A radical view of PR

PR Conversations often seems to advocate the two-way symmetric “normative” approach to public relations, but it is important to recognise the limitations of this “ideal” as championed by Grunig and his followers and at the very least, engage with alternative, critical or radical perspectives.

A number of such views can be found at the Radical PR blog set up by a group of academics who “have ambitions to reform and liberate the field of public relations” most particularly from the organizational focus that has been the dominant paradigm (systems and modernist theories).   A focus on societal impacts sets out to be a “powerful corrective” to the largely US-centric approaches that lead the agenda and curriculum of much reflection on public relations.  The 17  abstracts published following an initial “round table” Radical PR event provide fascinating reading, and should lead us to their wider body of work. 

I think it is vital that practitioners and students of public relations are exposed to such views on our profession, not least because they challenge our perspectives on communications and relationships which are largely derived from experiences gained working within organisations or agencies where we are employed to promote the interests of our paymasters.  

Even if our organisation does not exist primarily to generate profit, it will have an agenda that it seeks to achieve.  Seeking to raise the status of PR to a management function with the ear of the dominant coalition has in fact, embedded the function even more with the partisan perspective of achieving what the organisation’s management wants, often at the expense of others (even internal publics).

Studying the societal perspective of PR is a great opportunity to understand how others may see our “profession” and acknowledge why not everyone has the positive viewpoint that is argued for most often at PR Conversations.

I am about to engage with dozens of new students on the CIPR Diploma course, who are experienced practitioners seeking to gain a greater understanding of “best practice” and theoretical underpinnings.  Their first Unit is titled PR Theory and Practice, and I have divided the syllabus into three separate perspectives: professional, organizational and societal. 

The first enables us to reflect on ideas of PR as a profession, its history, ethical frameworks, associations with propaganda, spin and publicity, global perspectives, trends (including new media) and an introduction to different theoretical models and opinions.

The second presents a perspective with which practitioners are most comfortable, that of the role of PR within organisations, the classic Grunig models, systems theory and boundary-spanning, strategic communications management, organisational culture and change, planning models and evaluation, stakeholder theory, relationship building, working with dominant coalitions, CSR, issues and crisis management and so on.

My favourite, however, is the third session.  Students largely buy-in to the concept of PR as a profession and themselves as an “ethical guardian”, providing a strategic management function where they are able to influence and take responsibility for building mutually beneficial relationships, etc.  Even if their current role or organisation does not enable them to reflect the “model of excellence” approach, they generally desire to do so. 

So bringing in the critical perspectives approach that makes them confront the reality of the modernist perspective is a joy to teach.  Whether it is looking at the role of PR in society, criticisms of the “feel-good” theories of PR, rhetoric and persuasion, PR’s dark past – and present, unethical practices, feminist perspectives, the dominance of press agentry, questionable CSR activities, PR’s involvement with “democracy” and spin, or even chaos theory, there is plenty that stimulates debate and challenges practice as well as theory.

I believe this third perspective on PR is one we have to get to grips with and would like to see more discussion about here at PR Conversations. 

Whether you are a practitioner or an academic, someone who believes PR is simply about generating media coverage and publicity (as many who talk about it online believe) or an advocate for the more “ethical” viewpoints expressed in textbooks or here at PR Conversations, you can only gain from confronting alternative perspectives.

If we are to truly be proud of working in public relations – and ensure it has a valued future in society – the work of those participating in the Radical PR forum needs a much wider audience. 

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48 Replies to “A radical view of PR

  1. Looks like I came in late. Here’s what I posted on Bill Sledzik’s site about the 2-way symmetrical model:

    It is a tactical process model, not a strategic model. What is the goal of a public relations campaign? The ultimate goal is to get someone– or a group of someones–to think, believe, or act in a certain manner because they are convinced that doing so will be beneficial. In the Grunig model, strategy formation is just part of a four-step process–not a means of setting, modifying or (most importantly) achieving objectives.

    It isn’t really a model at all, but a prescription. A true communications model describes how communications work—all of the time. No exceptions. But there are numerous exceptions to the 2-way symmetrical model. Bernays’ “Engineering of Consent” was basically a 2-way asymmetrical model. The current government bailout plan started as a 1-way asymmetrical model, and is evolving by fits and starts into a 2-way asymmetrical model. Why? Because people absolutely detest the underlying premise of the plan, which is to throw good money after bad in an attempt to re-capitalize the financial system. Therefore, any attempt to modify this flawed plan based on feedback will result in failure.

    BTW, the academy is not where radical change in PR will happen. The platform on the web site reads like Al Gore meets the United Nations.

  2. As the instigator of the post leading to the fascinating discussion, I believe the conversation has helped to achieve the original aim of encouraging reflection and questioning of theories/worldviews/paradigms.

    I still maintain the need (as Bob has stated), for students (and I would extend to practitioners and academics) to be “critical thinkers”.

    Whether or not the symmetrical model is a “dominant paradigm in public relations scholarship”, its advocates can only gain from being challenged rather than expecting everyone to be “aligned with the theory”.

    It can seem ironic that the arguments presented here are largely seeking to persuade, but it is encouraging to see co-orientation and common agreement, as well as differences, emerge.

    There are lots of challenges that remain to PR scholars and practitioners – indeed, we could argue this to never be more so than in the current economic and social climate.

    The advocates of the “S/E theory” do still need to address criticisms, not just challenge back those who disagree with them (which doesn’t sound like practising what you preach to me).

    Likewise, those with a more radical perspective, need to be constructive as well as critical in their research.

    The reality of PR, which can be found in under 5 minutes desk research, is that a huge number of practitioners are not engaged with any reflection on their work.

    PR is often not rated highly and there is a long way to go to be seen as being professional, let alone as a profession.

    There is too much spin, puff and unethical practice perpetuated in the name of PR. Those who see PR in this way are not participating in this conversation.

    Our biggest challenge is surely to ensure PR comprises a more professional, knowledgable and capable body of practitioners.

    We live in dynamic times, where trust and respect are at risk, where reputations can be destroyed overnight, where ethical behaviour is challenged by the harsh realities of survival.

    Regardless of your viewpoint on PR – there is a need for strategic advice and tactical implementation that helps organisations and society through these stormy waters.

    Sometimes we may be steering our boat with the aid of “S/E theory”, but let’s not ignore other options.

    Surely PR needs to reflect its times and at present I think there’s much to learn from areas such as chaos or complexity theory.

  3. Good quotations on which to end this conversation, Bob.

    In summary,

    – there is a dominant paradigm in public relations scholarship (“the only such paradigmatic theory yet developed in public relations”);

    – it was built over the course of many years by academics and practitioners (the so-called “Symmetrical/Excellence folks”)

    – there are those not aligned with the theory (“the rest of the field” and “by scholars not directly tied to those theories”)

    – Critical address of dominant theories may be good for the field (so as to not “stifle and prevent the consideration of innovative ideas and theories”)

    – Non S/E folks will conduct the “struggle” – non S/E scholars will develop a research program to test those theories and models and practitioners will apply those theories and models in their day to day activities – to see what works and what doesn’t (“Regular and frequent public examinations of theories by scholars not directly tied to those theories”)

    So, let’s see if the cream floats or if it doesn’t!

    Really, it comes down to critical scholars and practitioners doing more than providing commentary on “S/E Theory.” There has been enough of that. Time for them to show the results of their research.

    Realizing that you are just beginning your tenure as an academic Bob, I honestly can say that that I look forward to following your S/E research from the perspective of a critical scholar.

  4. While it seems I’m the lone dissenting voice in this discussion, there are others in the field (both professionals and academics) who share similar feelings.

    In Public Relations Theory II, edited by Carl Botan and Vincent Hazleton, the editors write, “Most scholars would agree that Symmetrical/Excellence Theory is, at least potentially, a paradigmatic theory. Most would also agree that it is the only such paradigmatic theory yet developed in public relations. This speaks well for the Symmetrical/Excellence folks, and ill for the rest of the field” (9).

    And, “According to Kuhn (1970), theoretic paradigms frame and guide research in a field. However, they may also stifle and prevent the consideration of innovative ideas and theories. Regular and frequent public examinations of theories by scholars not directly tied to those theories may help a naturally polyparadigmatic field like public relations avoid the unhealthy condition of a lack of paradigmatic struggle.”

  5. Hello Benita, thank you for your ongoing interest in this discussion. I am thoroughly enjoying rethinking and engaging in such a hearty exchange. And, thank you for clarifying some of the points I misinterpreted.

    My “approach” first and foremost is to avoid being explanatory or provide overarching definitions for topics under research. I see a much better approach in attacking a challenge through interrogation, exploration, and speculation. Too often, I think, scholars try too hard to give an answer or explain everything.

    My criticism of Dr. Grunig’s reliance on symmetry and the larger so-called Excellence Theory includes:

    — Attempting to define PR through Excellence actually made the field more self-reflective and insular. As a result, public relations is further alienated from inter-related disciplines and the broader academic community. PR scholars thus spend a lot of time spinning their wheels redefining PR and why it should be part of management, rather than tackling issues that impact practitioners.

    — Public relations can be ethical, effective, and important to an organization without the emphasis on “management” or where the top communicator sits in an organizational hierarchy.

    — All communications efforts (marketing, PR, and advertising) should be aligned to the organization’s overall strategic goals, as one would see in Hoshin planning.

    — Two-way symmetrical communications does not take into account the power relationships involved in the relationship between an organization and all its “publics.” Furthermore, the technological age makes it nearly impossible to talk about “publics” in any uniform manner. For true symmetrical communications to occur, one would have to have countless communicators constantly negotiating with various individuals and groups.

    — While communicators may have a deep knowledge of the environments inside and outside their organizations and facilitate discussions between audiences and the organization, their work is conducted to further the organization’s goals and objectives. Communicators are not society’s ombudsmen.

    — Communications research should be practical and applied.

    So, Benita, these are some of the ideas I have about communicators, but I’m not attempting to come up with an overriding “theory” of PR. You asked, so I jotted down some thoughts.

