This sparked in me an association of how the practice paradigm of public relations stops at generic principles, and forgets how deeply interrelated these need to be with specific applications. Also, how to be effective, the latter needs to be correlated with those generic principles, even for non-global organizations operating at a purely national level.
Organizations may understand the need to apply generic principles within their public relations operations on a global basis, but it is more complex, challenging and not fully clear, how they should identify the basic public relations infrastructure of a given territory, that relates to the specific applications.
To be effective, organizations are able to analyse, and periodically, ‘dashboard’ a territory’s infrastructure (its legal/institutional, economic, political, socio-cultural, active citizenship and media system specificities). However, my experience of case studies where this is done with satisfaction, suggests:
- There may be other significant variables within a given territory that need to be considered, leading to a situational approach. For example, the religious system of a territory may need to be considered an autonomous and forceful variable rather than solely as part of the socio-cultural system.
- The correlation and interdependence between the generic principles and specific applications need to be explained in terms of operational mechanisms. Again, these may be ‘situational’ in the sense that, to be fully effective, they need to fit into the organization’s specific culture, sub- and counter-cultures.
Robert Wakefield (RW): When working on the generic/specific theory two-plus decades ago, I felt transnational organizations should not EITHER concentrate on the central issues of mission, global strategy, etc, OR, let local entities do whatever they wanted, which was what literature of the time suggested. To ensure effective communications all over the world, some combination of the two was needed.
Furthermore, I felt it has to be wrong to hire ‘local’ expertise to worry only about local issues, while central staff concentrated on global imperatives. What a waste of great talent, it seemed to me. When I worked for a transnational, I tried to create as much horizontal teamwork as possible, to get the best minds and thinking contributing to our global strategy in addition to handling their daily local issues.
In developing a theory that looked at the need to balance generic and specific imperatives, we were simply asking what these were. The generic were wrapped around Jim Grunig’s Excellence variables. The specific, on the other hand, were, in fact, quite amorphous – we did not know what they were and were simply throwing some of those out for consideration by great scholars and practitioners around the world.
TMF: It seems to me that if we are talking about organizations such as Coca Cola or Amnesty International, then the generic principles also need to relate to the organization’s unique molecules. Or if we are practising, for example, public diplomacy, then the generic principles are also different. If you like, the generic relates ‘specifically’ (sic!) to the molecules of that practice or that organization.
RW: In my dissertation, I included language as a variable, related to, but separate from, culture, having experienced major challenges with language when working transnationally. Jim (Grunig), Sriramesh (Krisnamurthy), Dejan (Vercic) and others have since wrapped those together.
The Global Public Relations Handbook (which has gone through two editions now) concentrates mostly on descriptive studies of PR in various countries. But, as Juan-Carlos Molleda says, this really doesn’t help us come much closer to really learning the various implications of the specific, because we have only a series of descriptions out there. No-one, to my knowledge, has taken those and explained similarities and differences, and what they would mean to any given transnational organisation operating across different environments.
And, as you are stating here, those differences can change not only between countries, but also within countries and also spanning countries into global implications of those local differences. They also can change from day to day!
So, yes, I agree that much more needs to be done to examine not only what the variables really are, but also examine what impact they have on both specific operations and global ‘spill-out’ from those variables.
TMF: I am wondering if the first generic principle of public relations should be that the application of the Excellence theory is not effective if not related to the territorial infrastructure… while, the first specific application should be to connect to the general principles. This would close the loop – at least in theory.
RW: Your distinction of ‘generic’ – in the sense that it follows ‘universal’ (if such a thing can exist) principles of the field – as opposed to ‘general principles’ embedded within each organization is an important distinction, which needs to be resolved.
When I started thinking of generic/specific, I was thinking that within each organization, there must be “central” or overall principles and values that continually identify and advance the mission and purpose of that organization; but as the organization spreads throughout the world, it also confronts, always and daily, very dynamic and distinctive environmental factors—and thus there is more or less a continual tug-of-war between those two imperatives.
