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The Four Models of Public Relations

Four models to unlock PR success.

Cover photo: @jerrysilfwer

There are four mod­els of pub­lic relations.

In their sem­in­al work, “Managing Public Relations,” James Grunig and Todd Hunt (1984) intro­duced four mod­els of pub­lic rela­tions that have since become the most widely cited in aca­dem­ic circles. 

These four mod­els — the press agentry, pub­lic inform­a­tion, two-way asym­met­ric­al, and two-way sym­met­ric­al — are essen­tial build­ing blocks for craft­ing com­pre­hens­ive com­mu­nic­a­tion strategies that cater to an organ­iz­a­tion’s diverse needs.

Here goes:

Grunig and Hunt: The Four Models of PR

Four Models of Public Relations - Doctor Spin - The PR Blog
The four mod­els of pub­lic relations.

The Four Models of PR

In the Excellence study, James Grunig and Todd Hunt (1984) developed the most widely cited PR mod­el in aca­dem­ic circles. It’s not one, but rather four mod­els in sequence:

Model 1: Press Agentry Model. The organ­isa­tion uses media manip­u­la­tion to shape the nar­rat­ive deceptively.

Model 2: Public Information Model. The organ­isa­tion is prac­tising one-way com­mu­nic­a­tion to dis­sem­in­ate inform­a­tion with little or no feed­back from recipients.

Model 3: Two-Way Asymmetrical Model. The organ­isa­tion engages in two-way com­mu­nic­a­tion to per­suade and estab­lish power structures. 

Model 4: Two-Way Symmetrical Model. The organ­isa­tion engages in two-way com­mu­nic­a­tion to find com­mon ground and mutu­al benefits.

The study of rela­tion­ships with­in pub­lic rela­tions has become increas­ingly import­ant, with the Grunigs identi­fy­ing test­able vari­ables to meas­ure the qual­ity of organ­iz­a­tion­al rela­tion­ships.”
Source: Journal of Professional Communication 1Grunig, J. (2011). Public rela­tions excel­lence 2010. Journal of Professional Communication, 1. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​5​1​7​3​/​J​P​C​.​V​1​I​1​.85

Non-sur­pris­ingly, the research­ers con­cluded that the two-way sym­met­ric­al mod­el is the most effect­ive way to prac­tice pub­lic relations.

Learn more: The Four Models of Public Relations

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Model 1: Press Agentry Model

The press agentry mod­el, which emerged in the late 19th cen­tury, emphas­ises the power of per­sua­sion and manip­u­la­tion to shape pub­lic opinion. 

Historically, this approach has been asso­ci­ated with the work of P.T. Barnum, a show­man who used flam­boy­ant tac­tics to garner atten­tion for his cir­cus. In mod­ern busi­ness, the press agentry mod­el gen­er­ates pub­li­city and cre­ates buzz around a product or event. 

However, this one-way com­mu­nic­a­tion approach can be per­ceived as self-serving and may not always reflect an organ­isa­tion’s genu­ine val­ues or com­mit­ment to eth­ic­al conduct.

Poster for PT Barnum and the Greatest Show on Earth
“The Greatest Show on Earth”

Phineas Taylor Barnum: “There’s No Such Thing as Bad Publicity”

Phineas Taylor (P.T.) Barnum was a 19th-cen­tury American show­man, entre­pren­eur, and politi­cian known for his lar­ger-than-life per­son­al­ity and uncanny abil­ity to cap­ture the pub­lic’s ima­gin­a­tion. Born in 1810 in Bethel, Connecticut, Barnum rose to prom­in­ence in the enter­tain­ment world by found­ing the Barnum & Bailey Circus, dubbed “The Greatest Show on Earth.”

Barnum pion­eered the art of press agentry, employ­ing sen­sa­tion­al­ism and pub­li­city stunts to gen­er­ate interest and draw crowds to his shows. His innov­at­ive mar­ket­ing tech­niques and relent­less pur­suit of the extraordin­ary laid the ground­work for many mod­ern pub­lic rela­tions strategies. 

Phineas Taylor (P.T.) Barnum (1810−1891) was a savvy pub­li­city show­man, one who impacted par­tic­u­lar aspects of pub­lic rela­tions and advert­ising, primar­ily event plan­ning, event pro­mo­tion and true publicity/​media cov­er­age. Ahead of oth­ers in his time, he actu­ally under­stood the import­ance of media cov­er­age (he star­ted New York’s first illus­trated news­pa­per in 1853) and believed ‘there is no such thing as bad pub­li­city,’ a pop­u­lar phrase many times attrib­uted to Barnum him­self.”
Source: Big Communications 2Foster, A. (2017, January 20). The End of a Publicity Era: How P.T Barnum Affected Marketing and PR. Big Communications. https://​big​com​.com/​2​0​1​7​/​0​1​/​p​t​-​b​a​r​n​u​m​-​m​a​r​k​e​t​i​n​g​-​a​n​d​-​p​u​b​l​i​c​-​r​e​l​a​t​i​o​ns/

Although some crit­ics have labelled Barnum as a pur­vey­or of hoaxes and decep­tion, his endur­ing leg­acy as a vis­ion­ary show­man and mas­ter of spec­tacle con­tin­ues to cap­tiv­ate audi­ences and inspire gen­er­a­tions of enter­tain­ers and entrepreneurs.