    I do not think it is advantageous to use a single theory to explain one’s worldview. We attempt to teach our students to be critical thinkers, then watch as scholars use postmodernism, Marxism, realism, etc. as the lens through which they see their world. Dr. Grunig and his followers have been so diligent in building the work into an “ism” that its muted work on other important areas or forced others to use it as their own lens.

    I don’t think that our basic ideas regarding PR are all that different, we’re just approaching some things from different vantage points. And, the differences are healthy and necessary.

  6. Hi Bob
    I want to clarify a few points, where you might have understood me wrong (or I might not have expressed myself clearly enough):

    1. The case study I used is the South African (SA) Government, not the Tanzanian Government. I merely used the SA case (while in Tanzania) to illustrate the importance of a senior PR/government communication practitioner playing the role of the PR strategist (since I was specifically asked to comment on the SA Government situation from a strategic PR point of view).

    As a point of interest to all readers, I might mention that the Tanzanian Government’s Communication Policy of 2005 is based on two-way symmetrical communication (so Jim, you can add another country to your list). That would explain my presence in the Tanzanian Directorate of Communications at the time. (I was inter alia contracted to teach the role of the “PR strategist”). To me, this is a reflection of the Tanzanian Government’s commitment to turn policy into action.

    And I applaud the current and previous Tanzanian presidents for the route they have taken. And if you are wondering whether their approach has been to the interest of the people: Why don’t you feed “Kikwete + G8 or Pres Bush” into a Google search. You might be astounded at the way the US is pouring aid into Tanzania. Why? Because they perceive the President to be committed towards working for the betterment of his people.

    2. Bob, I was not referring to the Tanzanian Govt when I talked about being an activist for the people. That was part of my case which referred to the SA Govt. (However, in my view, representing the voice of society or other stakeholders –such as business or the international community– to a government is an important role for ANY Director of Communication, be it Tanzania, SA, USA or whichever country).

    3. Yes, I was indeed “providing strategic communications advice that would enable the Tanzanian government to stay in power, i.e. do what is necessary to get re-elected” (from my point of view, and to the best of my ability). And this advice was actually the very point that a few of us are arguing in this conversation, namely to heed the voice of the people/society/international community (which includes all stakeholders) is the best way to govern/manage and stay ‘in power’ (this is as valid for the CEO of a company, or the President of a country).

    4. With regards to your statement “The fact that the president had no good advisors…..”, the following: The president you are referring to is the previous SA President (and not the Tanzanian President, as it appears from your comment). Also, I did not say that Pres Mbeki had no good advisors. What I said is that our President was (and I quote): “ ill-advised by his closest advisors …….and it was obvious that there was nobody close to our Pres Mbeki playing the role of the “PR strategist” (as I am teaching it”…….) unquote. One must of course keep the possibility in mind that the SA President was advised as I am suggesting, but didn’t listen to his advisors. In such a case (as I said in my previous comment), the leader deserves what he/she is getting and must suffer the consequences.

    5. With regards to your point (and I quote): “ But, explaining the societal viewpoint to the powers that be does not mean that you are advocating for the public. You’re advocating for the president, whose chief ‘mission’ is probably to stay in power, get re-elected, etc.” (Unquote). Bob, it depends on your point of view. If I were the PR strategist in the pay of a government, I would execute the role according to my beliefs. And that is to try and keep my government’s policies/behaviour in harmony with society since I believe that to be in the best interests of my employer (whether government, NGO, company, etc).

    6. Re your statement (quote): “ The idea that a ‘white knight’ PR practitioner could save these leaders or change their minds/policies is a bit naive. Certainly, that person SHOULD advise the leader of challenges as a result of such policies, but that is it.” Bob, what I am advocating, is that the PR strategist should try to do so. It is their duty and their role. If the President doesn’t want to listen, turn to his/her closest advisors. If none of them want to listen, then they carry the consequences. In the case of my President, normal mechanisms took care of it and he came to a fall. In the case of a neighbouring president, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, normal mechanisms has not really been able to take care of it. (But it will be interesting to see what is going to happen now that Pres Mbeki is no longer in power in SA, since he protected Pres Mugabe).

    7. Re your statement (quote): “ In this case, you were under contract to the Tanzanian government. As a result, you provided strategic advice based on the skills a PR professional brings to the table — intellectual curiosity, an understanding of geo-political challenges, audiences/stakeholders, etc. But, at the end of the day, you are advising govt. leaders to do what is in their own best interest. In this case, the govt.’s best interest and the public’s intersect.” (Unquote).
    In my opinion, they always do. Not only in the case of government, but also a company. Bob, I subscribe to the societal view because the interests of a company’s different stakeholders are often not the same. Therefore, a stakeholder approach presents a dilemma. How does a company reconcile the interests of the community with the interests of shareholders? Or the interests of the shareholders with the environment? So, in my view, in a situation of opposing interests one has to decide in the interest of the greater good. That will be in the interest of the biggest number of people/groups, etc.

    8. Re yr statement ((quote): “ In fact, we can continue to discuss extraordinary cases, such as the one you present (which you’ve seen twice in your career) or Enron, etc., but I’m really much more interested in how the masses of communicators act on a day to day basis”. (unquote). In my view, these are not extraordinary cases. They happen all the time, to big and small companies alike. And they seem to be happening increasingly more often. With regards to government: In my country a president can serve two terms (10 years). In my working life, say 30 years, under normal circumstances I will see 6 presidents. What I described, already happened to two. That represents a third—not so little.

    9. Re yr statement (quote): “ We bat around the notion of how a handful of top leaders or cases prove or disprove methodologies…”. In my view, we are not talking about methodologies, but worldviews (in the case of practitioners) or paradigms (in the case of academic worldviews). There is no right or wrong world-view. Every practitioner or academic is entitled to his/her own—whether radical, critical or symmetrical. We can only debate its advantages or disadvantages.
    A few of us have been pointing out the advantages of the two-way symmetrical approach, as we see it. Either you buy in or you don’t. What about pointing out the advantages of other world-views to me? I take it you are a critical scholar? Give me the opportunity of better understanding your approach.

  7. Hi Benita, thanks for sharing this interesting case study. My first thought is that you were not acting as an activist for the people/society, you were providing strategic communications advice that would enable the Tanzanian government to stay in power, i.e. do what is necessary to get re-elected.

    The fact that the president had no good advisors certainly reveals the potential power of the strategic thinking done by PR professionals. However, I would say that some of the government’s initial policies were unethical, such as denying that the AIDS crisis exists and helping prop up a corrupt government. But, explaining the societal viewpoint to the powers that be does not mean that you are advocating for the public. You’re advocating for the president, whose chief “mission” is probably to stay in power, get re-elected, etc.

    A corrupt government that is acting unethically and has corrupt senior officials should be ousted by the people, that is the mechanism empowered to take care of such challenges. The idea that a “white knight” PR practitioner could save these leaders or change their minds/policies is a bit naive. Certainly, that person SHOULD advise the leader of challenges as a result of such policies, but that is it.

    Quite frankly, I think it boils down to an understanding of who you work for. In this case, you were under contract to the Tanzanian government. As a result, you provided strategic advice based on the skills a PR professional brings to the table — intellectual curiosity, an understanding of geo-political challenges, audiences/stakeholders, etc. But, at the end of the day, you are advising govt. leaders to do what is in their own best interest. In this case, the govt.’s best interest and the public’s intersect.

    This is a far cry from Dr. Grunig’s advice that PR practitioners (“elite strategists” in his words) advocate for the public equally as one would advocate for the organization.

    In fact, we can continue to discuss extraordinary cases, such as the one you present (which you’ve seen twice in your career) or Enron, etc., but I’m really much more interested in how the masses of communicators act on a day to day basis.

    We bat around the notion of how a handful of top leaders or cases prove or disprove methodologies, but I wonder if this is even all that important, which is why I criticized Dr. Grunig’s speech that Fraser suggested we all read.

  8. Bob: I agree with Fraser’s comments above (which seems to be a momentous happening since he practices and I teach 🙂 and want to provide another example (than Enron and Fanny Mae), outside the business arena, and on my continent (Africa).

    At the end of May, I was in Dar Es Salaam on a consultancy contract to the Directorate of Communications, situated in the Office of the President of Tanzania. The Dir Com asked my opinion (from a strategic PR point of view) about the political situation in South Africa (SA), specifically regarding our President Thabo Mbeki’s:

    1. handling of the HIV/Aids issue (the President’s stance: “there is no crisis”).
    2. handling of the Zimbabwe issue, seemingly propping Pres Robert Mugabe up/keeping him in power despite all the violence towards voters/civilians and the public outcry against it (our President’s stance: ” there is no crisis in Zim”).
    2. the Xenophobia issue in SA (where violence erupted against 4 million Zimbabwean refugees and others in SA).

    I said to the Dir Com that, from a strategic PR perspective, I could respond with one answer to all three questions and that was the following: Our President was ignoring public opinion/ societal expectations on all three issues and was obviously ill-advised by his closest advisors on them all. A president is only as good as his/her advisers and it was obvious that there was nobody close to our Pres Mbeki playing the role of the “PR strategist” (as I am teaching it to my senior students and, in this instance, to the 57 government communicators in Tanzania). This entailed inter alia informing the Pres of the citizenry’s thoughts in all of these matters, i.e. the PR strategist being an advocate of public opinion/ societal expectations and values, AND trying to persuade the Pres or any leader to pay attention and LISTEN to the choir of voices all around him.

    A CEO/President/whichever leader ignores the voice of society at his/her peril and deserves everything that comes his way if he refuses to listen. (This was even more important to a leader of Govt since he/she had to answer to the voters to boot). For Pres Mbeki to surround himself with advisors and a Dir Com that toed his own line (told him only what he wanted to hear) was a sure recipe for disaster and a very sad thing to watch when it came to its natural conclusion.

    And this is the second time in my working life that I have seen this. In the eighties, one of the last white presidents in SA, Pres PW Botha, did exactly the same. He narrowed his advisers to a small band of those who agreed with him, lost all sense of reality of what was going on in society/ amongst the citizens/ voters/ other stakeholders. And he was lifted from his position by his own Cabinet, in the same way that Pres Mbeki was ‘fired’ last week in SA.

