PR Theory: Part I by SJB


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PR Theory: Part I by SJB

  1. 1. PR Theory and Publics I The Role of Theory by Selwyn Jerry Boston MA Public Relations London College of Communication (UAL) December 2010Selwyn Jerry Boston 1
  2. 2. Selwyn Jerry BostonPR Theory and Publics I: The role of theoryDecember 2010AbstractPublic Relations has become an integral part in maintaining the reputation of anorganisation, managing the relationship with its stakeholders in a society that israpidly changing, and useful in the strategy and “management ofcommunication between an organisation and its publics” (Grunig and Hunt,1984). The model of strategic public relations management proposed by Grunigand Hunt (1984) encompasses much of the basic knowledge of public relationsstrategy, including the situational theory that allows strategic publics to beidentified. Over the years, there has been a wide academic and professionaldebate in the role of public relations and its theories in society today. It isapparent however, that most practitioners are reluctant to use theoreticalframeworks to acquire wider management skills, and such attitudes may obstructthe development of public relations as a profession and a strategicmanagement activity. This paper will briefly draw together how importanttheories are in implementing successful strategies in contemporary publicrelations practice, building and restoring an organisation’s good name in amulticultural and technologically advanced society, and what disciplines areimportant to carry out these processes.Introduction: Contemporary academic and professional debateThe debate on the role of public relations in society, only partially reflected inpublic relations literature, which has tended to ignore or dismiss the attacks on itspractices. The critics on one side of the debate argue that public relations isasymmetrical (one-way) and undermines democracy. On the other side of thedebate public relations’ defenders (Cutlip, Dozier, Grunig and others) argue thatpublic relations practices symmetrical (two-way) communication, but that“communication programs are conducted for different types of publics” (Grunig2002). The excellence project has the laudable aim of improving public relationsSelwyn Jerry Boston 2
  3. 3. practice by emphasising the best and demonstrating how others can improve.However, there has been tendency to marginalise the role of persuasion(Moloney, 2000), concentrating instead on the positive role that public relationsmakes to society and democracy. Between the two is a small body of interestedacademics (L’Etang, Pieczka, Moloney, and McKie among others) who note theextensive involvement of public relations pioneers in wartime governmentpropaganda (before the term became pejorative) but L’Etang especiallyemphasise differences between the growth of the field in the US (where most ofthe core public relations texts have come) and in Europe and the UK. This paperdraws on their work and applies some of the issues they raise to the differentmodels of public relations practice.The Grunig Models: Grunig vs. othersGrunig and Hunt’s two-way symmetrical model of communication from the fourmodels of public relations (1984) was once positioned and seen as the ‘ideal’method of practising public relations but it has fuelled an academic debate byconcentrating on the ethical issue regarding the nature and purpose of publicrelations. Pieczka raised her critique in Paradigms, System Theory and PublicRelations (1996) highlighting that Grunig’s model relied on system theory tounderstand how public relations functions within an organisation. She furtherpoints out that it was necessary to adopt and adapt an open and living systemto counteract environmental changes both internally and externally to achieve“an ethical dimension of social responsibility”. (Pieczka 1996, p.351) Cutlip (2009)notes that in an open system, feedback causes adjustments that reduces,maintains or increases the deviation of goals. Edwards (2009) points out thatcross-cultural differences may dictate how an organisation practices PR ratherthan operate in theoretical structure.J. Grunig’s response to Pieczka’s argument has been reviewed by Heath (2001)among many. He admitted that the model was constructed to be ideal and as anormative public relations theory improve one of the core factors of excellence –ethics. By positioning ethics at the core of symmetrical communication andSelwyn Jerry Boston 3
  4. 4. removing persuasion from the process of mutual understanding, Grunig believesthat this will allow both parties (organisation and publics) to use attitudes tochange behaviour. (Grunig et al, 1992, pp.55-61) However from this symmetricalbase, Grunig has developed his situational theory. The aim of this theory is toanticipate the different responses most relevant to a public relations activity:how the publics respond to an issue; the amount of and nature ofcommunication behaviour; the effects of communication and the likelihood ofparticipation in collective behaviour to pressure groups (Watson and Noble,2007). Other issues raised formed part of the debate - i) is the role of publicrelations frankly to promote the image of an organisation; ii) is public relationsabout managing conflict its effect; iii) is public relations there to improve therelationship between an organisation and its publics and/or to develop positiveand mutually beneficial relationships. They also focused on issues such as thepower of organisations compared to their publics, and the moral legitimacy ofpersuasion as opposed to negotiation and compromise.Miller and Pearson (1989) both disagreed with Grunig’s point that persuasion wasunethical. Pearson was the most influential in this debate, articulating thatpersuasion