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Still searching for excellence.

Still Searching for Excellence

People in the business of communication and public relations frequently are so busy performing the tasks involved that they don't think much about the theory behind it, or the role of communication and the communicator within or organization and society. And those who do think about it frequently have dramatically differing opinions.

A six-year project sponsored by the IABC Research Foundation is examining the communication function as it operates within excellent organizations. The project will ultimately attempt to relate communication efforts to bottom-line performance in an organization. It is directed by James E. Grunig, Ph.D., journalism professor at the University of Maryland and a team of researchers (see sidebar). Grunig and his team have produced a book titled: "Excellence in Communication and Public Relations Management." It will be published this year. The article that follows is based upon early galley proofs of the book.

Grunig begins by laying down a definition of the terms public relations and organizational communication. This is no mean task since both educators and practitioners have been arguing about an acceptable definition for nearly 50 years. One of the difficulties resides with the view PRSA and IABC take of the function itself. Members of PRSA see public relations as being the broader umbrella term that embraces the more specialized techniques such as communication. IABC members see communication as the umbrella term and public relations (or media relations) as representative of the more specialized technical areas. Grunig attempts to settle the matter by combining the terms--public relations/communication management--before going on to define them. That's probably OK, but it's assuming away the lack of consensus. So let's save that discussion for another day, and go on with the definition:

Public relations/communication management is the "management of communication between an organization and its publics." He says his combined term makes it broader than simply communication. techniques...and broader than just specialized public relations programs such as media relations or publicity. He maintains that the term public relations/communication management describes the overall planning, execution, and evaluation of an organization's communication with both external and internal publics--groups that affect the ability of an organization to meet its goals.

Grunig acknowledges his critics in advance by saying, "Some practitioners will argue that our definition excludes the role of counseling management and formulating public policy for an organization." His response is that communicators should be involved in the decision making--should be a part of that team--but when they are, they are acting in the role of communicator and offering opinions in that fairly specialized area. They communicate the views of publics to other senior managers, and they communicate the possible consequences of policy decisions after communicating with publics affected by the potential policy. But they rarely move outside the realm of communication when counseling management, he contends.

Grunig also defines the term public affairs: "Communication with government officials and other actors in the public policy arena." Public affairs clearly has a narrower scope and in hisview excludes marketing communication or employee communication, two important components of either umbrella term: public relations or organizational communication.

PR/Communication's Role in Society

Going beyond simply defining the terms public relations and communication management, Grunig places the terms into a societal context. He maintains that the effectiveness of the function can be affected by how PR professionals view the role of the function in society. He breaks communicators into four groups, based upon what he calls their presuppositions or assumptions:

--Pragmatic social role. These practitioners feel PR has no social role other than to help a client (or organization) meet its objectives. To these people, public relations is a useful practice, something that adds value to a client or organization by helping it meet its objectives. Practitioners with a pragmatic view usually see no need for ethical codes of conduct because they may interfere with getting results.

--Neutral social role. These practitioners see the function as having no influence on the world positive or negative.

--Conservative social role. Those holding this worldview feel public relations helps maintain a system of privilege by defending the interests of the economically powerful.

--Radical social role. The flip side of the conservative role. Believers see PR leading to social improvement, reform and change.

Conservatives Battle the Radicals

Practitioners holding to the conservative and radical worldviews assume that organizational communication can have powerful effects upon society. They see PR/communication as a tool used in a war among opposing social groups. Viewed within this warlike context, proponents of each group feel that when the conservatives win, the radicals lose, and vice versa. Grunig calls this tussle one of "asymmetrical presuppositions."

The alternative to this warring worldview of the public relations profession is one based upon "symmetrical presuppositions." A symmetrical, or idealistic, worldview is what they see. To them PR/communication is a tool by which organizations and competing groups in a pluralistic system interact to manage conflict for the benefit of all.

Grunig says these views of PR's social roles can apply equally well to external or internal communication situations. The asymmetrical (warring) view is found in highly centralized organizations with authoritarian cultures and systems of management. Decentralized organizations with participatory management styles are symmetrical.

Grunig believes the symmetrical--idealistic--framework is best, and that public relations should be practiced to serve the public interest, to develop mutual understanding between organizations and their publics and to contribute to informed debate about issues in society.

Hard to argue with, you'd think, but grunig says, "Practitioners often do not understand or accept theories like ours because they work from a pragmatic or conservative worldview."

He adds, "Our research suggests that external communication programs and internal systems based on symmetrical presuppositions characterize excellent public relations or communication departments. Philosophically, we believe that symmetrical public relations is more ethical and socially responsible than asymmetrical PR because it manages conflict rather than wages war. But, pragmatically, our literature review shows that symmetrical communication programs also are successful more often than asymmetrical ones and contribute more to organizational effectiveness."

Grunig's Models of PR Programs

From these views practitioners have of the world, and the assumptions they make about communication's role in society, Grunig creates models of communication/PR programs that have grown out of these presuppositions:

Grunig's first model is called Press Agentry, a one-way system which tries to make the organization look good by disseminating only favorable information.

The Public Information model uses "journalists in residence" to disseminate relatively objective information to the mass media and through brochures, newsletters and direct mail.

Third is Two-Way Asymmetrical--a more sophisticated approach that uses research to develop messages aimed at persuading strategic publics to behave as the organization wants.

Last and certainly best is the Two-Way Symmetrical model--based on research that uses communication to manage conflict and improve understanding with strategic publics. Grunig says, "Our research suggests that excellent public relations departments, therefore, model more of their communication programs on the two-way symmetrical than on the other three models."

Will Marketing Take Over?

In the book, Grunig discusses the role of marketing in the overall communication/public relations program and predicts that excellent public relations departments will be separate operating entities from organizational marketing departments whereas less excellent ones eventually will be sublimated to marketing.

"In the past, marketing theory has been more advanced than public relations theory. Organizations that want to manage public relations strategically, therefore, have turned to marketing practitioners because strategic management has been part of marketing theory for some time. When marketing practitioners manage public relations, however, public relations usually is reduced to technique rather than strategy. Public relations practitioners are mere technicians working in support of marketing rather than public relations objectives."

The "Excellence Project," when completed, will provide much-needed help in proving the value of communication/public relations. It will show how the best organizations staff and conduct the function in ways that contribute to the bottom line. If you or your organization would like additional information, or would like to contribute to the project, please contact IABC world headquarters.
COPYRIGHT 1989 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:includes related article on eight elements of high quality firms; communication in organizations
Author:McGoon, Cliff.
Publication:Communication World
Date:Oct 1, 1989
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