    Bottom line, Bob–if the PR Strategist (Dir Com) used his considerable influence over the President (and also other advisors) by ‘representing the voice of the people’, persuading him to LISTEN to his citizens, the President would have gained the most from these actions (not only SA society). That would have been a win-win situation. Recalling the President 6 months before general elections, installing an interim Pres and Cabinet, can in no way be seen to be to the good of anybody in this country. That is what I would call a loose-loose situation, wouldn’t you?

  9. Fraser, hi, I appreciate your comments. I would enjoy reading more, particularly since you didn’t discuss my analysis of Dr. Grunig’s thoughts based on the speech.

    Returning to the WM example, I would fully expect that a communicator would understand the ramifications of the new store for the “publics” and the company. I would expect that the professional inform the powers that be of potential negative attention. However, after that discussion, I’m certainly going to advocate for my company.

    It is illogical to think that a PR practitioner is going to stand alone fighting “the good fight,” basically in opposition of the company’s executives. And, furthermore, what’s wrong with that? The individual communicator made a decision to work for the organization, which puts that person on the team. So, she uses her skills — both tactical and strategic — to provide advice and counsel that is ethical.

    Bringing up Enron, Fannie Mae, etc. is interesting in this context. It is not really a fair playing field if you’re going to use some of the most egregious business failures of all-time to argue that the lone, white knight PR person working as a public do-gooder could have saved those institutions, particularly Enron, which had woven such lies that forensic accountants still haven’t figured them all out.

    Brian amended the Canadian def. of PR by adding, “A public relations program must cause actions to the benefit of the organization.” In the example I provided, the communicator is going to work toward getting the new store built, after providing all the wisdom of her counsel, which includes outlining potential fallout.

    Are you suggesting that it is PR’s function to serve as public conscious and ombudsman? If so, I don’t see that as a realistic part of the job description. And, I don’t see acting as I outline unethical. There are other entities for policing the business world. I don’t think PR is part of that process.

  10. Bob, don’t you think this should be thought through a little more.

    Brian wrote and you agreed Bob:

    “identifies the policies and procedures of an individual or organization with the public interest,…” “with the public interest” means not what the public is interested in, but, in the political science sense of the phrase, the “good” of the overall public.”

    “… to earn public understanding and acceptance and cause actions to meet the objectives.” — Public relations must cause the various publics to understand what an organization stands for, and it must cause the various publics to accept, (in the sense of agree with the validity of) although not necessarily agree with, the objectives (buy our products, elect our candidate, come and work for us, allow us to exist within your community, etc. ) of an organization. … A public relations program must cause actions to the benefit of the organization”

    Bob, you then wrote:

    “If I’m working for my company and want to execute strategic plans that benefit the organization, I may not necessarily act in the best interest of many factions of “publics.” It seems to me that the PR as activist model doesn’t work here.”

    For example, if Wal-Mart wants to build a Supercenter in a certain location, there may be groups in a community opposed and if one could look at it from a totally unbiased perspective, it might be in society’s best interest for it to not be built. However, WM still has a right to fight for what is in its best interests. In other words, to let its story be heard.”

    Freedom of speech is one thing and not debatable (“In other words, to let its story be heard.”). But, what does it mean for a PR practitioner to “identify with the public interest” (good), and then “cause actions to the benefit of the organization” that might not be in the “best interest of many factions of “publics” or “society’s best interest.”

    Surely, competing ideas there, right? If not cognitive dissonance in the mind of the practitioner, then what?

    When I said above that some consultants don’t see a second worldview let alone know how to enact one different from what they do each day, they do as you indicate Bob: the company has a strategic plan, the plan says that W-M is to build a store in town X, my job is to use communication tactics to help get it built. End of job description. That’s the frame. One frame.

    One can IC or IMC (what’s not to love about the lowest common denominator concept of the integration of sub-functions) all one wants, but do you really believe, as you said above in an earlier post that “One can work ethically and diligently toward the org’s strategic plan without providing, as you said above, “publics a voice in the decisions of organizations that affect them.”

    In an age of Enron, Fannies and Freddies, is really it enough for the PR practitioner to simply work the plan? Are the concepts of public good, publics voice, relationships simply ‘nice to do’ ?

  11. ..and for the world’s best definition – 🙂 based on analysis of all defintions currently used by PR associations see this wiki space.

    This was designed for a specific study we will soon launch re: curriculum standards- we needed to offer a defintion to get the responses to a survey about curriculum in use- in order to have valid feedback.

    Comments are welcomed but if I can offer my view, the real eye-opener for those of us who did the work was the content analysis we did of the defintions. Rather than look for an exact match in words- cultural differences and all- we developped a grid of concepts or constructs and proceeded to analyse the defintions. See the grid in the wiki space where the initials of reviewers appear under each construct.

    Comments are welcomed. Final language has yet to be determined for the purposes of this project. BTW I stress that we are by no means suggesting this be a global defintion that all should use. My comments about it being the world’s best are in jest of course.

  12. Brian, fantastic post and breakdown of the Canadian definition.

    Your thoughtful commentary points to some critical challenges the field faces, including that “Public relations departments should not be topped with amateurs any more than a law department should be headed by a non-lawyer or an engineering department by a non-engineer. Filter-executives will diffuse almost any PR program.” What do we do when most organizations are not headed by someone with PR training? The chief communicator serves at the whim of the CEO, which is why (I think) we should be directing our efforts at business schools.

    I completely agree with your explanation that: “The job of a PR department is NOT to wait for a manager in Human Resources or in Marketing to call and “place an order” for a news release or a memo to be e-mailed to all employees.” This is a critical error on the part of PR purists, in my mind. As soon as one raises the topic of IMC, then PR people assume that it means their power is diffused. I see these groups working in concert as equals driving toward the organization’s objectives.

    I really like your addition: “A public relations program must cause actions to the benefit of the organization.” I wonder how Excellence theorist would react to this? The way I interpret it is as a move away from 2-way symmetrical communications. If I’m working for my company and want to execute strategic plans that benefit the organization, I may not necessarily act in the best interest of many factions of “publics.” It seems to me that the PR as activist model doesn’t work here.

    For example, if Wal-Mart wants to build a Supercenter in a certain location, there may be groups in a community opposed and if one could look at it from a totally unbiased perspective, it might be in society’s best interest for it to not be built. However, WM still has a right to fight for what is in its best interests. In other words, to let its story be heard.

    You’ve added a great dimension to this discussion. Thanks.

  13. To save many of you research time, here is the world’s best definition of public relations. I wrote it years ago, based on the Canadian PR Society definition.

    Defining public relations: The Canadian Public Relations Society web site has the best definition of PR I’ve ever seen, other than my own, which is only the CPRS definition, plus a few more words. You can read the CPRS one below.

    And my definition is below the CPRS one.

    PUBLIC RELATIONS, as defined by CPRS:
    “the management function which evaluates public attitudes, identifies the policies and procedures of an individual or organization with the public interest, and plans and executes a program of action to earn public understanding and acceptance.”

    PUBLIC RELATIONS, as defined by BAK:
    “The management function which determines an organization’s communications-related objectives, evaluates public attitudes, identifies the policies and procedures of an individual or organization with the public interest, and plans and executes a program of action to earn public understanding and acceptance and cause actions to meet the objectives.”

    Let’s break this definition down into bite-sized chunks

    “The management function …” — the top public relations practitioner should be both a genuine PR practitioner and a senior executive, — a member of management — reporting to the Chief Executive Officer. See “First Principles” here. Public relations departments should not be topped with amateurs any more than a law department should be headed by a non-lawyer or an engineering department by a non-engineer. Filter-executives will diffuse almost any PR program.

    “… which determines an organization’s communications-related objectives …” — PR is proactive, determining the communications-related objectives, rather than acting as a service department, responding to someone’s else’s requests for action. The job of a PR department is NOT to wait for a manager in Human Resources or in Marketing to call and “place an order” for a news release or a memo to be e-mailed to all employees. “communications-related objectives” are those parts of the organization’s business plan (or equivalent) that can be attained using the full range of communications tools and technologies, outside of paid product or service advertising and marketing-generated events, etc.

    “… evaluates public attitudes …” — PR people need to know what the public (see a few paragraphs below for more information on what “public” means) thinks about an organization, its products and services, but also needs to know the public’s attitudes toward all other issues and concepts and concerns that could affect business performance, outside, once again, of specific marketing-related product and service concerns. Opinion research belongs to the Public Relations Department. Product research belongs to the Marketing Department and the Engineering Department.

    “… identifies the policies and procedures of an individual or organization with the public interest,…” — “identifies” in the sense of “aligns itself” or “matches” with “the public interest” the way an organization or individual works and behaves. Individuals can have “PR” on their behalf, (performers and athletes come to mind, but “star” executives and academics can also make good use of PR. More often, PR serves organizations, including businesses, religions, universities and other institutions, associations, governments and government departments, and more. “with the public interest” means not what the public is interested in, but, in the political science sense of the phrase, the “good” of the overall public.

    “public interest” relates both to the overall communities in which the organization operates, but to subsets within. Often called “publics” in PR jargon, these include but are not limited to current and prospective customers; current and prospective employees; retired employees; federal, municipal, regional, state, provincial and international (the United Nations or the European Union, for instance) governments, including elected and appointed officials; current and potential investors; competitors; and the media. Remember that the media are primarily a conduit to other publics, but need to be reached themselves in order to allow them to determine whether, when, how and where to carry your stories.

    “… and plans and executes a program of action …” — Public relations practitioners must plan what to do proactively, and within chronological and geographic parameters. Public relations should not be reactive, nor should it just do the bidding of others within an organization. The Public Relations Department leads communications programs, and does deliver them as a service. “executes” means simply that the plans and programs must be put into action.

