Looking for excellence in public relations

What exactly does ‘excellence’ mean in public relations? Is it something to be achieved by anyone following a particular approach (as implied by the Model of Excellence), or demonstrated by those recognised by the industry (such as winners of the CIPR Excellence Awards)?

My dictionary equates the term with ‘extremely good’ or ‘pre-eminent; which are different things. The former suggests excellence is a performance standard – a level to be reached that is probably acknowledged as the highest quality. It is a peak to be attained; a credential of competence.

But to be pre-eminent is comparative – indicating superiority to others, winning the gold medal, better than all the rest. It can only be achieved by one, or possibly a few; although perhaps only by those who put themselves forward or have the profile to be picked out for praise.

In both these uses, excellence is an end goal; somewhere to rest on your laurels. It is a ‘good enough’ place – but shouldn’t the bar for excellence get raised and the winner challenged for their crown? Is that the purpose of a centre of excellence – to provide leadership, research into best practices, a quest for something perhaps unattainable – the pursuit of a never-to-be-achieved perfection? Where is the centre of excellence for public relations?

I like to think of excellence as a attitude; the spirit of Kaizen (a philosophy of continuous improvement). Aristotle considered three paths of excellence: personal, intellectual and interpersonal. These suggest excellence is something individual: arete, the act of living up to one’s full potential. Aristotle is quoted as stating excellence is a habit; implying a need to focus on the small things you do in life and execute to the best of your ability. Is that what excellence in public relations should involve? Not the glitzy attention-grabbing campaigns, but the continuous delivery of excellence in everything?

Karl Anders Ericsson wrote “The Road to Excellence” – analysing how elite performers deliver excellent accomplishments, and praising practice over innate talent. It echoes with my starting point for anyone who wants to be a better writer – that you need to read and write as much as you possibly can. I believe the same applies to every aspect of public relations and particularly, using your brain.

But I’d like excellence to mean more than that. To be really truly exceptional we need to take giant leaps, not neat little steps to perfection. Not just being good enough, better than others or even better than you were yesterday, but achieving big, hairy audacious goals. I’d like to see leaders in public relations pushing the practice to achieve this sense of excellence – being bold and demanding, but also driving from the front. Where are our ambitions for excellence in public relations?

I have the same desire for those engaged in public relations education – I want to see the smartest, most intelligent people choosing a career in public relations – and not stopping there. This too involves bigger ambitions; stretching our young practitioners not simply to be competent on the job, but to celebrate a standard of education that makes them soar intellectually and challenge poor practices, unethical behaviour and mediocre measures of ‘excellence’. They should aspire to be entrepreneurs, chief executives, change agents in society, renowned writers and sought after advisors.

For myself, I’m tired of often not even being good, let alone excellent in everything I do. I plan to stop doing so much, do less, but do it to the highest standard – and then make it better still. Life shouldn’t be measured in deadlines; a quick pause when a project is delivered before hurtling along to the next due date. When I look behind me, I want to feel I’ve lived up to my potential, and encouraged others to excel, surpass and reach new heights.

As a child, I lived near a Hippodrome Circus – a magical place where we watched the performances at least once every Summer. It assaulted your senses, seemed dangerous and exciting – and great fun too. The amazing acts required hours of practice to perfect. Drawing on those experiences, I want to breathe deeply, enjoy the moment and leap, like a trapeze artist to feel the adrenaline and elation. No longer do I want to be the frazzled plate-spinner – always rushing from pole to pole, hopefully catching each before it crashes to the ground. That’s my metaphor for public relations.

But one thing I learned from those circus performers – even when the audience was barely a handful of people – they gave their all. And when things didn’t go right, they got up again and carried on. More practice, more daring, dangerous leaps, more plates to be spun… Roll up, roll up, come see the amazing search for excellence in public relations.

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21 Replies to “Looking for excellence in public relations

  1. My original intention with this post was to explore the concept of excellence – and it has been an added bonus that Jim Grunig explained some of the background to the term’s use in the context of the Excellence study – and clarifying that he would not use the term today is a fascinating ‘admission’, that I really hope PR students and academics pick up on.

