Some thoughts on PR theory and practice

12 Jun

Public Relations, Society & Culture In preparation for a peer group discussion this week, here are my thoughts on PR theory and practice drawn from some notable recent contributions to public relations literature.

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.

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6 Responses to “Some thoughts on PR theory and practice”

  1. Philip 12/06/2011 at 5:07 pm #

    Thanks, Richard. If you have a spare moment, perhaps you could add a one-paragraph explanation of Chaos Theory…
    One of the reasons that challenges to Grunig find it so difficult to gain traction is that the Excellence models are so simple and the alternatives so intangible.
    It took 200 years for someone as clever as Einstein to effectively challenge Newtonian physics, and even now most people still understand gravity in terms of falling apples and would struggle to give an a convincing account of relativity.

  2. Paul Seaman 12/06/2011 at 7:36 pm #

    The recession smashed the credibility of economists to be scientific. Their faith (and faith was all that it was) in the predictive powers of smart equations, algorithms and computer science to reduce risk and end boom and bust cycles ended in tragedy….and we’re paying the bill. There’s no real science behind PR either.

  3. David Phillips 14/06/2011 at 11:53 am #

    Excellent! I thought I might take one of the many ideas posted here and develop it a little.
    The problem we have is in developing on, building on 20th century PR.

  4. Robin, PhD 17/06/2011 at 3:43 am #

    I prefer the contingency theory*, but overall I haven’t really found a PR theory. I have found many communication and management theories that inform the practice of PR, but no PR theory.
    *Cancel, Amanda E., Glen T. Cameron, Lynne M. Sallot, and Michael A. Mitrook. 1997. It depends: A contingency theory of accommodation in public relations. Journal of Public Relations Research 9, no. 1: 31-63.

  5. Paul Seaman 18/06/2011 at 4:42 pm #

    More and more PRs keep referring to Chaos Theory as if it offers us something worthwhile. I state for the record that I gave up on Chaos Theory when I realized that my second-rate education in an East London school did not equip me to solve, or even understand the signs behind, linear and non-linear differential equations. (Or even to know what that last sentence was really about) It’s all gibberish to me, though I’m sure it is anything but nonsense to a properly trained mind. But I suspect that few PRs understand this stuff:
    ∃ε>0 ∀x(0) ∀δ>0 ∃t>0 ∃y(0) [ |x(0) − y(0)| ε ]
    As for those Amazonian butterfly-wings causing chaos on the other side of the world, that thought now makes me scared to cough in case I set off the next Tsunami in Japan. I remain to be convinced that Chaos Theory really does offer PRs the insight we require to do our job better. But the problem on my part could just be that I’m crap at maths…

  6. Peter St Onge 04/07/2011 at 12:12 am #

    Doesn’t systems theory admit a large role for chaos within evolutionary processes? I don’t see how the two approaches are necessarily antagonistic.
    I’m just coming to the literature so do excuse if I’m rehashing.

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