  • An organ­isa­tion, starved of atten­tion, trust, and loy­alty, is com­pelled to wage a per­petu­al struggle for its con­tin­ued existence.

Learn more: P.T. Barnum: “There’s No Such Thing as Bad Publicity”

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Model 2: Public Information Model

As a more trans­par­ent altern­at­ive to the press agentry mod­el, the pub­lic inform­a­tion mod­el focuses on dis­sem­in­at­ing accur­ate and object­ive information. 

This approach, often linked to the early 20th-cen­tury work of Ive Lee, a pion­eer in pub­lic rela­tions, seeks to foster trust and cred­ib­il­ity with key stake­hold­ers. Organisations that adopt the pub­lic inform­a­tion mod­el typ­ic­ally pri­or­it­ise provid­ing com­pre­hens­ive, unbiased data to the pub­lic, enabling stake­hold­ers to form their opin­ions based on reli­able facts. 

However, this mod­el is still rooted in one-way com­mu­nic­a­tion, and its effect­ive­ness is lim­ited by its lack of engage­ment with the audi­ence’s per­spect­ives and feedback.

Model 3: Two-Way Asymmetrical Model

The two-way asym­met­ric­al mod­el incor­por­ates per­sua­sion and feed­back to enhance the dia­logue between organ­isa­tions and their stake­hold­ers. This approach, which gained prom­in­ence in the mid-20th cen­tury, relies on research and under­stand­ing of the tar­get audi­ence to craft tailored mes­sages that res­on­ate with their val­ues and preferences. 

The primary goal of the two-way asym­met­ric­al mod­el is to influ­ence pub­lic opin­ion while sim­ul­tan­eously tak­ing audi­ence feed­back into account. 

Although this mod­el rep­res­ents a sig­ni­fic­ant improve­ment over its pre­de­cessors in terms of audi­ence engage­ment, it still pri­or­it­ises the organ­isa­tion’s object­ives over the needs and con­cerns of its stakeholders.

Model 4: Two-Way Symmetrical Model

Recognising the import­ance of fos­ter­ing mutu­ally bene­fi­cial rela­tion­ships with stake­hold­ers, Grunig and Hunt pro­posed the two-way sym­met­ric­al mod­el as the most eth­ic­al and prac­tic­al approach to pub­lic rela­tions. This mod­el emphas­ises open, trans­par­ent com­mu­nic­a­tion, wherein the organ­isa­tion and its stake­hold­ers engage in a dia­logue to under­stand bet­ter each oth­er­’s per­spect­ives, val­ues, and concerns. 

By seek­ing a bal­ance between the interests of both parties, the two-way asym­met­ric­al mod­el pro­motes col­lab­or­a­tion, trust, and long-term rela­tion­ship building. 

This approach is increas­ingly recog­nised as the gold stand­ard for pub­lic rela­tions prac­tice in today’s inter­con­nec­ted and glob­al­ised world.

A PR Model for Every Situation

Grunig and Hunt’s four mod­els of pub­lic rela­tions provide valu­able insights into the evol­u­tion of com­mu­nic­a­tion strategies and their implic­a­tions for mod­ern businesses. 

While each mod­el has unique strengths and lim­it­a­tions, the two-way sym­met­ric­al mod­el is the most eth­ic­al and prac­tic­al approach, fos­ter­ing genu­ine dia­logue and col­lab­or­a­tion between organ­isa­tions and their stakeholders. 

By integ­rat­ing the prin­ciples of the two-way asym­met­ric­al mod­el, busi­nesses can estab­lish a strong found­a­tion for last­ing suc­cess, trust, and cred­ib­il­ity in an increas­ingly com­pet­it­ive and inter­con­nec­ted world.

It is import­ant to note that while the two-way sym­met­ric­al mod­el is widely con­sidered the most desir­able approach, the oth­er three mod­els may still have their place in spe­cif­ic contexts. 

