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: @jerrysilfwer

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
I love PR (mugs).

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 judge­ment char­ac­ter­ises the rhet­or­ic­al approach and is 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

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.

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

Learn more: The Four Models of Public Relations

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.

Walter Lippmann: Public Opinion and 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.

  • One who effect­ively man­ages the per­cep­tions of pub­lics acts as a mor­al legis­lat­or, cap­able of shap­ing atti­tudes and beha­viours accord­ing to the cat­egor­ic­al imperative.

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: Hargis, M. & Watt, John 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 crit­ic­al 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

Learn more: Walter Lippmann: Public Opinion and Perception Management

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.

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

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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Discover the foundations of effective public relations with an in-depth analysis of the four models of PR, as introduced by James Grunig and Todd Hunt.
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