    I support the idea that we do have different worldviews, including with regard to PR practice. Clearly there are those who are more advocates of persuasion and PR as advocacy, and others who champion the symmetrical model. Likewise, those who see PR as a profession, or a craft – or who like me, see all these aspects and more both in practice and conceptualising our discipline (or occupation as I prefer).

    So I don’t believe that Jim intended to mislead by sticking the word excellent on the original project – although undoubtedly the term has stuck to the original research (and its derivations over time) and to the two-way symmetrical model where it has been seen as a prescription for achieving excellence (regardless of whether or not that was ever an intention).

    Much like I am bemused by the soap powder adverts of my youth which were always “new and improved” (never described as excellent though), and also the decline of most of the organisations that Peters identified as Excellent in his work, I accept the use of the term Excellence in the PR study as promotion. Indeed, this strikes me as doubly amusing since I believe we are living in an increasingly promotionally driven culture.

    As with those who criticise public relations as being unethical, yet use its techniques in promoting their own work, it is deliciously ironic that Excellence possibly served a marketing purpose rather than being indicative of a pinnacle of practice.

    For me, if this post and the comments do nothing other than deter students from undertaking dissertation topics focusing on Excellence without exploring what the term – and the Grunigian studies actually reflected – we’ve done the occupation a service.

  2. In reading this thorough explanation I began to think, from a public relations perspective, how many misinterpretations, mistakes, vilifications, wrong assumptions any one of us professionals, or scholars, or educators makess every day relying on superficial perceptions, stereotypes and unchecked assertions…

    This is Banal Grande (Grand Banale) and I apologise for its triviality, but helas!, it is so damn true.

    Time after time I seem to get caught in the trap of wanting (having?) to express myself quickly and assertively without by default having asked myself: did you do your homework? Did you listen? Did you read carefully?

    In no way will I conclude this void and silly comment by referring it to our younger visitors and asking them to learn from this incident…..
    In fact I refer this to elderly scholars and professionals as well as all others, hoping that they will at least once refrain (me for first) from opening their mouth the next time they think they have something smart to say….

    1. Toni – I agree about the temptation of relying on existing knowledge when responding, and we can all learn from going back to original sources to check a situation. Likewise, the ‘smart’ response is often not particular informed – perhaps that’s why it is called knee jerk!

      To be a bit more serious, I find that one issue is that there is so much to read – both new and existing, that we build a narrative of understanding and fit each piece read or heard, into that framework. This is a natural heuristic approach. But of course, each time we read something, we have a particular purpose and so select and retain information on that basis. Doing my PhD, I’m constantly coming across something relevant in material that I’ve read before which is applicable but in my first encounter didn’t notice.

      So two lessons for us there on the road to excellence – you can teach old (circus) dogs new tricks, and a revisit often shows there’s much more to consider than is gained from first impressions.

      1. I am always amazed at how many critics have not read the original materials they are criticizing. Generally, they only read what some other critic has said, most often also without reading the original.

        1. Dr. Grunig believes that I’ve made a “personal ad hominem attack,” but does not address the argument. Too personal? Hardly, just entering an argument based on the new information about the IABC study that Dr. Grunig provided in response to this blog.

          In his earlier response (directed mistakenly at Bill Huey), he admits that the theory “has been distorted by critics.” I would counter that he is the one who distorted the IABC study by labeling it “excellence.” The reason critics feel the need to “denigrate” the IABC study is because Dr. Grunig and his students, colleagues, etc., have been so aggressive in marketing it as “the” theory that explains how PR should be conducted.

          The marketing of the moniker “excellence” gave the IABC study an additional validation, which its authors/researchers certainly must have understood. I indicate all this in my comment above.

          This is hardly a “personal attack,” which Dr. Grunig again attributed to Bill Huey above. The nature of the IABC study and its consequences are critical for public relations scholarship now and into the future.

