The PR BlogMedia & PsychologyCommunication Theories3 PR Approaches: Excellence, Rhetorical, and Critical

3 PR Approaches: Excellence, Rhetorical, and Critical

The approaches have subtle (but significant) differences.

Cover photo by Jerry Silfwer (Instagram)

There are three fundamental PR approaches:

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

In this blog article, I’ll explain why I prefer the rhetorical approach over the excellence- and critical approach to PR.

Here we go:

Overview: 3 Fundamental PR Approaches

I Love PR – Mug in Snow – Doctor Spin – The PR Blog 3
I love PR.

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. The rhetorical approach is characterised by an absence of moral judgement and is by nature utilitarian.

Notable mentions: 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

The Excellence Approach to PR

In management theory, there’s a prominent focus on operational excellence. The Excellence Study mapped value creation onto strategic communication and found that best practices create value for an organisation. It reduces costs and risks while increasing revenue.

“The programme of research known as the excellence theory began in the 1960s with J. Grunig’s research on publics found among Colombian farmers. Research then followed on the role of public relations in organisational decision-making, the symmetrical model of public relations, public relations measurement, and how the structure and environment of organisations shape public relations behaviour. […] The excellence theory has evolved into a general theory of public relations as a strategic management function, and ongoing research now is adding concepts and tools that public relations professionals who serve in a strategic role can use.”
Source: Excellence Theory in Public Relations: Past, Present, and Future

How can PR have such best practices? The answers are, non-surprisingly, management-focused: Leadership roles, goal alignments, high levels of strategic competency, high ethical standards, and two-way symmetric communication with corporate stakeholders.

The four models of public relations characterise the Excellence theory:

The Four Models of PR

James Grunig - Excellence Study - Doctor Spin - The PR Blog
Professor James E. Grunig.

In the Excellence study, Grunig and 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 Agent/Publicity—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 researchers found that Model 4 is the best way to practice public relations.

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

Who typically prefers the excellence approach?

  • PR professionals and scholars with severe concerns regarding the industry’s bad reputation and questionable origins.
  • PR professionals and scholars with an inferiority complex towards management consultants.
  • PR professionals and scholars with dreams that ROI and PR one day will go well together.
  • PR professionals and scholars with less focus on communications as a practical craft and more emphasis on its merits within organisational hierarchies.

The Rhetorical Approach to PR

In ancient Greek society, public debate and persuasion were considered the best approach to ensure peaceful and stable governance. This was the cradle of ideas like democracy and free speech. There’s no best practice, only outcomes from multiple voices.

“Rhetorical theory features how the public relations process becomes enriched through the role co-created, shared meaning plays in society as a blend of mind and self. The rhetorical heritage features the potent role of fact (as interpreted information), judgment, and identification as discourse themes enacted in public arenas. Public relations can add value to society by assuring that choices become enlightened, risks are ethically managed, and relationships are mutually developed. Through ethical rhetorical practice that results from the reflective character of organisations, public relations helps society to be more fully functioning.”
Source: Rhetorical Perspective and Public Relations: Meaning Matters

If you hear a PR professional talk passionately and positively about the importance of persuasion and perception management, they are most likely supporters of the rhetorical approach. They’re focused on language and relationships and think of society descriptively.

Perception Management

No one is basing their attitudes and behaviours on reality; we’re basing them on our perceptions of reality.

Walter Lippmann (1889–1974) proposed that our perceptions of reality differ from the actual reality. The reality is too vast and too complex for anyone to process. 1Lippmann, Walter. 1960. Public Opinion (1922). New York: Macmillan.

Those who can manage the perceptions of publics can control their attitudes and behaviours.

The research on perception management is focused on how organisations can create a desired reputation:

“The OPM [Organizational Perception Management] field focuses on the range of activities that help organisations establish and/or maintain a desired reputation (Staw et al., 1983). More specifically, OPM research has primarily focused on two interrelated factors: (1) the timing and goals of perception management activities and (2) specific perception management tactics (Elsbach, 2006).”
Source: Organizational Perception Management 2Hargis, M. & Watt, John. (2010). Organizational perception management: A framework to overcome crisis events. Organization Development Journal. 28. 73-87.