    “… to earn public understanding and acceptance and cause actions to meet the objectives.” — Public relations must cause the various publics to understand what an organization stands for, and it must cause the various publics to accept, (in the sense of agree with the validity of) although not necessarily agree with, the objectives (buy our products, elect our candidate, come and work for us, allow us to exist within your community, etc. ) of an organization. The traditional Canadian Public Relations Society definitions stops here, but that is not good enough. A public relations program must cause actions to the benefit of the organization.

    Sometimes, of course, the desired action is non-action. An employee communications program may be designed to keep employees from quitting. A lobbying program may be designed to keep legislators from changing the current law.

    This need to cause actions can be, in fact, the driving force behind every aspect of the Public Relations program, and can also be, in a time of limited budgets, the controlling factor determining whether an activity should be planned and executed. Simply ask “What do we want who to do, when we put this part of our PR program into action?” If the answer is “build understanding” or “gain acceptance” it isn’t good enough.

    A Public Relations department can be organized in a variety of ways. It can have many generalists doing everything, each in a geographic area, or choose to have specialists who handle only a few aspects of PR over a large geographic area. Big organizations can have one PR department, or have separate departments within subsidiaries, or combine both.

    At the end of the day, regardless of organizational format and staff, they should have provided leadership and support for marketing, sales, engineering, product development, human resources and other departments, and they should have communicated with customers and prospects and governments and communities and industry partners and many others.

  14. Thanks Fraser for adding to the conversation. Actually, I’m an ex-hoopster too and much prefer a classic jumpshot to a classic slapshot.

    While not in the audience that evening, I’ve read Dr. Grunig’s speech many times on the Institute Web site. I don’t find any magic bullets in it.

    As a matter of fact, I think the speech reveals some of the faults of the Excellence work. Although I loved being a professional communicator and love teaching public relations even more to hundreds of students each year, I don’t see PR playing the role of the white knight swooping in to keep evil organizations from pillaging the public.

    Dr. Grunig advocates PR playing a do-gooder role based on symmetry that “helps society.” Yet, in his examples from the speech, take Ivy Lee and Rockefeller for instance, was Lee truly advocating for the public or rather for Rockefeller to take steps so that he ultimately achieved his objectives? And, I’m really looking forward to the day when some bright scholar calls Bernays out for his gimmickry and self-promotion, turning the supposed “Father of PR” into the “Father of Publicity,” which is a more accurate picture. But, I digress.

    Dr. Grunig also takes a rather elitist view of the standoff between his beloved “elite practitioners” and the lowly “mass of tacticians and technicians.” I think many professionals would lose their lunch if given that section of the speech.

    Dr. Grunig constructs a false fight between strategists and tacticians, but ultimately places the latter in the camp of “buffering” and those who “make decisions in isolation from publics.” Please, let the thousands of people teaching PR in on the secret to become an “elite practitioner” because I don’t want my students merely becoming one of the masses who “fly by the seat of their pants or simply do what employers or clients ask them to do.”

    Furthermore, what is the good, “bridging” strategist doing after whispering in the CEO’s ear, other than going back to a staff of lowly tacticians to implement that plan?

    And, while Fraser did not address this point, I’d like to ask why PR academics _automatically_ assume that as soon as one mentions any form of integrated communications that it means that PR must take a secondary/subservient role? The hangups over defining PR — for the millionth time — and posturing about its place as management or not management obfuscates the true meaning of integrated communications. Simply, that different communications divisions work together toward the goals and aspirations of the organization.

  15. I have been eavesdropping on this conversation – and discussing off-line with some pr conversation regulars its unfolding – for the last week.

    First, I agree with Bob and not Jim. Hockey is a much more complex, interesting and as a player more strategically played sport than is basketball. The chaos factor (a more complicated and entangled environment with more stake holders, more publics and more activists for the player holding the game’s token {token: credit David Phillips}) is much higher in hockey – and agile brains rather than fast-twitch muscle fibers are more important to being successful at the game. I play hockey (ice hockey to those in SA) and think basketball is over-rated if not over-tatooed!

    So, when I read your interest in hockey Bob, and knowing Jim’s passion for basketball as a player and a fan, well …

    But, poor attempts at humour aside, I want to make the point that the ‘Excellence’ theories and models can be actioned by practitioners. I’ve applied the theories and models, to among other things, help get a youth detention centre/jail get accepted, supported and built in an upper middle class neighbourhood in the early 1990s (symmetry; relationships; partnerships; etc.). This after other PR consultants, using traditional “communication” strategies and ‘persuasion’ tactics twice got the organizers physically attacked at the pro forma major public consultation meeting and the initiative stopped. At our required town hall meeting, the media went home after 1/2 hour – since it was obvious there weren’t the protagonists and antagonists needed for a confrontation – and the use of the heavy police presence. I had hired one of the city’s media relations firms to ‘handle’ the media. They went home after 45 minutes, having nothing to do. I did not even attend, having chosen to teach my class instead. To this day, the chair of the meeting says when we meet “I’m humble, I’m humble.” We had used all the techniques of true symmetrical communication available at that time, of listening in, of building working relationships – so long story short, when briefing the chair on his role at the meeting all I said was its their community, you are a guest (even if you now own the land) and therefore you have an obligation to act humbly.

    Bob, I have known Jim for 20 years and firmly believe that his ‘academic’ theories work in practice.

    Since everyone reading this blog is now more interested in Jim’s ideas, then I’d suggest that people read the lecture Jim gave in 2006 (The Institute for Public Relations; 45th Annual Distinguished Lecture; The Yale Club, New York; November 9, 2006; “After 50 Years: The Value and Values of Public Relations.”) http://www.instituteforpr.org

    Though I’ve read most of Jim’s work, including the article Furnishing the Edifice, I felt that his speech that night put his work into a historical context (at least an American historical context) , one that I had not appreciated before. I was at a table with – and surrounded by other tables containing – senior consultants with some of NY’s – and the world’s – major PR agencies. Most got it: some did not. For some it was: what’s does what this alien from another planet say have anything to do with what I do in my day job? And they were perfectly right. All the things you said: publicity; media relations; marcom; advertising. They were well paid for these things. This was there PR world. They did not see another world.


  16. Just a correction. There were 326 or so organizations in the Excellence study. The 20 organizations were the top ones. I think systematically gathered data are far more revealing than data from a sample of one–that is, one person’s experience.

  17. Bob–like you, I was first a practitioner (16 yrs). Like you, I later became an educator (12 yrs). But unlike you, I found great value in the Excellence Study (both its literature review as well as the empirical findings, and the resulting general theory of Excellence).

    However, first I must admit that, as a PR ‘technician’, I didn’t know about ‘Excellence’. As a matter of fact, I had no PR training/education when I started in the field. I hadn’t even heard of a PR plan. Not that it mattered. I was hired because of my three foreign languages (my company needed an international PRO, as they called it then). And I did just fine. I had common sense, wrote well, was a good organiser and built great relationships with ‘them foreigners’. My bosses were very happy with their PR girlie. And I was ecstatic about my job and danced to work every day.

    But as I became more experienced, the frustrations started. The people managing the PR function didn’t seem to know how to contribute to organisational goal achievement. (I had a management degree and found this obvious). Also, while some CEOs were great and left one to do your job, others only called you in to mop up after their messes (but didn’t give you a chance to say how it could be prevented).

    Since I gradually realised that there was a great disconnect between PR and top management, and obviously a knowledge problem on both sides, I turned to academia to acquire more knowledge. Guess what was the prescribed book in my hands in Masters in 1996–the 1st Excellence book (that all of us soon called the Bible). And when the empirical findings indicated the knowledge base of the PR manager as a first prerequisite and shared expectations between top management and the PR/communication function as a 2nd prerequisite for excellent communication, I am sure you can understand that I was sold. Here were the answers to all my questions. I had found what I was looking for–and so much more! I now UNDERSTOOD the problems in practice. I could see so clearly now. So I implemented these principles in my practitioner job (and became a lecturer a few years later).

    Of course one can “advocate for the organization based on its strategic plan” if that role satisfies you. But I see the strategic role of PR as providing “publics a voice in the decisions of organizations that affect them.” You could also assist your organisation to stay in sync with societal expectations, values and norms, and thereby obtain a license to operate and be a good corporate citizen. This obtains legitimacy for the organisation, makes it trustworthy, and earns a good reputation.

    I said on this blog recently that PR leaders should work towards getting (strategic) PR as a subject into business schools. I therefore agree with your last paragraph, which means that we both support the most important prerequisite of ‘Communication Excellence’ namely shared expectations between top management and communication function.

  18. @ Toni, my post raised critical questions about the so-called “Excellence” theory that are reasonable and part of the ongoing conversation. Why can’t I be as passionate in my criticism (based on having read _all_ the books written in support of the theory) as Dr. Grunig is in his defense? My tone is not “unpleasant,” it is critical.

    @ Dr. Grunig, Well, 20 organizations displaying all the traits certainly proves your point doesn’t it? And, that you’ve given “hundreds” of talks and visited 44 countries does as well? I’m not denying that your work remains important or that you didn’t build a fantastic department at Maryland. That turned you into an academic celebrity. Every field has them…invited overseas, etc.

    You’ve basically avoided any of the arguments in my post about the application of the theory in the real world by providing these statistics. Talking to a local PRSA chapter doesn’t mean that the professionals listening are running back to their departments and changing how they operate.

    Derina Holtzhausen is one of my favorite people in the world. In fact, she is responsible for my getting hired at USF. However, I don’t agree with her (or you) that PR practitioners have the ability (or should even aspire) to work as activists for the general public in an organization. One can work ethically and diligently toward the org’s strategic plan without providing, as you said above, “publics a voice in the decisions of organizations that affect them.”

    The USC study provides a decent snapshot, but do you really want to base your views of the profession on a survey taken by 520 communicators, 75 of whom could not even list their title? Of those 520 (who responded out of 10K requested), only 16 were at the executive vp or senior vp level.

    The study shows the real challenge PR academics face. They do their research through surveys, but many have never stepped inside an agency or corporation in their lives for any substantial time. I’ve been on search committees that revealed many applicant’s “professional” experience as the equivalent of a year or two. Even most job ads “prefer” professional experience, but “require” a doctorate.