          Say I’m selling soap and on the label I slap “excellent cleaning power.” As a result, I gain 95 percent of the market? Can I then come back nearly 30 years later and say, “oops, my mistake I didn’t really mean ‘excellent?'” One should not expect a free pass.

          This isn’t about a person’s “worldview,” this is about the heart of a profession that has been struggling for at least a century to become a discipline.

  3. I would like to add my two cents on this interesting issue.

    Personally I have never liked the pompous term, and over the last 20 some years in our managerial jargon the term has become a buzzword.
    In our specific area of studies, public relations, the term mostly refers to the Grunig’s research work of the mid eighties.

    In my personal interpretation Laurie and Jim used the term to signify that public relations is a management function that equates very well with the early eighties global success of the management book in Search of Excellence.

    I might be wrong but would like very much to hear their version of why they selected that title. I believ they are now travelling to Bled, but will be sure to ask them, in case they do not read this in the meantime, when next Firday evening they will be honoured by the conference.

    1. Toni – like you, I’ve attributed the Excellence Model work to the earlier work of Peters and Waterman, although I don’t recall that being acknowledged in the Grunig texts, so I’d be interested to know if there was that inspiration.

      In relation to Judy’s recent post, I’ve just read the Wikipedia entry on In Search of Excellence and was amused to see that Peters apparently conceived his themes and arguments after extensive research. That is, he undertook inductive research with no particular aim or theory in mind.

      As I understand it, that contrasts with the Model of Excellence studies which were underpinned already by the proposition of two-way symmetric communications as a preferable modus operandi. But again, I’m sure you or Jim can clarify on that.

    2. Toni and Heather,

      You are correct that we used the term “excellence” to describe our study for the IABC Research Foundation, which began in 1985, in part based on Peters and Watterman’s book In Search of Excellence that was published in 1982. Chapter 5 of Excellence in Public Relations and Communication Management, published in 1992, contained a complete literature review of a number of Excellence studies, including Peters and Waterman. Studies of best practices were typically described as studies of excellence at the time. IABC wanted a study that would demonstrate the value of communication to an organization. Our research team also believed that not every public relations function would contribute value to an organization, only those that followed certain best practices or theoretical principles. At one of our first team meetings with members of the IABC Foundation Board, one of the board members, Lou Williams, said: “Why don’t we call the study “In Search of Excellence in Public Relations and Communication Management.” We dropped the words “In Search of” so as to not plagiarize Peters and Waterman.

      If I were to choose a name for the study now, I would choose another name, primarily because of the way that critics have distorted our reasons for using the term–i.e., that we somehow claimed to have the only suitable approach to public relations. We chose the term because it was commonly used to describe studies of best practices in the 1980s, not because of any feeling of superiority.

      Heather is not correct, however, when she said that the Excellence study was underpinned by “the proposition of two-way symmetric communications as a preferable modus operandi. Table 1.1 on p. 28 of Excellence in Public Relations and Communication Management lists 17 Characteristics of Excellent Public Relations Programs, only two of which were based on the symmetrical model (the symmetrical model in general and symmetrical systems of internal communication). This is a common misunderstanding–that the symmetrical model and the Excellence theory are the same thing. Please pardon the length of the entry, but I thought that cutting and pasting two pages from the following chapter on the Excellence theory would provide clarification: Grunig, J. E., Grunig, L. A., & Dozier, D. M. (2006). The excellence theory. In C. H. Botan & V. Hazleton (Eds.) Public relations theory II (pp. 21-55). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.


      When the IABC Foundation (now the IABC Research Foundation) issued its RFP in 1984, project director James Grunig assembled a research team of five scholars and a practitioner from the United Kingdom and the United States. The team consisted of the three of us, James Grunig and Larissa Grunig of the University of Maryland and David Dozier of San Diego State University; William Ehling, then of Syracuse University and now retired; Jon White, then of the Cranfield School of Management in the United Kingdom and now an independent consultant and teacher in London; and the now deceased Fred Repper, who had recently retired as vice president of public relations for Gulf States Utilities in Beaumont, Texas.

