As so often when discussing theories of public relations, we start with Professor James Grunig.
I assess many student essays at undergraduate, postgraduate and professional levels, and there's a sense from so many of these that Grunig's symmetry/excellence paradigm is the only 'correct' theory of public relations. All others are somehow flawed subversions of the truth, and practice that falls short of the ideal is somehow aberrant. (Grunig has, of course, argued in favour of a 'general theory' of public relations.)
Grunig and Hunt's 'two-way symmetric' model was articulated in a famous textbook published as long ago as 1984, and James Grunig (a Professor Emeritus who still actively defends and promotes his thinking) continues to win hearts and minds.
Two impressive new practitioner texts published this year, Katie Delahaye Paine's Measure What Matters and Philip Sheldrake's The Business of Influence both draw heavily and predominantly on his work.
Like the other milestone textbook of the era, Cutlip et al's Effective Public Relations, Grunig and Hunt's Managing Public Relations drew on systems theory. Systems theory once seemed as solid as Newtonian physics – until some new theories came along (Relativity, String Theory) to change the way we think about the world.
Scientists and mathematicians are now more interested in chaos theory than systems theory. As Jim Macnamara writes in The 21st Century Media (R)evolution, 'Emergent media owe as much to chaos theory as to evolutionary systems theory.'
Consultant Martin Thomas has written a new book called Loose: The Future of Business is Letting Go, in which he analyses 'the chaos and ambiguity of modern life'.
'We are witnessing the unravelling of the most fundamental building blocks of the commercial world and a collapse of faith in tight, empirical rational models and ways of thinking.'
Modernist paradigms such as symmetry/excellence look less compelling a decade into a twentieth-first century in which chaos theory has replaced systems theory.
Then there is the explicit focus of some emerging public relations scholars. In their introduction to Public Relations, Society and Culture, Lee Edwards and Caroline Hodges deliniate the battle lines. 'Historically, public relations research has been driven by organisational interests, treating the profession as an organisational function first and foremost. The view is exemplified in the work of James Grunig and his colleagues in the United States of America … This singular focus on public relations in organisations has tended to exclude the social world in which those organisations operate.' (pp 1-2)
There's nothing new here. The contrast between an organisational perspective and a societal perspective has been made for at least 15 years by Jacquie L'Etang and fellow critical scholars and postmodernists. Yet if it has taken over 25 years for the theories of Grunig et al to gain currency within public relations, it's perhaps no surprise that newer theories have yet to gain wider recognition.
I expect to continue reading essays revolving around 'symmetry/excellence' for years to come, but those teaching public relations have a responsibility to challenge the dominant paradigm and to illuminate alternative thinking.