There are three fundamental PR approaches:
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
Fundamental Approaches To PR
There are three scholarly approaches to PR:
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Who typically prefers the excellence approach?
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.
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.
“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
Who typically prefers the rhetorical approach?
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 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.
|Lippmann, Walter. 1960. Public Opinion (1922). New York: Macmillan.|
|Hargis, M. & Watt, John. (2010). Organizational perception management: A framework to overcome crisis events. Organization Development Journal. 28. 73-87.|