      The six members of the team wrote a proposal that promised to review the literature on organizational effectiveness to answer the question of how and why public relations has value to an organization. Because we believed that not all public relations units have value to their organizations, however, we also promised to do an extensive review of the literature on public relations and related disciplines to isolate the characteristics that make it more likely that a communication unit will add value to an organization. We could do such a review because each member of the team had been heavily involved in research on different, but complementary, aspects of communication management—such as strategic management, practitioner roles, gender and diversity, models of public relations, operations research, employee communication, organizational culture, and activism.

      In 1985, the IABC Foundation awarded us a grant for $400,000 to conduct the project we had outlined. The literature review started out as a paper but expanded into a book, Excellence in Public Relations and Communication Management (J. Grunig, 1992a). That first book presented the results of the extensive literature review that led to the conceptual framework for the study.

      A number of excellence studies had been conducted for management practices in general, the most famous of which was Peters and Waterman’s (1982) study, In Search of Excellence. We reviewed this study and similar ones and integrated the results in the chapter “What Is Excellence in Management?” of Excellence in Public Relations and Communication Management (J. Grunig, 1992c). Most previous studies of excellence, however, addressed only the how question of the three questions posed in the IABC Foundation’s research question. Previous excellence researchers typically chose what they thought were excellent organizations using arbitrary criteria, such as six financial measures used by Peters and Waterman, and then searched for management practices that these excellent organizations shared. Generally, though, these researchers could not explain why the shared practices produced the financial results. That problem became especially acute when many of the excellent companies suffered financial declines or went out of business even though the management practices had not changed (“Who’s Excellent Now,” 1984).

      In developing our study of excellence in public relations and communication management, by contrast, we began by reviewing the literature on the nature of organizational effectiveness, the nature of public relations, and the relationship between the two (L. Grunig, J. Grunig, & Ehling, 1992). That literature allowed us to answer the why question: For what reason does public relations contribute to organizational effectiveness?

      With the answer to that question in mind, we then searched literature in public relations, communication, management, organizational sociology and psychology, social and cognitive psychology, feminist studies, political science, operations research, and culture to identify characteristics of public relations programs and departments and of the organizations in which they are found that answer the how question: By what means do excellent public relations departments make organizations more effective? Finally, we searched the literature for concepts that would explain the value of individual public relations programs and the value of the overall public relations function to an organization–the to what extent question (Ehling, 1992a; L. Grunig, J. Grunig, & Ehling, 1992).

      The result was a comprehensive, general theory of public relations. That general theory began with a premise of why public relations has value to an organization. We could use that premise to identify and connect attributes of the public relations function and of the organization that logically would be most likely to make the organization effective. Then we could link the outcomes of communication programs that make organizations effective to the characteristics of a public relations function that theoretically contributes the most to organizational effectiveness.”

      Finally, I would like to add a paragraph from another article that explains that relevant contributions of each of the Excellence team members and the middle-range theories they added to our general theory of excellence in public relations (Grunig, J. E. (2006). Furnishing the edifice: Ongoing research on public relations as a strategic management function. Journal of Public Relations Research, 18, 151-176.).

      “At the same time, my collaborators on the project (David Dozier, William Ehling, Larissa Grunig, Fred Repper, and Jon White) pointed out that the project also would make it possible to integrate a number of middle-range concepts that explained how the public relations function should be organized to increase the value of the public relations function to the organization. I brought my concepts of publics, organizational theory and decision-making, models of public relations, evaluation of public relations, and research on employee communication to the project. David Dozier contributed his and Glen Broom’s roles theory. William Ehling contributed his knowledge of operations research and his views on the controversy over public relations and integrated marketing communication (IMC). Larissa Grunig brought her knowledge of gender, diversity, power, and activism. Jon White contributed his ideas about public relations and strategic management. To this mix, Fred Repper, our practitioner member, added his understanding of how our theories worked in practice. The package became what we now know as the Excellence theory.”

      I hope this information helps to clarify our use of the term “excellence.”

      1. Jim, thank you so much for your comprehensive response, and fascinating to hear the simple rationale for the use of Excellence and that you would not use the term today.