    I don’t see a resolution between our viewpoints. I do recognize that your study has value. I just think it’s days are numbered. Perhaps as the next generation of PR scholars come to the forefront, they will offer something better. I see a “cult” of Excellence in academic PR studies that is too focused on whether or not PR is a management function and boo-hooing about how CEOs see the profession, rather than addressing the concerns that would prove its value.

    Brian makes many great points in his comments above. At the end of the day, PR practitioners work for someone. In most cases, that someone has no real training in communications — think of the paucity of those opportunities in a typical undergrad business program. The practical realities of the job necessitate advocating for the organization based on its strategic plan.

    If you’d really like to do something for the future of PR, start addressing the lack of PR training that takes place in business programs. In the US, for example, it doesn’t exist. This is why executives don’t respect PR. It’s a shame, because we know the field’s value.

  19. Bob,

    You must have read an Excellence book other than the ones I helped write when you said that we said that “few or none of the organizations studied displayed these traits.” What we actually said was that few of the organizations displayed “all” of the traits to a high degree. Actually, about 20 of the organizations displayed all of them to a relatively degree, and these were the organizations we studied further in case studies. We explained that excellence in public relations was normally distributed among the organizations we studied, like almost every other trait. Most organizations are average, some are outstanding and some are low. Actually, only a few of the organizations we studied didn’t display any of the traits. Some or all of the traits were generally common throughout the sample.

    As for the relationship with marketing, you might like to look at the GAP studies conducted at the University of Southern California Strategic Public Relations Center (http://www.annenberg.usc.edu/CentersandPrograms/ResearchCenters/SPRC/PrevGAP.aspx). The results over several years show exactly the same results as the Excellence study: Only about a third of PR units report to marketing and those that do get less respect from management and are restricted to producing publicity to support marketing. Their evaluations typically are limited to measuring how much publicity they generate.

    You also must talk to different professionals than I do. I’ve been asked to give hundreds of talks to professional societies about the Excellence study and other research. In the next three weeks, I’ll be talking about it in Romania and Nigeria, which will bring the number of countries where I’ve been asked to speak to 44. I don’t want to boast, but I think the Excellence study and similar research before and after have had a profound effect on the way professionals think and talk about public relations.

  20. In quote radically unquote disagreeing with the the void content and unpleasant tone of this last comment, I want to reassure that almost five times more professional practice in assisting organizations around the world tell me that the two way symmetric model is increasingly being adopted by savvy organizations in the private, public and social sectors of the economy around the world.

    On this blog, and by using its search engine, one may peruse an astounding number of cases and applications.

    This, however, in no way means that it is dominant (as many sadly scholars maintain…) and certainly does not imply that it stands up for maximum of effectiveness in this highly dynamic global environment.

    I highly recommend an attentive read of this other post http://www.prconversations.com/?p=271 and, principally, its linked power points of the presentation Jim delivered in Leipzig a few months ago, to better capture at least some of the challenges we still face towards the development of a true globally valid generic principles and specific applications framework.

  21. Thanks to Heather and all the others who have commented here for producing such a wide-ranging and interesting conversation. I’ve been teaching PR for 4 years after working in the profession for about 10 years.

    When I got into teaching, it amazed me that The Excellence Theory held such a prominent place among academics, because I never heard a single professional mention it…ever! No one in the business world talks about “dominant coalitions” and the other jargon-laden stuff drawn from PR theories. So, I dug into the theory to see what I was missing.

    The strangest thing about Excellence (if one actually attempts to read the stacks of books produced from it) is that it cuts itself off at the knees so frequently. It labels X, Y, and Z traits of “Excellence,” but then reports that few or none of the organizations studied displayed these traits. So, I started digging around for communicators who participated in the original research. What I found is similar to what one finds so often when relying on surveys — people lied, bended the truth, or did not take the study seriously.

    Another point that I could not comprehend is that the theory prescribed a break between marketing and PR. Anyone who watched what was taking place in the communications world would have seen the illogic of this point. Does the fact that companies around the world have been implementing integrated communications make it right? Not necessarily, but to simply declare it outside excellence seems too utopian to someone doing this stuff day-to-day. With the rise of Web-based technology, one sees integration as even more important, whether the organization is a nonprofit or for-profit.

    The more I’ve thought about “communications,” which I think is the way we should think about the PR-marketing-ad mix, I think the desire to define the field over the last couple decades is hurting the profession. Practitioners aren’t interested in debating what PR should be from an academic’s utopian perspective. They are too busy working. If PR “theory” has no real application, then it’s just spinning wheels, done to get tenure and provide smalltalk at academic conferences.

    The whole discussion of PR as a “management function” also misses the mark — one doesn’t see finance, law, or human resources debating this. These professions prove their worth, as well as their ROI, which earns them a seat at the executive’s table. PR academics would rather talk the issue to death, always coming back to the Excellence Theory, which is a theory built with a sand foundation. Regardless of specialty, professionals do their jobs. It doesn’t matter if the big boss is at the CEO’s right hand. Look at the backgrounds of most leaders of the communications function at Fortune 500 companies, almost none of them were PR majors.

    None of this is to say that PR, or better yet, communications isn’t critical to an organization’s success. At the end of the day, however, practitioners are part of the organizational structure, paid to advocate for the persons signing their paychecks.

    To think that PR’s primary function is the one that Grunig advocates, saying that it “provides publics a voice in the decisions of organizations that affect them,” is so utterly utopian. PR professionals are advocates with a mission to serve as a liaison between audiences and the organization. Yes, it is an ethical liaison, but make no mistake, that work is always in the best interest of the organization, whether it is President Bush or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

    Unfortunately, the ongoing discussion over the Excellence Theory and its future has continued churning through acaceme. I think a much better use of a researcher’s time would be to move toward ethnographic research, actually spending time in an organization to understand how communications really works. People (and organizations) are motivated by basic human needs — money, security, acceptance, etc. These factors play a role in the actual communicator’s job, not some obtuse concern about wether or not their department sits at the CEO’s table.

  22. I beleive that societal welfare is not a job of PR, it’s a job of democratically elected governments. The job of PR is to help it’s client or employer to develop strategy which will be harmonous with the society the organisation operates in. It should guide the organisation how to manoeuvre in a way which will be mutually bemeficial for both parties. Only securing that will give an organisation license to operate.

    However, I simply do not think it’s practically possible to satisfy everyone. Society is a very broad term, in fact it’s very fragmented. Furthermore, different stakeholders have sometimes contradictory expectations. And what about so called illigitimate stakeholders, who, as Benita puts it, themselves take a stake in an organisation? Today with web 2.0 social platforms it is not easy to predict where these ‘illigitimate’ stakeholders might come from.

    I think it’s much more important to talk about issues of transparency in PR. The criticism PR has received through out the history is not because it didn’t serve well enough the society as a whole, but because it has not been honestly communicating it’s intentions.

  23. Benita,

    Good to hear from you. About stakeholders and society, I have debated with my European friends such as Dejan Vercic and Betteke van Ruler whether “society” is more than what I describe as a web of relationships among organizations, publics, and individuals. If it is a web of relationships, a public relations professional would work to benefit society by improving relationships with each of an organization’s stakeholders and not be concerned about the stakeholders of other organizations. If society is something more general than a web of relationships, such as some interests that we all share, then PR people would need skills to detect societal interests in addition to stakeholder interests. That seems to be the purpose of much of European social theory.

    I like Post, Preston, and Sach’s definition of a stakeholder as anyone who has something at risk from the behavior of an organization. This could be the risk of losing (or not getting) something good, such as an investment or job, or it could be a negative risk from what economists call an externality, such as pollution, unsafe products, or discrimination. Therefore, stakeholders create themselves. An organization may think it knows who all of its stakeholders are, but generally it doesn’t. It’s the job of a public relations person to identify stakeholders, from their perspective, before they create negative consequences for the organization such as damaged reputation, negative publicity, litigation, regulation, and legislation. It’s also his or her job to identify stakeholders who would benefit from positive consequences, such as good products, to create opportunities for the organization and value for the stakeholders.

    As for the distinction between stakeholders, publics, and activists, I think “stakeholder” is the most general category–anyone with something at risk from a particular organizational behavior or policy. Within each category of stakeholder, I would identify publics that range from nonpublics to latent publics, active publics,and activist publics. To do so, I use my situational theory of publics. In contrast to what several critical scholars have said, I define these publics from their perspective, not the organization’s. Latent publics, by the way, generally are latent because they’re not affected by the organization, not because the organization ignores them. Sometimes, latent publics haven’t become aware of how they are affected, so it’s the social responsibility of an organization to consider these effects even before the latent public becomes active.

  24. Jim, I drive my co-bloggers nuts with my persistent search for the ‘ultimate purpose of public relations’. Your statement that it is ‘to increase the total value that an organisation creates for all of its stakeholders’ has added great value to my search.

    But one question: Is ‘society’ included as one of your ‘stakeholders’? (Generally that is not the case). I see the danger in using only the term ‘stakeholders’ here that it could be seen to refer only to those individuals or groups that the organisation finds relevant but not to those that THEMSELVES think they have a stake in the organisation. I am thus referring to your own ‘stakeholder’ versus ‘public’ versus ‘activist’ continuum (with the societal view being represented by the latter two). I would like to see an ‘acknowledgement’ of the societal interest/activist/pressure groups here to indicate that this is not an ‘organisation-centric’ view and that stakeholders are not the only groups who gain or lose value from the actions of a corporation. I would appreciate your comment.

  25. Jim, again thank you so much for engaging in the discussion. This has been the most informative reflection I could have had regarding your work. It certainly has been helpful in clarifying my misinterpretations.

    As you explain, it is not just the terms that we use to try to understand theories, but the way in which those terms are used that we need to consider. Although the value of a theory seems to be to simplify and explain, the minute we do that, we seem to be fitting ideas into boxes, so lacking the wider subtleties that are enable ideas to work together rather than be seen always in conflict.