However, in trying to ‘operationalize’ my study, as you know we must(!), Grunig’s generic principles stood out as among the most ‘reasonable’ I had seen to that point—that to have clout to be able to get organizations to respond to their stakeholders, PR people should be in the dominant coalition, etc., that they should not just be puppets to marketing, as so often has happened with US PR people, etc.
I have to admit that it became such an easy way to look at organizational missions and messaging that I really (and probably wrongfully) did lean to the “universal to the field” generic and did not give much more thought to the reality that organizations still need to carve out their own balance of the global and the specific with questions such as: What is the organization’s mission and how should it play out across the world with the proper balance between the need for global unity and accommodation to local mores, cultures, etc.?
TMF: If we refer, for example, to the Page Society’s Building Belief paper, and to the first of the three parts of the more recent Melbourne Mandate that deal with corporate character, an organization’s unique characteristics go well beyond its mission, and are essential to identify and relate with if you wish to develop any form of even elementary stakeholder advocacy.
Similarly, you can still apply the generic principles and specific applications for a related practice like public diplomacy. I tried to do this with some success for a recent workshop with Italian senior diplomats and, for example, international diplomatic etiquette, global treaties etc need to be generic and therefore declinated and interrelated with specific applications in one specific territory.
This again supports the above suggestion to state the first generic principle is that the application of the theory is not effective if not interrelated to the territorial infrastructure…. while the first specific application is that the application is not effective if not interrelated to the generic principles.
RW: Perhaps this relates to the need to investigate the balance between generic and specific by both ‘global’ and ‘local’ employees. Organizational PR units must ‘think globally AND locally, and act locally AND globally’, all at the same time.
TMF: The global and local are strictly interdependent and one is not more important than the other – obviously so at the local level, but also at the global level.
RW: Absolutely, you’re right. The research I looked at for my 2009 PR Journal article, led me to believe that the term ‘globalization’ stems mostly from the same thinking as ‘think global, act local’. It is proliferated by business people with the idea that transnationals think mostly global, but then simply need to make adaptation (or glocalize) for local markets.
The factors that impact these local and global operations the most, can constantly shift, and may differ depending on the organization in question.
As you imply, this is akin to ‘what comes first, the chicken or the egg?’ – you cannot look at the generic and then have all the specific fall in line while ignoring what happens in each locale, and by the same token you cannot expect that what happens in each locale will stay there with no impact on the generic. They do indeed go hand-in-hand, as you have said.
I also believe social media have changed the equation for both levels, for the simple reason that they can instantaneously surpass any one locale and create global problems for an organization no matter where an issue arises.
By the same token, I think that US companies, at least, often use social media as an excuse for thinking that because everything CAN go global now, we have to handle it all globally and we don’t really need to worry about any specific local impacts or differences. I think the opposite is true—it makes a more compelling case to have response mechanisms for your ‘specific’ factors more in order than ever before.
However, after working with the Grunigs, I felt there must be certain general, or more-or-less universal, basics of public relations that should be seen to at least some extent in the majority of organizations. This goes along with institutionalization discussions, does it not?
If there are not certain basics of the practice that can be recognized anywhere, then how we could we define it as public relations? However, going with what you have stated, I think two things:
- We still have a ways to go as a field in defining those basics
- Even if we do agree that there are some universal basics to the practice, then we certainly must combine those ‘generics’ with the ‘generals’ that are unique to the organization before we then analyze those with the specifics that impact both industry practices and individual organizations around the world.
So, at the ‘generic’ level, it is important to expand the universals of the field to accommodate the uniqueness of each organization. For example, wouldn’t an organization that is highly consumer oriented have different ‘general’ characteristics than one that is mostly a scientific organization dealing with a much smaller set of stakeholders, or a business-to-business organization?
As for these principles aligning somewhat with related fields, the reality is that we took the generic/specific constructs out of the development management field (think US Agency for International Development), and also incorporated some principles from what was already being discussed in marketing. So, yes, I believe there are similarities between these related fields.
Jim Grunig: I think the crucial thread to this discussion is the question of whether the generic principles apply at the level of the profession or at the level of the organization. I agree with Rob that the generic principles were intended to apply to the profession. These generic principles were based on theoretical principles derived from the Excellence study but also on years of research on a number of middle range theories (such as strategic management, roles, models, gender, evaluation, etc.) that we incorporated into the Excellence principles .
