Generic principles and specific applications in public relations

In this post, Toni Muzi Falconi presents his development of a paradigm of public relations that seeks to establish common understanding of its strategic role in the contemporary, increasingly globalised environment.

Toni subsequently discussed the concept in an email conversation with Rob Wakefield from Brigham Young University (the first scholar to theorize the paradigm a couple of decades ago), which was followed by a review of their elucubrations by Jim Grunig. That conversational development is the subject of the next PR Conversations post.

In the meantime, we welcome your thoughts on the conceptual framework outlined below.

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It is impossible for an organization to apply its generic principles if not in the operative context of specific applications; while, conversely, the latter are not effective unless embedded into the former.

  • Generic principles are ‘the characteristics which define excellent public relations’ as Jim Grunig identified in respect of the Excellence study of the mid-1980s/early-1990s (which described the practices of some 300 US, British and Canadian organizations).
  • Specific applications relate to the implementation of public relations activities within particular contexts.

This proposition of an essential linkage between generic principles and specific applications argues that an organization cannot effectively apply generic principles of public relations (as approved by its dominant coalition) throughout the entire network of relationship systems without considering infrastructure characteristics within specific territories, nor can it effectively consider those infrastructure characteristics in absence of the generic principles.

Based on the increasingly interrelated dynamics of public relations and the ever-changing environment in which it operates, we propose six generic principles, and six infrastructural characteristics that need to be considered in understanding the operative implications of day-to-day practice.

Generic principles of public relations (as reviewed by Toni Muzi Falconi) Public relations is a unique management function helping organizations to develop effective relationships with stakeholder publics as well as its operative environment
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The value of public relations can be determined by measuring the dynamic quality of relationships the organization establishes with its stakeholder publics, as well as by the improvement in the quality of the organization’s decision making processes enabled by the listening process related to the (quality of) stakeholder expectations and environmental scanning (listening processes)
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Public relations serves a strategic, a managerial, as well as a technical role
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Public relations departments plan, administer and evaluate public relations programs
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Public relations activities are powered by (integrated by) the public relations department or a senior public relations executive, not subordinated to other management functions, who supplies, facilitates, enables, distributes and supports relationship and communication competencies to all other management  functions of the organization   (, empowered by the dominant coalition of the organization and)
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Public relations is two way and tendentially symmetrical, values diversity as a specific added value to the relationship, and is based on a responsible communicating-with, rather than a communicating-to platform
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Public relationship infrastructure in a given territory: an overview

Embracing this conceptual framework of generic principles and specific applications delivers a number of (strategic) organizational benefits:

  • It accelerates the institutionalization process for the public relations function within an organization
  • It supports the development of a distributed (central, but also peripheral) managerial monitoring dashboard in each territory It upholds stakeholder relationship governance as the overall responsibility of 21st century public relations

Whilst this development of the original paradigm is helpful, a number of issues remain. Four key questions are:

1. Does the paradigm apply only to public relations?

Potentially, the concept could similarly apply to any other management function or profession with the caveat that relevant generic principles and specific applications be specifically researched. In other words, is the paradigm situational – and if so, is this an oxymoron?

2. Do the generic principles need to reflect the unique characteristics of the organisation as well as the industry in which it operates?

In ensuring effective public relations practices around the world, organizations need to reflect three sets of analysis related to generic principles: the specific practice (PR) and its global principles, the organization’s specific and unique characteristics that are globally valid, and, the industry’s specific and unique characteristics that are globally valid.

3. Should other territorial systems be analysed to determine specific applications?

Are there other territorial systems in addition to the six identified, which need to be analysed? And, can we identify, as I have been now doing for some time, as the ‘public relations infrastructure’ of a given territory? And wouldn’t any of these given territories, by the sheer nature of their being specific, always need to be adaptable to the identification of additional territorial possibilities? In other words, don’t ‘universal specifics’, to at least some degree, create certain rigidity against the notion behind specific application in a given territory?