Today, our perceptions are heavily influenced by news media and influencers, algorithms, and social graphs. Therefore, perception management is more important than ever before.

“We are all captives of the picture in our head—our belief that the world we have experienced is the world that really exists.”
— Walter Lippmann

Many modern rhetorical concepts have stemmed from the Toronto School of Communication Theory and were later refined and further developed by Robert L. Heath.

Who typically prefers the rhetorical approach?

  • PR professionals and scholars with action-oriented natures with a focus on getting real-world results.
  • PR professionals and scholars with a balanced relationship with concepts like persuasion, propaganda, spin, rhetoric, semantics, agenda-setting, managing perceptions, and shaping public opinion.
  • PR professionals and scholars with a mindset that everyone has a right to defend themselves in the court of public opinion and that if you don’t tell your story, someone else will.
  • PR professionals and scholars with pro-libertarian values (democracy, free speech, contrarian thinking).

The Critical Approach to PR

“Critical theory” is a broad term encapsulating tools for analysis from various fields. Examples of such devices for analysis are feminism, cultural studies, structuralism, semiotics, and postmodernism. As a broad approach, it offers a wide range of scholarly criticism.

“The dominance of Excellence Theory in public relations theory and research may be eroding as contemporary issues in corporations, including the concern with activist challenges to reputation management and corporate social responsibility, increase in visibility and demand explanation. […] Excellence Theory’s acknowledgement of once-vilified concepts like persuasion and power sets the stage for critical public relations theory and research to emerge as significantly more capable of addressing activist advocacy and concomitant issues. The paper argues that critical theory, buoyed by acceptance of its key concepts, its increasing access to presentation venues and journals sympathetic to once-marginalised, alternative perspectives, is poised to infiltrate the public relations orthodoxy.”
Source: Public Relations Review

Since critical PR theory borrows from various scholarly traditions, it’s challenging to summarise the critical approach. But there’s often a focus on societal power dynamics and detailed victimology. The critical approach has many touch points with the rhetorical approach, but they tend to end up on opposite sides of the excellence approach:

While the rhetorical approach finds the excellence approach too normative, the critical approach is that the excellence approach isn’t normative enough.

Who typically prefers the rhetorical approach?

  • PR professionals and scholars with strong convictions about social injustice (gender inequality, racial biases, greenwashing etc.) in the PR industry.
  • PR professionals and scholars with the focus that PR is primarily a societal force that might, if left unchecked, amplify the adverse effects of capitalism.
  • PR professionals and scholars with a particular interest (or an academic background) within critical fields of study.
  • PR professionals and scholars with professional roles that directly deal with social injustice, climate issues, anti-capitalist activism etc.

PR and Ethics

What’s the role of ethics in PR?

According to the excellence approach, it’s the communicator’s task to restructure the organisation in alignment with the outside world. Typical problems with this approach are that the PR function can be perceived as disloyal, self-serving, and lacking in management competence.

According to the rhetorical approach, every organisation has the right to promote its ideological standards. Structural change should result from strategic analysis, not subjective moral frameworks promoted by third parties. The most typical problem with this approach is over-confidence in what strategic communication can accomplish.

According to the critical approach, the individual communicator must leave the unethical organisation and take no part in promoting its interests. The most typical problem with this approach is that PR is fundamentally seen as a potentially harmful exertion of power and influence, thus questioning the legitimacy of PR as a profession.

Disclaimer: For long-time readers, it should be no surprise that I promote the rhetorical approach to PR. (I reckon my PR blog’s name, “Doctor Spin,” should be the first clue!) With that said: I firmly believe that all three approaches have contributed significantly to our profession—and they continue to do so.

Thank you for reading this article. Please consider supporting my work by sharing it with other PR- and communication professionals. For questions or PR support, contact me via [email protected].

1 Lippmann, Walter. 1960. Public Opinion (1922). New York: Macmillan.
2 Hargis, M. & Watt, John. (2010). Organizational perception management: A framework to overcome crisis events. Organization Development Journal. 28. 73-87.
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.


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