    Of course, I agree that it is impossible, and largely unnecessary, for everyone to have a relationship with every organization. Although given the dynamic and increasingly inter-connected world in which we live, it becomes harder to predict which organizations and which publics will experience consequences as a result of each other’s actions – good or bad.

    Helena, In respect of understanding the purpose of organisations in the wider society, we’re seeing the consequences of what the pursuit of profit above all else can lead to. Not just in the collapse of banks and other institutions, but in the baby-milk crisis in China.

    In the UK (and in many other countries), society legally enables companies and other organisations to exist and controls their licence to operate. Likewise, members of society democratically elect government under rules that govern how they use power on our behalf.

    If PR doesn’t at least reflect the concerns of society to those who employ us, it will be like sailing happily on the Titanic with no awareness or interest in looming icebergs.

  26. Societal welfare and reputation are closely linked. Organizations that behave in ways that are detrimental to their stakeholders (and society) develop poor reputations. Thus, public relations influences a reputation by counseling management on how to behave and how that behavior affects publics. Reputations almost always reflect behavior, so the best way to “manage” a reputation is to participate in the management of the organization so that it is more likely to behavior in a socially responsible way.

    There are always conflicts of interest. The role of public relations is to mediate the negotiation of those conflicts. Of course, its realistic. Would you prefer some form of verbal, or physical, warfare that leaves both organizations and publics as losers?

  27. And the question is why do they do it: for the societal welfare or for the sake of their reputation? Well, the last one always has to come first, otherwise you risk to seize to exist as an organisation altogther. And as long as there is no conflict of interests, I’m sure organisations are happy to serve their publics. But why do need PR then? To inform them how altruistic they are?..

    If we manage to allign our interests with those of all our publics, thats perfect. Now is that a realistic goal? I’m sorry if I misunderstood your point of view.

  28. Helena,
    I refer you to Jim’s last post. In his last paragrapgh he explains how value can be aligned with societal goals and ultimately organisations- whatever pursuit they seek to achieve- are more sucessful if they incorporate ‘societal good’ in their objectives or at least consider it as an element of what they wish to achieve. Organisations that understand that, tend to be much more durable. Moreover their reputation are much stronger.

  29. Jim, your last paragraph precisely demonstrates my point of view. You did choose a better word than me in describing PR’s functions – to add value.

    Adding value to an organisation by addressing the interests of all the stakeholders is probably the best definition of PR I can think of. Thank you for contributing to this conversation with insightful views.

  30. I see your point, Jean. I did specify that profits might be either tangible or untangible, by latter meaning for instance agenda of non-profit organisations or governmental institutions.

    I just think it’s naiv to insinuate that PR works for society, rather than for it’s employer. And there is absolutely nothing unethical about this, unless it employs unethical means of communication. As long as we stick to accuracy rather than the truth, PR as a profession will always be misunderstood as much from the inside, as from the outside.

  31. Thanks, Heather, for a thoughtful reply. I would like to correct three additional misinterpretations of my work in the post, however. First, the various theories that make up the larger Excellence theory (only one of which is the symmetrical model) are not based on systems theory. Systems theory was a minor element in the construction of the theories–part of two chapters in Managing Public Relations where I explained why organizations must interact with their environment.

    Second, the theories are not modernist. Modernist theories attempt to exert control. Mine do not. I think my theories are closer to postmodern than modern, but there are many elements of postmodernism with which I do not agree. (An example is the postmodern disdain for general theories.) Therefore, I sometimes call my theories semi-postmodern, although I also believe that modernism and postmodernism have come to be stereotypical categories and that my theories don’t fit into either. Generally, both “systems theory” and “modernism” are “put-down” terms that critical scholars circulate among themselves, but which generally infuriate those of us to whom they are applied because they are applied so inaccurately and stereotypically.

    Third, you don’t seem to understand what I mean by consequences. They can be positive as well as negative. If an organization has no direct or indirect consequences on me (either something good or bad), I have no need to have a relationship with it. It’s impossible to have a relationship with every organization.

    Surely, Helena doesn’t really believe the only purpose of public relations is to generate profits. More than half of the organizations PR people work for (governments, nonprofits, NGOs, activist groups, associations, educational institutions, and the like) do not generate profits. Also, I urge you to read Post, Preston, and Sachs book Redefining the Corporation. They argue that profits are only one of the types of value a corporation can generate and that stockholders are not the only stakeholder who gains or loses value from the actions of a corporation. Value can also be produced for employees, customers, government, communities, users, members, and others by creating meaningful jobs, useful and safe products, responsible behavior without the need for tax-financed regulation (read today’s newspapers), pollution or traffic-free communities, and on and on. The ultimate goal of public relations is to increase the total value that an organization creates for all of its stakeholders.

  32. I totally disagree that PR’s function in an organisation is to generate profits. What about organistions that are non-profit?
    That is why a solid definition looks at a set of higher constructs without negating the need to make profits if that is part of the organisation’s objective.
    As it happens the Global Alliance is embarking on a project that requires agreement on a defintion- thsi is the curriculum standrards project- and the need for a baseline defintion before we survey on curriculum practices and experiences was a key.
    Take a look a wiki that we created http://definingpublicrelations.wikispaces.com/
    to see how we approached it. We analysed at the construct/concept level more than a dozen defintion and highlight the similarities and differences. Then we took a shot at drafting a defintion- only for the purpose of this project I stress- that incorporates all the majority concepts.
    Feel free to comment on that space. Others will soon be invited to do so which will establish if there is enough support for the proposed starting point defintion of PR. The concept of symetrical is captured in our analysis.

  33. There will always be a divide between theory and practice, in any profession. What makes PR so different? I love that Heather mentioned the Japanese notion of Kaizen, because that’s really what we’re doing here (blogging, as part of a niche group like those on PR conversations).

    Bicker as you will over the more appropriate model, or the ethical implications of accepting free beer (for example!); I’d start to worry the day that those arguments cease, because that’s when PR has grown stagnant and we REALLY need to worry about the profession.

    What Heather has done with this post is, in my mind, the ideal PR model. We have a neutral yet controversial post that has sparked valuable conversation within her key audience.

  34. Great discussion!

    I’m neither practitioner nor academic yet. I’m a postgraduate student who’s been observing (for a while now) an infinite battle between PR theory and practice.

    Grunig’s theory is a great foundation for PR-education: as any other discipline we need a strong platform to stand upon in order to be considered a profession. However, I agree that PR theories are in constand need to be re-evaluated, just as any paradigm needs adgustment with the new world order.

    If after more than 20 years, PR practice and theory do not seem to be overlapping, then it is time to ask questions and not be afraid to find answers.

    I think the weakest part of Grunig’s theoretical framework is imposing of the concept of symmetry, which, as good as it sounds, is not a realistic idea. Imbalance of social and symbolic powers among individuals will always be in a way for the communications to be conducted symmetrically. Two-ways and mutually beneficial – absolutely.

    Another weak point in PR theories (not just Grunig’s) is failure to appropriately define PR function in an organisation. Building relationships? Improving organisational culture? Enhancing reputation? These are only means towards the end goal, which for some reason is being downplayed by the academics. PR’s function is to generate profits for an organisation it works for. That’s it, I said it.

    Why are we so afraid to say it out loud? It’s not unethical to generate profits, whether tangible or untangible, unless it’s being achived by unethical methods.

    And last comment. Does it really matter where PR sits in the organisation for our profession to be institutionalised? No other profession is imposing itself on the management as much as PR. Yes, it works best when it is a part of the management, but then PR courses should contain much more business studies, such as strategy, basic understanding of economy and so on. Today it is not the case.

    As long as PR theories are made in labaratories rather than in he field, there are always going to be dissonance and conflict.

    I’m looking forward to attending the conference in Milano, and listening to all the different opinions on the subject!

  35. The intention of my post was to encourage engagement with different perspectives on the practice and study of public relations, as a result of the blog set up by the recently formed Radical PR group of academics.

    In the field of PR, we need to question and challenge ourselves as much as possible, in relation to our practices and our understanding of theoretical models. My passion isn’t for any particular perspective on PR, but to encourage a reflective approach based largely on the Japanese concept of “kaizen”, ie continuous improvement.

    I do not believe there is a single way of looking at the world, or a simple answer to how PR should always be understood or practised.

    I encourage my students to go back to original sources as much as possible, and follow through their reading to current publications, including views expressed online. For the younger generation being able to access contemporary debate through blogs makes the authors come alive – so I am enormously grateful that Jim Grunig has responded to this post.

    Of course, reading widely presents a challenge as ideas, debate and the passing of time, contribute to the development and amendment of practices and theories. This applies not only in relation to discussion and criticism of the original four models of PR practice (from the classic 1984 Grunig & Hunt Managing Public Relations text), but in the breadth of disciplines that have relevance for our profession.

    I see it as a sign of professional maturation that there is increasing breadth and depth with an international body of knowledge that we can use practically, not just conceptually, in our understanding of public relations. That ideas and models continue to be proposed, tested, criticised, adjusted, reframed, and so on can only be good for the profession.

    I think it is unfortunate that a lot of thinking in PR has not become accepted by practitioners, too many of whom continue to ignore the ethical consequences of their work. I also find it saddening that PR theories have not stretched sufficiently into other disciplines, for example, into the core syllabus of MBA programmes.

    It seems at present that the world is turning upside down with many trusted institutions in chaos as a result of the current financial crisis. Phrases such as “safe as houses” or “you can bank on it” seem no longer true.

    We don’t know much about the practice of the PR advisors of such companies and organisations, but to me, they and their senior executives, lost sight of the wider society in the pursuit of profit.

    In emphasising the societal perspective of PR, I do not exclude the communal relationship aspects of Grunig’s work. However, I believe it needs to be considered outside of a “normative” framework, and particularly, not just within a systems theory approach.

    I feel that modernism which sought to explain the world via simple models has proved useful, but as the reality of the world is ever more complex, we need to engage with post-modernist, critical perspectives. Many ideas from this substantiate a two-way symmetric approach, but expand from its origins in systems theory.

    If PR is to really assist politicians, executives and other decision makers during the current time of turmoil, we will need adaptive thinking that can draw on as wide a body of knowledge as possible.