was sometime required to counteract the cognitive dissonance thatmay exist with the public thus making persuasion ethical. Murphy (1989) alsojoined the debate with his point that organisations are neither symmetrical norasymmetrical and introduced the idea of mixed motives from game theorywhich uses mathematics to determine beneficial actions. For example, Fordanalysts used cost-benefit analysis in their decision not to recall all Pinto cars andfix their fuel tanks despite the hazard to human life. If not used properly, gametheory degenerates to gambling at times of crisis in which personal assertivenessis high and cooperation is low, which can then shift power from the organisationto its publics.From a professional view, Grunig and Hunt’s models (1984) has focused on thevarious ways in which organisations can view their publics and practice publicrelations. Grunig (2001) draws attention to moral aspects of public relationsSelwyn Jerry Boston 4
  5. 5. practice, connecting the concept of ethics and excellence to the two-waysymmetrical model. This is important but in applicational terms models are thereto provide practitioners with points of reference against which the publicrelations practices of different organisations can be measured and assessed,extending their system of communication and expressive forms.As cited by Botan and Hazleton (2006) and according to Kuhn (1970), theoryframes and guides research in a field, and paradigms are described as adisciplinary matrix. When Botan (1993) first called for a paradigm struggle in thePublic Relations Review, he acknowledged that public relations was still at apreparadigmatic state (developing stage). Watson and Noble (2007) wote thatat present the role of theory is limited, but as public relations grows into a globalprofession, there will be a higher demand of agreement on models and theory.European consultancies have made little impact on mainstream public relationsand the globally adaptive British and American run consultancies may keepreducing their influence. US and UK research traditions are rooted in managerialtheory and papers are based on empirical methods in contrast to the Europeanstyle which is more theoretical and normative (McManus and Moss, 1994).Case study on ethics: HamleysIn December 2010, Hamleys cancelled plans to bring live penguins into itsLondon store for the Christmas shopping period after welfare concerns wereraised. Two reindeer were withdrawn from the Regent Street shop a week beforethe penguins had been due to arrive next week.BBC News and Sky News reported that “outraged animal lovers have beenbombarding the famous Regent Street store with complaints and a Facebookcampaign page has been set up to encourage would-be customers to boycottthe brand.”Even though Hamleys said the animals had been brought into the store in thepast and that they were well cared for by a highly respected and professionalSelwyn Jerry Boston 5
  6. 6. organisation, Will Travers, CEO of Born Free Foundation, said: "Hamleys is theworlds favourite toy store, but they were doing their reputation no good at all bycontemplating a stunt with live animals." Another member of the public said itwas unethical for the store to bring in animals from their habitat to help drivessales.The world-famous toy store said that after listening to peoples views cancellationwas the best course of action, and issued a statement in response to concernsraised on social networking sites about the use of live animals.New ways of communicating: globally and digitallyCompanies need to give up old PR models and innovate on communication.Some cynical practitioners might view theory irrelevant to their work, but aspublic relations is becoming more internationalised and following the new trendof going online, the research on public relations is most likely endless. With theprogress of technology, new models of communication may have to bedesigned. Professionalism is a very important discipline that public relationspractitioners will have to display as they go online. As in the Hamleys case study,if the firm had not listened to the public and communications team had notbeen kept abreast with the effects of the decision by using old and new media,the repercussions would have caused further damage to the organisation’sreputation. Blogs, Facebook, Twitter and other social web sites are all extensivelyused by practitioners today. Organizations work to have a vast online presencebeing visible on relevant major social networking sites, twitter and throughout theblogosphere. This dialogue with their target audiences comes naturally, and if anindividual in the target audience takes part in the debate the possibility is alwaysthere for practitioners to engage. This increases the feeling of openness(transparency) and authenticity (honesty) that is important in maintaining theimage of listening to the public’s voice.Digitalisation has enabled organisations to access the media and the publics.The publics are able to communicate directly within and among themselves.Selwyn Jerry Boston 6
  7. 7. Brown (2009) suggests organizations should join the conversations. Animplementation of such practice can be beneficial in these respects: • Companies can engage with customers, build new relationships and create a new pool of advocates talking positively about their brands (Weber Shandwick, 2009). • If interpreted inaccurately, organizations can intervene to try to correct or enlarge the interpretation. (Grunig, 2009). • Brands need to keep an online presence to engage in real-time with media, customers and stakeholders.Fig. 1: The figure below demonstrates the use of Grunig and Hunt’s four models ofpublic relations in today’s digital world. Source: Phillips, D. (2009)Selwyn Jerry Boston 7