        I didn’t mean to imply I was equating two-way symmetric communication with the Model of Excellence which is why I wrote a, rather then the, preferable modus operandi.

        My point really was to contrast how it appeared Peters and Waterman had undertaken inductive research (on a limitless budget, apparently) without a theory in mind. In contrast, as you clarify, your study had identified a multi-faceted general theory on the basis of literature, and therefore the research was deductive. This wasn’t intended as criticism but as an observation. Indeed, I think it is useful to consider such differences as I find students (and practitioners) in PR aren’t always that informed or interested in the methodology underpinning research.

      2. Well, that was some interesting history, as I am one who thought that Excellence and 2-way symmetrical communication were one and the same, or at least joined at the hip.

        As to the “why” question, “For what reason does public relations contribute to organizational effectiveness?”, it could not have contributed anything at all to Gulf States Utilities, for that company always had the poorest, least strategic, most top-down communications to be found anywhere (I know this from both personal and professional experience). Gulf States was devoted to nuclear power to the point of bankruptcy, and eventually had to be absorbed by a conglomerate called Entergy.

        1. Regarding the symmetrical model, you might be surprised to learn that it wasn’t the most defining characteristic of the excellence factor that we derived statistically. The most defining characteristics were the availability of knowledge in the public relations department to play a strategic managerial role in the organization and the actual participation of public relations in strategic planning. The two-way symmetrical model was associated with the excellence factor, but the two-way asymmetrical model was associated almost as strongly. Further work with the data, however, revealed that the two-way asymmetrical model was associated with excellence mostly because research is an integral part of that model as well as the symmetrical model. Thus, the most excellent public relations functions have a strategic management role in their organizations; and research is an integral part of the work of those functions. That’s why I have done most of my writing since the Excellence project trying to define the strategic management role of public relations.

          If you would like to read more about the actual data analysis of the Excellence study, a very thorough book reporting the results of the study is available for your reading pleasure: Grunig, L. A., Grunig, J. E., & Dozier, D. M. (2002). Excellent public relations and effective organizations: A study of communication management in three countries. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

          As for Gulf States Utilities, I don’t know much about its nuclear decisions, but I can say that Fred Repper was an extremely intelligent man who contributed enormously to the Excellence project.

          1. Jim, Your comment about the most defining characteristic of the Excellence Factor being the availability of knowledge in the PR department to play a strategic managerial role instantly took me on a little trip down memory lane tonight. The year was 1996. I was still a PR practitioner who had started master’s studies 2 months before. It was the Thursday before the Easter weekend. In the mail that day I received the ‘purple book’ (as the students called it—the Manager’s Guide to Excellence in PR and Communication Management). When I paged through it, I saw the finding you mentioned. And that provided me with answers to two questions that I thought would take all weekend to decide.

            The first question was a title for my master’s degree. I had it. Two minutes flat: ‘Strategic management roles of the PR function’. The second question was whether I was going to accept a job offer in the Dept of Marketing and Communication Management at the Univ of Pretoria. Yes, I was. Because by Easter Friday I had read through the ‘purple book’. And knew that my fundraising days were over. That I wanted to spend the next couple of years finding out more about ‘the strategic role of PR’ in theory (although it was the fundraising job, working closely together with the Vice Chancellor of my University, that taught me the strategic role in practice. I knew it was there. I had played it!).

      3. I can see the headlines now: “Grunig Says ‘Excellence’ Not Really Excellent” or “IABC Team Pimps ‘Excellence’ from Peters and Waterman.” Is the “takeaway” from Dr. Grunig’s discussion of the term “excellence” that his team simply appropriated the term to sponge off the title of one of the highest selling business books of all-time? Please tell me that almost 30 years of PR research is based on more than that!

        Although Grunig, et al, used the term excellence “in part” due to the bestselling book, perhaps the team should have thought more conscientiously about what using it might mean. Certainly, theorists have discussed the power of brands and names as symbols, so branding the study as “excellence” certainly was purposeful, as Dr. Grunig explains. They did not want to “plagiarize” Peters/Waterman, but they unquestionably wanted to link their work to the book and popularity of the term.