    There has probably never been a time when organisations and individuals have needed more to understand the wider societal impact of their operations and act as genuine, good corporate citizens.

    I believe that recognising the perspectives of PR as a profession, a management function and the critical perspectives of our work, makes us stronger and more able to provide valuable advice.

    Toni commented that the “critical and the postmodernist schools of thought select to position themselves against something else: specifically the two-way symmetric approach…”, which I agree is a limitation.

    However, it is the grit that helps form a pearl within an oyster shell, and as Dolly Parton is quoted as saying, “you can’t have a rainbow without the rain”.

    Opposition is often a positive force, and we need to take a reflective approach, have our views challenged and never just accept what we are told (that way lies propaganda).

    I am delighted that Jim Grunig stands up for his work, particularly by commenting on this blog.

    As I stated in my reply to Toni, I understood the two-way symmetric model to reflect the societal perspective in enabling different views to be accommodated.

    It was not my intention to appear to interpret Grunig’s theories and research as entirely organization-centred and indeed, I make a very clear link in teaching between the two-way symmetric model and adaptive strategy making, showing its practical value in enabling organizations to adjust to changing situations, emerging issues or societal expectations.

    However, the Model of Excellence work, does seem to be founded in a focus on PR as a management function, emphasising the need for PR to achieve recognition by the dominant coalition.

    In many cases, I feel the pursuit of this goal has come at the expense of PR being able to act as “devil’s advocate” when the views and needs of society need to be expressed.

    I don’t see it as Grunig’s fault when people take what they want to hear from the Model of Excellence, which in this case, is that best practice is to be at the hand of the Chief Executive, without embracing the responsibilities that comes with such a position.

    Also, I did not mean to imply that accommodation means capitulating to the views of stakeholders or publics. For me, accommodation means adjustment, reconciliation or settlement of different views. I find the concept of co-orientation is useful in understanding the role of PR practitioners as diplomats and ambassadors in recommending solutions that help the organisation adjust, where appropriate to the needs of others.

    Such accommodation isn’t always as a result of conflict, and indeed, I believe we need to engage with our friends (and those who are latent publics) not just focus on foes. I agree entirely that fostering good relationships is essential, but not just to avoid negative consequences. Organisations benefit enormously from goodwill, and the power of advocates is clear, especially, in the context of new media where others frequently argue in an organisation’s favour.

    I can envisage times when two-way symmetrical communications could be viewed as against the interests of the organisation, if looked at in exchange relationship terms. But, it is necessary from a communal relationship perspective where intangible outcomes can be harder to prove. I understood this to be the essence of two-way symmetric communications, but my apologies if I misrepresented Grunig’s work.

    I certainly would never present Grunig as an apologist for the “dark side of public relations.”

    However, I do feel that practitioners need to engage more with the fact that they are paid advocates and this does make us partisan. No employee has to always do what employers command, but that can mean tough decisions (not everyone can afford to resign, for example).

    Younger practitioners seem particularly vulnerable to colleagues or bosses forcing them to adhere to “black art” or poor practices.

    Lawyers, and other professions, of course, have the back up of being able to cite legally enforced codes of practice, where PR practitioners do not.

    Personally, I believe that PR, like the law, is ethically neutral. I would not argue that it is always a force for good, but do not see it as “by nature evil”. It is from this perspective that I advocate a wide-ranging understanding of public relations, its theories and practice.

    In the same way that I encourage engagement with the “critical scholars”, I advocate critical reflection on their views, not a blind acceptance.

    My main criticism would be reserved for anyone who teaches or accepts a simplistic view of any model or paradigm.

    As Jim Grunig states, ultimately we all want to improve the profession. I did not set out with this post to beat up on two-way symmetric communications, simply to remind readers that they should be aware of other viewpoints – whether they agree with them or not.

  36. With Fannie and Freddie and Merrill and Lehman and AIG all messed up, I’ve been thinking of the real world cf the theory world.

    We’ve been listening for years to financial sector PR people tellingus how smart Wall Street is.

    Not true.

    But did the PR braggers know this, and thus meant well?

    Or were they just plain liars?

    If someone wants to get into some really serious research, try to find out who PR people work for.

    Related: find out who we are, by level of authority and level of responsibility.

    Here’s what I’m getting at.

    In a lot of forums, this included, we seem to be unaware of levels. We talk about what PR people do, or should do, or could do, without much concern for whether or not they would be allowed to.

    And if not allowed to, who is it that is blocking the activity? Someone within the PR department, however it might be named, or someone outside the PR department.

    Does everyone except the top PR person work for the top PR person? Often, this is not the case, with PR people assigned to regions or subsidiaries or branches, with dual (or more) reporting lines. Solid, dotted, dashed…

    I’ve certainly worked for multiple bosses, sometimes overlapping. At one company, it was “pay and rations” from a vice-president (and expense approval) but really, he and I and the president all knew I worked for the president.

    But I don’t think even working for the president, or the CEO, is good enough anymore.

    When we look at a big company that fails, in large or small part because the CEO messed up, we usually see misleading communicaitons becasue the PR chief did what the CEO said.

    But maybe our responsibility is really to the chairman of the board, or even the board as a whole. Can it even go further than this, and be to the shareholders, or the community at large?

    “Governance” is the magic word for this message to get past the anti-spam, and that is a good word for the day.

    I’m watching a fraud trial in Toronto (Garth Drabrinsky and Myron Gottleib of Livent), and I watched Conrad Black get railroaded in Chicago.

    In both trials, there’s a lot of attention paid to executives doing things that were not asked for by the CEO, or doing things the CEO asked not to be done, etc. The end result was a lot of reference to finance executives and company lawyers having some reporting method and/or some professional obligations that by-passed, from time to time, the CEO.

    In the real world, do PR people at subsidiaries report to the CEO of the sub, or the senior PR person back at head office? And if both, when for each?

    Once upon a time, I spent a couple of years inside a subsidiary (Northern Telecom Canada) while thinking that my real boss was at the holding company, Northern Telecom Limited.

    Instructions to me, and seeking of OKs from me, went from my office to the Senior VP at the holding company, rather than up to my subs president, over the gulf, and back down at the other side.

    As far as I was concerned, this worked fine, but that was because of the personalities involved.


  37. Wow.

    We talk about Grunig and bingo, he shows up.

    This is some forum.

    As to >Throughout my career of more than 40 years, I have viewed public relations as the management function that provides publics a voice in the decisions of organizations that affect them. <

    Yeah, me too, except not in academic circles, or a tleast not in high faluting ones — I’ve spent a lot of time with community college teachers and students..

    My own definition of PR is based on the Canadian Public Relations Society defintion, which involves “management function” and finding out what various publics think, and confirming, reinforcing, correcting, modifying, etc., as appropriate.

    I’ve long felt we in PR are the public’s voice (that pehaps should be “publics’ voices”) within an organization. Somewhat ombudsman-like.

    Our greatest skill should be the ability to get out and about, mingle and mix with all stakeholders, and then come back “indside” (wherever inside may be) and not just pass on what we’ve learnd, but advocate for various actions to get those publics as much on side as possible, allowing for a series of tradeoffs. And we need to authority to get these ideas to stick.

    But, like any self-asoon, I need to sign off now and walk the dog and eat dinner and drive the boy.

    I never knew I was a follower of Mr. G., but apparently I am, and glad of it.


  38. I am amazed that you and other critical scholars continue to interpret my theories and research as “organization-centered.” Throughout my career of more than 40 years, I have viewed public relations as the management function that provides publics a voice in the decisions of organizations that affect them. At the same time, I believe that public relations must provide an organization a voice in conflicts with publics. This view is similar, if not identical, to Derina Holtzhausen’s postmodern view that public relations should be an in-house advocate for the interests of publics. I am not an apologist for the “dark side of public relations,” and I have been a constant critic of much public relations practice. However, unlike most critical scholars I match my criticism with constructive theories that could improve the practice of public relations.

    I suppose that “organization-centered” could mean that someone must pay the salary or fees of a public relations practitioner. But that’s a no-brainer. Certainly, “society” doesn’t pay us to practice. Does the fact that a practitioner has to earn a living mean that he or she must always do what employers command? Certainly not; at least it is no more likely than saying that a lawyer always does what is commanded even if it is illegal.

    When you said in your response to Brian that “organisations should seek to accommodate (to a greater or lesser extent) the wishes of stakeholders possibly when these are against the interests of the organisation,” you restated several of the most common misinterpretations of the symmetrical theory by critical scholars. The symmetrical theory does not advocate accommodation and never has. And, you seem to assume that the interests of publics always are in conflict with those of an organization. They’re not. I believe the role of public relations is to help organizations behave in ways that fosters good relationships with publics and that do not result in the high costs of litigation, regulation, legislations, and negative publicity that irresponsible organizational behavior, poor relationships, and activist activity bring. Symmetrical communication is, almost always, in the interests of organizations.

    Your statement in the original post that empowering public relations as a strategic management function “has in fact, embedded the function even more with the partisan perspective of achieving what the organisation’s management wants, often at the expense of others” simply defies logic. I am not advocating “pseudo symmetrical communication” in which management appears to take public interests into account but then does what it initially wanted to do anyway. I am advocating a management function that attempts to show management how serving the interests of publics is in the organization’s interest as well.

    While you accuse scholars like me of a naive positive bias about public relations, I believe critical scholars too often assume that public relations is by nature evil. They close their minds to the real possibility that symmetrical public relations does exist and that it forwards the interests of both publics and society. Even when they find examples of symmetrical public relations that does work in the way I describe, they typically refuse to acknowledge that it does work.

    Most importantly, I do not oppose a critical scholarly examination of public relations. I think it is essential for our field. At the same time, I do not understand why critical scholars feel it is necessary to beat up on what they call “the dominant paradigm” to justify their own work–especially since I have found that most of their criticism of that paradigm relies on misinterpretation or, to be charitable, misunderstanding of it. I think scholars from both approaches to public relations scholarship want to improve the profession and expose its dark side. Diminishing the work of those of us who have labored in this field for many years harms the profession more than it helps.