For instance, the press agentry mod­el can gen­er­ate ini­tial interest in a product or event. In con­trast, the pub­lic inform­a­tion mod­el is appro­pri­ate for organ­isa­tions that primar­ily need to dis­sem­in­ate facts and fig­ures. Similarly, the two-way asym­met­ric­al mod­el can be effect­ive when a bal­ance between per­sua­sion and audi­ence engage­ment is required.

To max­im­ise the effect­ive­ness of their pub­lic rela­tions strategies, organ­isa­tions should con­sider adopt­ing a hybrid approach that com­bines ele­ments of each mod­el as needed. This flex­ib­il­ity enables busi­nesses to adapt to their stake­hold­ers’ diverse and ever-chan­ging needs while main­tain­ing a sol­id com­mit­ment to hon­est and trans­par­ent communication.

An Important Framework for PR

Ultimately, Grunig and Hunt’s four mod­els of pub­lic rela­tions serve as a valu­able frame­work for under­stand­ing the vari­ous approaches to com­mu­nic­a­tion and their poten­tial impact on an organ­isa­tion’s repu­ta­tion and relationships. 

By recog­nising the strengths and lim­it­a­tions of each mod­el, busi­nesses can make informed decisions about the most appro­pri­ate strategies for their unique cir­cum­stances, fos­ter­ing a cul­ture of open­ness, col­lab­or­a­tion, and mutu­al under­stand­ing with their stakeholders.

Please sup­port my blog by shar­ing it with oth­er PR- and com­mu­nic­a­tion pro­fes­sion­als. For ques­tions or PR sup­port, con­tact me via jerry@​spinfactory.​com.

PR Resource: Suggested Literature

Grunig, J. E., & Hunt, T. (1984). Managing pub­lic rela­tions. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Ledingham, J. A., & Bruning, S. D. (Eds.). (2000). Public rela­tions as rela­tion­ship man­age­ment: A rela­tion­al approach to the study and prac­tice of pub­lic rela­tions. Routledge.

Cutlip, S. M., Center, A. H., & Broom, G. M. (2006). Effective pub­lic rela­tions (9th ed.). Pearson Prentice Hall.

Heath, R. L. (Ed.). (2013). Encyclopedia of pub­lic rela­tions (2nd ed.). Sage Publications.

Kent, M. L., & Taylor, M. (2002). Toward a dia­lo­gic the­ory of pub­lic rela­tions. Public Relations Review, 28(1), 21 – 37.

PR Resource: Approaches To PR

Three Approaches to Public Relations - Doctor Spin - The PR Blog
Three approaches to pub­lic relations.

Fundamental Approaches To PR

There are three schol­arly approaches to PR:

  • The Excellence Approach
  • The Rhetorical Approach
  • The Critical Approach

The Excellence Approach. A busi­ness-ori­ented approach focused on object­ives and cor­por­ate value cre­ation. The under­ly­ing motiv­a­tion behind the the­ory was that PR was mostly a vari­ety of tac­tic­al tools that des­per­ately needed a man­age­ment the­ory to work well in a soph­ist­ic­ated organisation.

Notable men­tions: James E. Grunig, Larissa A. Grunig

The Rhetorical Approach. A clas­sic­al approach that stems from ideas dat­ing back to ancient Greece. It’s a psy­cho­lo­gic­al the­ory of how com­mu­nic­a­tion struc­tures human cul­ture by shap­ing human minds. An absence of mor­al judg­ment char­ac­ter­ises the rhet­or­ic­al approach and is utilitarian.

Notable men­tions: Edward Bernays, The Toronto School of Communication Theory, Robert Heath

The Critical Approach. A crit­ic­al approach deeply rooted in the­or­ies around soci­et­al power dynam­ics. Power is seen as a means to exert dom­in­ance, manip­u­la­tion, and oppres­sion. The crit­ic­al approach bor­rows many ideas from the rhet­or­ic­al approach by pla­cing them in mor­al frameworks.

Notable men­tions: Walter Lippmann, Noam Chomsky

Read also: 3 PR Approaches: Excellence, Rhetorical, and Critical

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1 Grunig, J. (2011). Public rela­tions excel­lence 2010. Journal of Professional Communication, 1. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​5​1​7​3​/​J​P​C​.​V​1​I​1​.85
2 Foster, A. (2017, January 20). The End of a Publicity Era: How P.T Barnum Affected Marketing and PR. Big Communications. https://​big​com​.com/​2​0​1​7​/​0​1​/​p​t​-​b​a​r​n​u​m​-​m​a​r​k​e​t​i​n​g​-​a​n​d​-​p​u​b​l​i​c​-​r​e​l​a​t​i​o​ns/
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

The Cover Photo

The cover photo has nothing to do with public relations, of course. I share for no other reason that I happen to enjoy photography. Call it an “ornamental distraction”—and a subtle reminder to appreciate nature.

The cover photo has


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