        Given Dr. Grunig’s statements over the years in support of the study and what he labels a “research tradition” in “Furnishing the Edifice” (JPPR 2006), it is difficult to not question his claim that “I would choose another name” because “critics have distorted our reasons for using the term–i.e., that we somehow claimed to have the only suitable approach to public relations.” Yet, in the article mentioned above, Grunig writes, “I believe this one (his research tradition) will continue to guide the public relations discipline for years to come…It is a general theory that explains how the public relations function should be structured and managed to provide the greatest value to organizations, publics, and society” (153).

        This is a shuck and jive tactic that Dr. Grunig and his allies have used for years in attempting to deflect criticism. On one hand, he claims that they were not attempting to provide “the only suitable approach,” but then maintain that it will “guide the public relations discipline for years to come.” Moreover, despite the former assertion, the scholarly community not only embraced the “excellence” agenda, but as it became dogma, alienated those who did not agree.

        Tactic number two employed by Dr. Grunig is to simply label anyone who does not agree with excellence as he views it not understanding (or even reading) what he and his team wrote. He did this in the comment section here, stating: “I am always amazed at how many critics have not read the original materials they are criticizing. Generally, they only read what some other critic has said, most often also without reading the original.” In “Furnishing,” he says criticism in one instance is “based on an incorrect interpretation” and then determines, “This criticism is so far removed from the actual assumptions of the Excellence study that I question whether the critics even read the work that they were criticizing” (165).

        The excellence study made a significant contribution to public relations scholarship. It hit all the right buttons – backing by significant money from IABC, an acclaimed research team, and a mix of research methods. Yet, the challenge is when presenting the concept, the team went from discussing “characteristics of a public relations function that theoretically contributes the most to organizational effectiveness” to employing this as “the” defining theory, which is supported by the label “excellence.” There is power in using that specific term, regardless of the rationale.

        “Characteristics…contributes the most” is the key piece of this. If one is contemplating something that adds value “the most,” then it must exist in a range of “characteristics,” as Dr. Grunig says. They developed a concept built on how PR “should be organized,” but they then presented the package – via the use of “excellence” – as “the general theory that explains…” There is a great deal of certainty that resides in that leap. However, when critics address these concerns, they are met with offhanded remarks as quoted above.

        Much of what Dr. Grunig presents in his comments on PR Conversations outline how the PR organization should be structured within an organization, rather than how it should operate: “The most defining characteristics were the availability of knowledge in the public relations department to play a strategic managerial role in the organization and the actual participation of public relations in strategic planning.” But, as we know, the study and “research tradition” provides plenty of material on good versus bad communications, particularly in regards to those who “buffer” and those who “bridge.”

        I think Heather raises a valid point when she links “excellence” and the two-way model, because Dr. Grunig certainly does in “Furnishing.” The subhead is titled: “The Excellence Study: Putting the Edifice Together.”

        In Public Relations Theory II, Carl Botan and Vincent Hazleton explain, “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). They acknowledge Kuhn, when they say: “theoretic paradigms frame and guide research in a field. However, they may also stifle and prevent the consideration of innovative ideas and theories.” (9)

        I applaud Dr. Grunig and his supporters for their work in staking “excellence” as the defining paradigm in PR scholarship. My pleas, though, would be for them to stop juking and feigning that they are doing any less. Open up to the critical work being done. Perhaps this would open the field to scholarship and enable PR to move from profession to discipline.

        In Metaphors We Live By (1980), George Lakoff and Mark Johnson say, “The concepts that govern our thought are not just matters of the intellect. They also govern our everyday functioning, down to the most mundane details. Our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people.” Grunig and his team’s work (as well as their supporters, students, and disciples) added and continue to add to PR as a concept. Now, however, they need to welcome critics, practitioners and other scholars into the fold. If you really didn’t mean that “excellence” means excellence, then start making that distinction. It’s a little late in the game, but better late than never.