  39. Brian,

    I’ll try to respond to at least some of your interesting points.

    Re lobbying, that seems to me to involve an organisation (or individual) targeting politicians (and their influencers) to achieve an aim it wants. PR may involve this persuasive approach, or seeking to build longer term relationships.

    However, to come to the point of “this model”, that relates to James Grunig’s assertions that two-way symmetric communications are the ideal. That is, organisations should seek to accommodate (to a greater or lesser extent) the wishes of stakeholders possibly when these are against the interests of the organisation.

    Hence the reason why the “radical PR” academics criticise this model as unrealistic in practice (although some disagree with them also).

    My use of the term “paymasters”, was not intended to be either ironic or sarcastic but to demonstrate that PR pracitioners are not partisan but have to reflect the needs of the people who pay their wages. This includes the management if working-in house, or the client, if in a consultancy/agency.

    Your example is useful in showing how PR practitioners do not need to be submissive with our “paymasters”, and indeed, can win more respect if we are able to demonstrate the necessity for our advice to be followed. But as you mention, we have to ultimately make a decision about whether the income from the job is a reason to capitulate or if our principles mean we look for another job.

    It is that pragmatic view that the “radical PR” critics emphasise over those whose theories can seem distant from the reality of the working world.

    In relation to the dominance of some stakeholders – particularly the CEO or the stockholder/shareholder – that is discussed by academics, particularly those who are critical of stakeholder theory and the Grunig emphasis on building relationships.

    Despite the supposed rise in corporate social responsibility, the adage that “the business of business is business” often seems to be the reality. So as per your third point, we could see that rather than the traditional purpose of organisations as being part of society, we’ve got a more selfish perspective where making a few people richer, in the short term, is the goal.

    Hence again why the critics oppose the “airy-fairy aspects of PR” – even if they may well be ideal or even practicable with a long-term societal view.

    The idea of deconstructing the movie you mention is interesting.

    Regarding research, in the UK we encourage our students to undertake primary research and that is also the case for most tutors. Indeed, even our “newer” Universities (former polytechnics or higher education colleges) are driven by a need to be seen to be undertaking research with teaching or training skills often relegated to less important.

    Although I think research can be valid, it should never be at the expense of ensuring a high standard of student is equipped for the workplace.

  40. Today’s magic word to get me into here was “lobby.”

    There’s a word with a lot of baggage in the PR world. Are PR and lobbying overlaps?

    Toni wrote, “…is that this model is given for granted as dominant in practice when, as anyone who works in our business in the USA or elsewhere knows very well, this is absolutely not true.”

    I tried to figure out what “this model” referred to, in plain English, and failed. Can “this model” have its antecedent identified, please?

    Is “paymasters” from the original message a sneer and/or a smear? Or do I have a cross-cultural misunderstanding of sarcasm and irony?

    I’ve spent a career arguing with paymasters, but I still recognize them as bosses.

    Relted thereto: There was an obituary in the paper here the other day for David Vice, who became a real big shot at Northern Telecom back when I was the PR guy for much of the company. One of my early meetings with Dave was when he was a general manager of a division (made telephones) laying off employees, and I was PR director for the geographic territory n which his division was headquartered.

    General managers, in his case, had perhaps 5,000 people reporting to him, and I had a secretary reporting to me. But I was repsonsible for PR, and I insisted that Dave speak in person to the local reporters, who then would file with a wire service, making this a national story.

    Dave, an engineer, wanted a printed release, or, if really forced into it, have me speak to the papers, radio, and television instead of anyone from the plant/division.

    It’s a very intereting question just how far does a PR person argue with a more senior executive — I had two kids, a mortgage, car payments on one of my two cars, a stay-at-home wife…

    Anyway, I ended up clubbing him over the head with my boss, using Dave’s office telephone, and he did the interviews.

    From then on, our paths crossed frequently, Dave rose rapidly, and throughout his career he was a pleasure to work with, recognizing the importance of open communicatins and the valuable contributions communications pros added, coupled with his own, ond other executives’ responsibilities to be out in front.

    My philosophy, then and now, is that the person to be quoted, interviewed, photographed, is the most senior executive with personal responsibility for the topic at hand. i.e. Dave was GM of the division that was laying off people. The CEO was too far removed, and therefore not quoted. The HR guy was doing what he was told, and not quoted.

    But my theory does not work in today’s world of the IMPERIAL CEO, where all (important) communicaitons in publicly traded companies is driven by quarterly financial results and stock options and bonuses for a very few senior executives.

    (IS THIS mentioned in ascademic circles? I don’t hang out there.)

    When I joined the PR profession in 1970, the “purpose” of publicly-traded business was to provide jobs, quality products and services, play a responsible role in the community, and provide profits for investors. Lots of stuff for the company to do, and lots of PR people to pay attention to.

    Now, the purpose is solely “shareholder value” and this is more often than not defined as increasing the share price.

    And the interpretation (which happens to be both common and wrong) of what increasees in share price are the result of increased quarterly profits, expressed most often as earnings per share.

    In Canada, several weeks ago, the Supreme Court confirmed this purpose of business (shareholder value) by a ruling in the case of BCE (the biggest phone compnany, plus subsidiaries) against the interests of bondholders.

    The common share investors won over the bond-buying investors.

    In the USA, Conrad Black is in jail because of the belief in shareholder value, too.

    So, in 2008, in Upper North America, the employers of many PR people have a corporate purpose at odds with some of what many today consider the airy-fairy aspects of PR.

    If the teacher wants a project for her students, get a team — everything involves teams today — to dig all the references to the public relations business out of Days of Wine and Rose, with Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick, and analyse these words for a while, incorporating them into their academic studies of the history of PR.

    I promised weeks ago to comment further on education. I’ve forgoten most of the thread from back then, but in regard to community college “professors” (what’s the academic view on the reality of professors at community college, as contrsted to teachers.) I do have a recollection.

    It is my belief that university professors can spend time doing fancy research; that’s part of the ethos of a university. At the community college level, it seems to me that formal research is outside the job description. The teachers are there to teach — including the latest and greatest wise ideas — and administer the department. But where do they find the time for research?

    Has the world changed, and the PR teachers at community colleges failed to get the word to me? i.e. they really do original research.

    I pay fairly close attention to PR education.

    Gary, Christine, David… the new woman at Humber … have you got time to do the stuff Terry does at Mac? (This sentence is all Toronto-area insider stuff)


  41. Thank you Toni – my thoughts were not intended as a criticism of PR Conversations per se, and I’m glad that you use it to reflect as I intended of our readers.

    PR Conversations has championed the alternative view – I recall one of our most popular posts is one questioning the normative crisis management approach by promoting the paper: Moral Fables of Public Relations Practice: The Tylenol and Exxon Valdez Cases by John J. Pauly and Liese L. Hutchison. I wish more students would read that paper rather than take the way in which the industry has used these examples over the years as an absolute truth.

    Also, recently there was a discussion thread regarding Murphy’s game theory, which was fascinating and fits in the “alternative” spectrum I would argue.

    I think it is hard when we have backgrounds working for organisations to reflect the societal perspective, but if we don’t then it is right to feel we aren’t genuinely implementing the two-way symmetric model.

    I’m not advocating throwing Grunig’s baby out with the bathwater, but welcome the radical thinking. After all, that’s what Grunig & Hunt tried to be almost 25 years ago when they conceived those classic models. It was vital that they shook up PR then, and even more important to do it today.

  42. Heather,

    Your drawing my attention to the radical pr blog is possibly the richest (of the many) consequence(s) I have received since the inception of this blog.

    Of course, I was aware of the critical school; I have read some of the works they consistently contribute to our collective body of knowledge; I know many by name and maintain a very high regard for all those I have personally met.

    Yet, to see it all together as in this case, one can more comfortably detect the ‘red lines’ which, at least apparently, keep the effort going and strong.

    My reaction now is personal and emotional, rather than rational, as (excusatio non petita?)I detect in your post a sort of indirect criticism that many of us here at PR Conversations have unabashedly espoused one school of thought, without sufficiently considering other approaches.

    A sensation which is similar to the one I sometimes receive when I speak with South African friends, as many of them advocate the post-modernist approach.

    It seems to me that the heart of the issue is (as Benita Steyn also recently echoed on this blog and, admittedly, I did not take seriously enough…) that, being a professional who has operated constantly on the market for now 45 years on behalf of all sorts of organizations: political, private, social, public.., I have always taken an organizational rather than a societal perspective when trying to conceptualize and describe the sense of our profession.

    This inevitably implies that much (not all, of course) of the theoretic framework which underlies a societal approach escapes me, and I am more than aware of this limitation of not being a scholar.

    I do wish however to underline that, adopting an organizational approach, in no way implies adopting a non critical worldview of the role of organizations and, therefore, the role and the consequences of their public relations activities on society.
    Quite the contrary!

    To avoid possible misunderstandings, from a purely social and political perspective, I feel very very strong affinities to many of the postmodernist and critical thinkers, and I am always intrigued, inspired and fascinated by the contents they deliver.

    However, the organizational/societal divide also carries in me another emotion.

    Both the critical and the postmodernist schools of thought select to position themselves against something else: specifically the two-way symmetric approach, unduly (in my view, of course)characterized as a dominant US-based paradigm.

    I certainly agree that (I in particular…being an unabashed advocate) too much lip service only helps to attract critiques, particularly -but not only- in academia.

    I certainly agree that the most astounding feature I discovered at NYU, when I began my teaching experience in the USA, is that this model is given for granted as dominant in practice when, as anyone who works in our business in the USA or elsewhere knows very well, this is absolutely not true.

    At the same time, I believe that the ongoing effort to define a global framework based on the generic principles and specific applications paradigm, which somehow is an effect of that approach, ensures a sufficient (radical?) discontinuity…

    Thank you, Heather, for this wake-up call and I sincerely hope that this collective space, for whatever it is worth, will be increasingly considered by friends and colleagues around the world as another useful platform for critical confrontation on the role that our profession has in today’s society.

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