I still believe that the Excellence principles are generic to the profession. Of course, it is still possible to add new principles or to subtract some of the old ones. However, I haven’t seen a convincing argument to remove any of the principles or any identification of new ones. In his dissertation, Rob found support for all of the principles except for the treatment of women (which met religious objection). However, I think this principle can be expanded easily into a diversity principle that would include the equal treatment of all forms of diversity, not just gender diversity; and that this expansion of the concept would make it generic.
Your conversation also raises the intriguing idea, however, that there might be principles that are “general” to each organization that it should incorporate into the organization of its communication function and its strategic communication planning.
However, you did not propose what these principles might be. I begin with the premise that such principles must be based on theory. If they’re not based on theory, they wouldn’t be ‘principles’.
I think such general principles should be derived from the more generic professional principles–specifically from our strategic management model (below) that describes two of the most important generic principles–that public relations should be part of the strategic management of the organization and that communication programs should be managed strategically (ie, developed for specific publics, have specific objectives, and that these objectives should be measured to evaluate the success of the programs.).
For general principles, then, I think organizations need to decide the publics (stakeholders if you prefer) with which they need relationships, the problems (ie, consequences) experienced by the publics that make such relationships necessary, and the issues that might result in the relationship.
Thus, the general principles for an organization would be problems (consequences), publics (stakeholders), issues, and relationships. In applying these general principles, a global organization must decide if problems, publics, issues, and relationships are the same in every location or if they are different in each location. This is where the specific applications come in.
One could also attempt such middle-range thinking for each of the other generic principles. For example, the organization of the public relations function probably will be different for consumer product companies (where marketing dominates), financial companies (where the stock market or government dominate), non-profit organizations (where donors dominate), government (where ideologically derived publics develop), public diplomacy (where diplomatic relationships must be mixed with relationships with local publics). (By the way, I think the generic principles apply also to public diplomacy: See Sung-hun Yun’s article in the Journal of Public Relations Research based on his dissertation.)
The symmetrical principle would differ in organizations with authoritarian rather than participative cultures and where the public relations function has been institutionalized as a symbolic-interpretive function rather than a strategic management function. Recently, though I have begun to think about the symmetrical principles in terms of ‘relationship cultivation strategies’ (see the central oval in the above diagram). Different types of organizations will find different symmetrical cultivation strategies to be ‘generally’ useful in their public relations efforts.
I did a quick search of the meaning of the terms ‘generic’ and ‘general’ in the Microsoft Word Thesaurus. The first synonym for generic is general, which doesn’t help a lot. However, when I search the list of synonyms I find that the meanings that come closest to what I had in mind when we talked years ago are that generic = ‘basic’ and general = ‘overall’. Generic and general are very similar terms, but I think that ‘basic’ and ‘overall’ are somewhat different and that they capture the difference between professional and organization principles. Thus, I think you are onto something when you and Rob think of professional principles as ‘generic’ and organizational ‘principles’ are overall.
Coda by Toni Muzi Falconi:
My! This process so far has been quite an experience for me and I am truly grateful to Rob, to Jim and of course to Heather for their precious contribution.
I would now like to invite every PR Conversations reader (and of course also the above contributors) to add their input, critical views and suggestions to carry the process forward.
One caveat: based on the conversation, I have come to the following (temporary, of course) concluding premise:
Effective global stakeholder relationship governance of any social, private or public organization today requires a situational and therefore dynamic conceptual managerial approach which defines an overall and global professional relationship infrastructure that includes generic guidelines related to:
a) the public relations practice per se,
b) the unique characteristics of the sector in which the organization operates,
c) the unique characteristics of that very organization,
that are effective if and when the practice is implemented considering the six or more (for example, language, religion…) systems related to the specific territories where the organization operates.
NOTE: This is the final part of series of 3 posts. Part 1: Developing a worldview of public relations appeared on Thursday 11 April with Part 2: Generic principles and specific applications in public relations – published on Monday 15