        1. I didn’t know much about Thomas Kuhn so I looked him up, and here’s what I found in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy[discussing Kuhn’s approach to paradigms in the history of science]:

          “Kuhn describes an immature science, in what he sometimes calls its ‘pre-paradigm’ period, as lacking consensus. Competing schools of thought possess differing procedures, theories, even metaphysical presuppositions. Consequently there is little opportunity for collective progress. Even localized progress by a particular school is made difficult, since much intellectual energy is put into arguing over the fundamentals with other schools instead of developing a research tradition.”

          That seems to describe the current state of play in public relations research quite accurately, don’t you think?

          1. I do not profess to be a paradigm expert myself (and wouldn’t mind some help on this topic). But as far as I understand it, there are paradigm differences in the natural and social sciences, and Kuhn’s statement refers to the natural sciences where there is usually a single paradigm. Meaning that when a paradigm shifts to a new one in the natural sciences, the old one is discarded. So if there is no consensus (i.e. no single paradigm), the science is seen to be immature.

            However, this is not the case in the social sciences (where PR is located). Several contrasting paradigms may be found in any scientific discipline in the social sciences at any given time. Theoretical paradigms are seldom discarded altogether. Some are merely seen as offering new insights that others lack. None is right or wrong, only more or less useful in particular situations.

            That is why, in our field, some see ‘persuasion’ as the purpose of PR, others believe it is ‘two-way symmetrical communication’ (mutual understanding). Others have a ‘reputation’ or ‘relationship’ approach to PR. I know you will probably faint when I say this, but I believe the purpose of PR to be ‘reflection’ (the societal approach). In a couple of years, there might even be a ‘sustainability’ approach to PR (soon, I hope)!

          2. I don’t really see the need for this personal attack by Bill Huey. Yes, I think the name and substance of the excellence theory has been distorted by critics. Yes, I believe that many of them have not read or understood the theory they have criticized. Yes, I believe the excellence theory provides a good normative model for the practice of public relations. No, I don’t think everyone has to agree with me. In fact, I wish that more critics would propose their own theories without feeling the need to denigrate our work to justify their own.

            Thomas Kuhn interpreted the history of science as the emergence of a dominant paradigm and eventually its replacement by a new paradigm that could explain “anomalies” that the old one could not. Kuhn considered the social sciences to be immature because there were many completing paradigms. Since then, much has been written about competing paradigms in social sciences and public relations. Philosophers of science eventually began to view Kuhn’s “paradigm” as a world view. In my chapter with Jon White, “The Effects of Worldviews on Public Relations” in Excellence in Public Relations and Communication Management (1992), I wrote: “Philosophers also generally agree that the presuppositions of a worldview cannot be tested directly. The theories and hypotheses that fit within the worldview can be tested. But because the worldview focuses the mind of the scientist only on theories and hypotheses that are relevant to or make sense within his or her worldview, this third and most abstract level of theories introduces subjectivity into the philosopher’s explanation of how science works” (p. 35).

            I explained Kuhn’s concept of paradigm and related ideas in this chapter, so those who are interested could read more there. My point, however, is that Bill Huey makes it clear that he doesn’t share my worldview of public relations. I don’t really know what his worldview is, but I probably don’t agree with it. We use our worldviews to make sense of our lives and work. If a worldview works for us, it works. Personal attacks on those who have a different worldview aren’t necessary.

          3. I fail to see how my post was a personal attack. After all, I never mentioned Dr. Grunig’s name, only pointed out that the state of public relations research seems to fit Kuhn’s description of “pre-paradigm’ quite well.

            And I said I didn’t know much about Thomas Kuhn, so the professor needn’t chide me for not being in sympathy with his “worldview.”

            Bob Batchelor fingered the modus operandi at work here in his earlier post:

            “This is a shuck and jive tactic that Dr. Grunig and his allies have used for years in attempting to deflect criticism. On one hand, he claims that they were not attempting to provide “the only suitable approach,” but then maintain that it will “guide the public relations discipline for years to come.” Moreover, despite the former assertion, the scholarly community not only embraced the “excellence” agenda, but as it became dogma, alienated those who did not agree.”