4. Should the framework directly evidence the interconnectedness between the generic principles and specific applications?

As the constant interconnectedness of the modern world implies that generic principles are valid only if specific applications are acted and vice versa, perhaps this should be indicated by one of the generic principles and one of the specific applications to ensure an effective and equal balance between the two elements of the paradigm.

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NOTE: This is Part 2 of a series of 3 posts.  Part 1: Developing a worldview of public relations appeared on Thursday 11 April with Part 3: Three wise men – homage to a public relations paradigm – published on Friday 19 April.

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6 Responses to “Generic principles and specific applications in public relations”
  1. Bill Huey says:

    It is courageous to put these generic principles out there, but you will have to defend them as you go.

    Number one, for example. Why is public relations a “unique” management function? What makes it unique, as distinguished from supply chain management, or finance, or marketing?

    I would argue that public relations in most places isn’t a management function at all, but a MIDDLE management function, reporting to marketing, human resources, the chief legal officer, or the chief financial officer in the case of investor relations. It may be a management function in the relatively rare cases where the CCO title exists, but that is more the exception than the rule.

    • toni muzi falconi says:

      Bill,
      that specific generic principle you argue is a consequence of the descriptive research based results with 300 us, canadian, british companies between 1985 and 1991 by the excellence study research team.
      The results of that research, described in at least six different books published along the process, indicate that public relations is most effective when it is positioned as a unique management function not subordinate to either marketing, hr or legal.
      I won’t argue the middle management issue, because middle management has ceased to exist as an organizational entity since many years.
      What is more is that both the european communication monitor (an annual analysis of the european public relations operational environment in europe which has been going on now since 2006 see http://www.communicationmonitor.eu/) and the annual usc annenberg general accepted practices (gap) research on the usa public relations environment, strongly confirm that pr is most effective and most likely to be positioned as a unique management function.

      I am of course aware that not all organizations follow suit, yet all research suggests that the non autonomy of the pr function is rapidly decreasing and in some countries (Italy being one for example where the top 100 corporations have achieved a 100% compliance) is extinct.
      Hope this helps.

      • Bill Huey says:

        Middle management has ceased to exist? Gosh, don’t tell that to the authors of “Managing in the Modern Corporation” (Cambridge University Press, 2009) or the 200 middle managers across three countries they interviewed. Here’s a description from the book’s Amazon.com page:

        “In recent years, widespread organisational change in large corporations has almost invariably led to work intensification and increased stress for managers. “Managing in the Modern Corporation” explains how and why large companies have changed their organisational structures and philosophies, focusing in particular on how these changes affect the careers of middle managers. Based on in-depth interviews with over two hundred middle and senior managers working in large corporations in the USA, UK and Japan, it shows how the working lives of managers have been subjected to major disruption, involving work intensification and reduced opportunities for career progression. Furthermore, it argues that such widespread overwork and poor treatment of highly skilled and highly motivated staff has created a major international problem that must be addressed. The book presents a range of solutions to this important problem, suggesting that there are possibilities for saner, less brutal organisational environments.”

        “They are disparaged and downsized, yet middle managers are the backbone of contemporary organizations. At last, we have a study that takes the middle-managers’ world seriously, and chronicles the ruthless pressures to which they have been subjected in recent years as well as their strategies for survival and resistance. Through extensive interviewing and an impressively thorough review of the evidence, Hassard, Morris and McCann reveal startling similarities in the condition of middle managers across the UK, USA and Japan.”
        –Paul Adler, Professor of Management and Organisation, Marshall School of Business, University of Southern California

        If you’re going to be so dismissive, Toni, at least be sure of your facts.

        • Toni muzi falconi says:

          Apologise for seeming dismissive Bill, but the very superhyped sales pitch for the book you cite quite clearly expresses that middle management is extinct and some supplier/ author is attempting to reintermediate it while the traditional top down layers of middle management disappear in the hierachical ‘cloud’….