  8. 8. The Model of Strategic Management of Public Relations (Grunig, 2009) providesa theoretical overview of how public relations practitioners can participate in thestrategic decision-making processes of the organisations. According to J. Grunig(2009), digital media can be used for: • Two-way interactive and dialogical communication with stakeholders (media organisations, employees, financial institutions, regulators etc). • Environmental scanning research and identification of problems, publics, and issues (media monitoring). • Stakeholder and publics segmentation. • Issues and crises communication programmes. • Measuring the type and quality of relationships developed with publics, their cognitions, attitudes and behaviours.Fig. 2: The Model of Strategic Management of Public Relations Source: Grunig, J. (2009)Selwyn Jerry Boston 8
  9. 9. ConclusionHaving noted through experience as a public relations professional that there isa noticeable reluctance on the part of fellow practitioners to embracetheoretical frameworks as learning tools, or to acquire wider management skills, itis suggested that such attitudes might hinder the development of public relationsas a profession and as a strategic management discipline.For as much as the systems approach provides a framework for exploring andunderstanding the underlying aims and purposes of public relations, and forcomparing the impact of different forms of behaviour, Grunig’s models (and thatof others) provide a point of reference against which the public relationspractices of organisations can be compared and evaluated. Leitch and Neilson(2001) note that for an organisation to be a social actor in a social movement, itneeds to be a shared substance.Public Relations practitioners must embrace public relations theory as it canprovide for them a language and conceptual structure by means of which theycan both assess and review their performance, and present their disciplines toorganisational leaders or clients within the context of wider managementstrategies. By working together with academics to come up with new models ofcommunication in this rapidly changing world, practitioners can benefitsubstantially. The changing landscape means that academic should be moreadaptive and reconsider existing models so that the progress of public relationsas a profession is consistent with contemporary theory.Selwyn Jerry Boston 9
  10. 10. References:BBC News, (2010) “London Hamleys abandons live penguin display”. Availablefrom: <> [Accessed on10 December 2010]Botan, C., and Hazleton, V. (2006) Public Relations Theory II. (pp.8-10) NewJersey: Lawrence Erlbaum AssociatesBrown, R., (2009) Public relations and the social web: using social media andWeb 2.0 in communications. London: Kogan Page Limited.Cutlip, S., Center, A., and Broom, G., (2009) Effective Public Relations. TenthEdition. Person Education Inc (Eds.) New Jersey: Pearson Prentice HallCurtin, P., and Boyton, L., (2001), "Ethics in Public Relations: Theory and Practice".In Heath, R. (Eds), Handbook of Public Relations. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.Edwards, L., (2009) ‘Systems theories: emergence of public relations research’. InR. Tench, R., and Yeomans, L. (Eds.), Exploring Public Relations (pp.149-164).Harlow: Pearson Education LtdGrunig, J., (1992) Communication, public relations and effective organisations:An overview of the book. In Grunig, J., et al (Eds.) Excellence in Public Relationsand Communications Management. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum AssociatesGrunig, J., (2009). Paradigms of global public relations in an age ofdigitalisation. [online] University of Maryland. Available from:< >[Accessed 01 December 2010].Grunig, J., (2001), "Two-way symmetrical public relations – past, present & future",Selwyn Jerry Boston 10
  11. 11. in Heath, R. (Eds), Handbook of Public Relations. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.Grunig, J., and Hunt, T. (1984) Managing Public Relations. Sixth Edition. Orlando,FL: Harcourt BraceGrunig, J., and White, J., (1992) The Effect of Worldwide views on Public RelationsTheory and Practice. In Grunig, J., et al (Eds.) Excellence in Public Relations andCommunications Management. (pp.51-61) New Jersey: Lawrence ErlbaumAssociatesHeath, R., (2001), "Shifting foundations – public relations as relationship building",Handbook of Public Relations. Thousand Oaks, CA: SageHeath, R., Toth, E., and Waymer, D., (2009) Rhetorical and Critical Approaches toPublic Relations. Second Edition. New Jersey: RoutledgeLeitch, S., & Neilson, D., (2001). Bringing publics into public relations: newtheoretical frameworks for the practice. In Heath, R.(Ed). Handbook of publicrelations. (pp.127-138). London: SageNeff, B., (2001) Public Relations Identity: Evolving from Academic and PractitionerPartnerships. In Heath, R.(Ed). Handbook of public relations.. London: SagePhillips, D., (2009) “A Grunigian view of model PR. LeverWealth” cited in Grunig,J., (2009). Paradigms of global public relations in an age of digitalisation. [online]University of Maryland. Available from:< >[Accessed 01 December 2010].Pieczka, M., (1996) Paradigms, Systems Theory, and Public Relations. In L’Etang, J.& Pieczka, M. (Eds) (2006) Public Relations: Critical Debates and ContemporaryPractice, Lawrence Erlbaum AssociatesSelwyn Jerry Boston 11
  12. 12. Sky News (2010) Outrage Over Hamleys Live Penguin Display. Available from:<>Watson, T., and Noble, P. (2007) The Principles of Public Relations Practice(pp.1-11) In Evaluating Public Relations: A Best Practice Guide to Public RelationsPlanning, Research and Evaluation. Second Edition. London: Kogan PageLimitedWeber Shandwick. 2009. Do fortune 100 companies need a twittervention.[online]. Available at:<>[Accessed 01 December 2010].Selwyn Jerry Boston 12