            As for my worldview, it can be summed up in a word: Persuasion.

            I am in some pretty good company, such as that of Harold Burson, who wrote in 2007:

            “The effective PR professional never loses sight of the fact that PR is about influencing attitudes and opinion so as to motivate a target audience to a specific action ranging from buying one branded product over another to investing in one stock over another.
            In the 60 years I have practiced PR, this has not changed.”

            Fact is that I don’t get paid to develop public relations theory. But the people who do have contented themselves with publishing highly lucrative textbooks or screwing around with inconsequential journal articles nobody reads instead of developing a unified—or at least coherent—theory of how public relations actually works. Not how it SHOULD work, in so-called normative theory, but how it actually works. Public relations academics have failed abjectly at this task– so abjectly that the Institute for Public Relations feels obligated to lay out a research program for them to try to follow. This is pathetic, though I applaud IPR’s effort to get things on track.

          4. Sorry, Bill. The personal attack I was referring to came from Bob Batchelor, as you rightly pointed out. Accusing someone of “shuck and jive” tactics strikes me as a personal ad hominem attack. Please read Chapter 9 of Excellence in Public Relations and Communication Management, titled “What is Excellence in Management” to see that I reviewed all of the literature I could find on excellence in management during the excellence study, including Peters and Waterman.

  4. Whether it’s in public relations, gardening or glass blowing – I tend to view excellence as somewhat subjective, in the eye of the holder. For months, I’ve kept musings on a ‘better’ PR definition in draft b/c there’s no ‘winning’ that one, there’s no one perfectly excellent definition for all. Which is not to say excellence shouldn’t be what we try to achieve; it’s just that the concepts of excellence, of superiority, of perfection – they’re ideals. They drive us, motivate us but I’m not always sure they’re attainable – which is also the point; journey, ambition, the quest for excellence is the point.

    IDK Heather. Looking is the first step, realizing there’s something ‘more’ or ‘better’ out there. As a communicator, I’m looking at ways to do better: do more, be faster, write smarter and above all, make it work and work for me. I’ve realized I may never get there, which I’ve accepted; or more accurately, ‘there’ will always be shifting as I push myself in different (if not ‘better’) directions, so I have to stick with it. And as you say, when things don’t go right I have to dust myself off, learn from it – and keep it moving. FWIW.

    1. Thanks Davina – and I tend to agree with the pursuit of ‘excellence’ as a personal goal, whether that be in terms of the tasks we undertake or the bigger leaps into new adventures. Although I’m not sure it is enough for public relations as an occupation or management discipline to relay on the aggregate of this individual focus.

      I’m not a fan of benchmarks or trying to establish fixed definitions – but do feel we need institutions (whether that is the professional bodies, academic faculty or major consultancies) to challenge and not simply accept ‘good enough’ as a standard. How many award entries are truly exceptional? How many students deliver work that makes the marker stop and think, wow? Far too few if any.

      On the definition front, for my PhD studies I have decided that rather than worrying about the search for universal agreement, to accept the failing of public relations “to define its intellectual and practical domain” (Hutton 2001 p205), reflecting that within the “field’s fuzzy and continually gerrymandered boundaries” (Cropp and Pincus 2001 p189), work “takes into account a very wide range of factors, some of which are relational, some of which are organizational and some of which are environmental, encompassing local, national and international issues and contexts” (L’Etang 2008 p18). Hence, rather than seeking to define public relations, I have adopted Baerns’ (2008 p155) position where “the practitioners’ self-concept served as a starting point”. I therefore reflect the phrase attributed to Rühl (1992) that “public relations is what public relations does”, which allows for a continuous reconstruction and redefinition of the occupation.

      This may seem a cop out, and I’m not against reflection on public relations (obviously), but as it takes place in a dynamic work and societal environment , I feel it is natural that any definition will be limited and debatable. For me, if you define yourself as a PR practitioner, or your work as public relations, then that is what it is. We can disagree with those who take a narrow or superficial view of public relations, but it is in the debate that I feel we gain a greater understanding.

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