  2. Toni,

    I’ve been thinking about your four questions (without pre-empting the discussion that will be posted as Part 3 on Friday).

    1. Does the paradigm apply only to public relations?

    I feel we probably should come at this question from the other direction – which is whether it would be beneficial to start from some generic principles of management and then contextualise these to public relations. Here I’m not reflecting Bill’s point about whether or not PR is a senior (or middle) management function, but if we accept that those in the occupation are involved in management (of people, budgets, processes, functions etc), then wouldn’t it benefit our discipline to have a core guiding principle that didn’t simply describe what PR may be (ie a management function) but connected it to wider management principles.

    2. Do the generic principles need to reflect the unique characteristics of the organisation as well as the industry in which it operates?

    Again, I’m wondering why this would be a specific consideration for public relations. Should we instead engage with understanding at a strategic level how organisations should structure and approach their reputation, relationships, communications etc to reflect their unique characteristics? Rather than looking at PR in isolation, I would think it is more helpful to integrate consideration of PR with the wider operational and conceptual dimensions of organisations. Mintzberg for example has written on developing a worldly as opposed to a global view, which could be relevant.

    3. Should other territorial systems be analysed to determine specific applications?

    What is presented as the PR infrastructure with consideration of territorial systems seems to me to reflect an adaptation of a PESTEL analysis in many respects. So once more, I find myself wondering why we aren’t drawing on, and contributing towards, strategic thinking in this area. Some of the considerations within the infrastructure clearly relate to the Integrated Reporting debate (http://www.theiirc.org). Overall, this seems to connect very much to the ‘boundary spanning’ perspective of providing corporate insight. Certainly PR can contribute to that, but our lamentable engagement with research as a core aspect of public relations seems to counter any claims that we are experts in the knowledge and insight field (which I believe we should be). Instead companies probably turn to business functions or marketing rather than PR which has traditionally not invested in research to inform its strategic operations.

    For me, this should be a mindset in PR – and of course, there may be specific and general dimensions where insight is required for any organisation. Again, I could turn to management literature for some territorial aspects – but is PR itself operating at this level in terms of providing the insight into specific territorials such as reputation, relationships, and so on?

    4. Should the framework directly evidence the interconnectedness between the generic principles and specific applications?

    Undoubtedly any consideration of generic and specific has to be connected – but we will hear more of that in Part 3.

    So to sum up, I suppose what I’m wondering is why this discussion about PR appears to be happening in isolation to consideration of similar ideas (and critical reflection on the concepts) in the wider management arena?

    • toni muzi falconi says:

      Thank you Heather.

      In general I have based my thinking on my (obvioulsy limited) knowledge of management, its literature as well as my personal experience.
      I believe that this is somehow reflected in my current revision of the original generic principles description.

      And now to your points:
      1. does the paradigm only apply to public relations?

      it seems to me that the globalization theory, as it has been practiced by large organizations (including ngo’s, universities, transnational public institutions, not only in private sector), has sofar failed to move out of an etnocentric worldview (think global and act local in the best of cirumstances).
      In my view a situational and intertwined approach could possibly not only apply to organizational public relations, but also to many other fields whose worldviews are increasingly being questioned. However I fully agree with what you write.

      2. do the generic principles need to reflect the unique characteristics of the organisation as well as the industry in which it operates?

      Your comments and specifically your referral to Minztberg’s use of the term worldly rather than global, are in line with my thinking sofar.

      3. should other territorial systems be analysed to determine specific applications?

      I certainly agree with the points you raise, although my personal and professional experience tells me that public relations functions are becoming highly sophisticated in their analytical processes (much more so than consultancies or agencies).
      Interdisciplinary approaches are essential.
      I remain however loyal to the concept of public relations infrastructure.. to the point that not only specific applications but also generic principles should be its constitutive elements.

      Thank you for these suggestive enrichments.

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