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Excellence Theory Dominates Recent Public Relations Scholarship In assessing the scope of public relations scholarship, Botan and Taylor (2004) identified Excellence Theory (Dozier, Grunig & Grunig, 1995; Grunig, 1992; Grunig, Grunig & Dozier, 2002) as the leading approach. Botan and Hazelton (2006) said the Excellence work “has probably done more to develop public relations theory and scholarship than any other single school of thought” (p. 6). Excellence Theory provided the dominant paradigm for research from 1991 to 2006. In a nutshell, Excellence Theory says the best organizations consider public relations a management function. That function regulates interdependency between the organization and its constituencies. The top public relations executive has specialized knowledge in relationship building and is part of the senior management team. He or she determines what stakeholder groups are key to the organization’s success and then develops communication strategies to foster and maintain long-term, mutually beneficial relationships with those constituencies. The communication strategies are based on research, tied to the organization’s strategic goals and employ one of four models of public relations practice (see below). The preferred model is two-way symmetrical. In that model a public is just as likely to influence the organization as the organization is likely to influence the public (Grunig, Grunig & Dozier, 2002, 2006).
Roots of the Excellence Theory go back to Grunig’s doctoral research in Colombia in 1968-69. He wanted to know how farmers used information to make decisions.
When I returned to the United States from Colombia in 1969, I was convinced that most of the failures in the communication programs of agriculture agencies in Colombia resulted not from the backwardness or resistance of farmers but because of the nature of communication programs that organizations developed to communicate with them.
Organizations that I studied were more likely to give information than to seek information. They also were unlikely to listen to or engage in dialogue with their publics. (Gurnig, 2006b, p. 155) That observation led to 40 years of scholarship on dynamics of organizational interactions with various stakeholders and target groups (Grunig, 2006b).
The evolution of Excellence Theory began with Grunig’s situational theories of publics in 1966 (Grunig, 1966) and his organizational theory of public relations in 1976 (Grunig, 1976). The situational theory posited that people were more likely to seek information related to a decision they were making than to reinforce their attitudes. He used that theory to study how Colombian farmers used information (Grunig, 2006b).
The organizational theory built on the situational theory. But the second theory dealt with the interaction of organizations with individuals. The theory maintained that organizations were more likely to give information than to seek information. That one-way information flow resulted in ineffective communication (Grunig, 2006b).
Continuing work on the organizational theory led to Grunig’s four models of public relations practice. He first presented them in 1984 in Managing Public Relations (Grunig & Hunt, 1984) as ideal types based on historic trends. In the same year Grunig began work on a project for the International Association of Business Communicators Foundation on “how, why and to what extent communication affects the achievement of organizational objectives” (Grunig, Grunig & Dozier, 2002, p. ix). That 1984-to-1992 project later became known as the “Excellence” study. The initial product, titled Excellence in Public Relations and Communication Management (Grunig, 1992), was a 666-page literature review on organizational communication. In it Grunig & Grunig (1992) included the four models as distinct ways of conceptualizing and conducting corporate communication. They described
the models as follows:
+ Press agentry/publicity—one-way transmission of promotional information from an originating organization—primarily through mass media—to a generally undefined audience. Truth and accuracy are not factors. No audience research is involved. The event-based promotional activities of P.T. Barnum provide an example of this model in action.
+ Public information—one-way transmission of factual, newsworthy information from an organization to news media outlets. News releases reflect journalistic news values. The journalistic norms of truth and accuracy are accepted. No audience research is involved. The early work of Ivy Lee exemplifies this approach to public relations.
+ Two-way asymmetrical—An organization takes actions and disseminates specifically crafted messages based on audience research (two-way communication process) to achieve a specific goal. The focus is on persuading target groups to behave as the organization wants. Information collected on audiences is not used to modify the goals, policies or actions of the organization. Research simply guides message crafting. Campaigns designed by Edward L. Bernays follow this approach.
+ Two-way symmetrical—An organization determines actions that promote understanding and reduce conflicts with key publics based on audience research (two-way communication). Information collected on audiences influences what an organization does and says.
Grunig initially developed four questionnaire items in 1976 to measure activities relating to each model. He used those 16 items in a survey of 216 organizations in the Baltimore-Washington area. Public relations practitioners responded by indicating on a five-point Likert scale how well each statement described the way their organization conducted public relations. Grunig factor-analyzed responses to develop indices of symmetrical and asymmetrical practices. Grunig expanded measures to eight items per model for a 1984 study. Practitioners again responded on a five-point Likert scale to indicate how well each item described what their organization did. Grunig averaged responses to provide an index for each model. Six other studies between 1984 and 1986 by Grunig’s colleagues and graduate students at the University of Maryland refined the questionnaire items and model indices. Average Cronbach’s alpha reliability coefficients for the four scales across the seven studies were 0.62 for press agentry/publicity, 0.53 for public information, 0.57 for two-way asymmetrical and 0.59 for two-way symmetrical (Grunig & Grunig, 1992).
For Excellence study questionnaires, Grunig sought to boost index reliability closer to 0.80, a common goal for alphas in social science research. He reduced the scale for each model to four items that registered high inter-item correlations in the earlier research. He changed the response mode from a Likert scale to an open-ended fractionation scale. In that scale, zero equaled “does not describe”; 100 represented “average”; 50 represented “half the average”; 200 represented “twice the average”; and anything above 200 represented “as high as you want to go.” Results using the fractionation scale yielded reliability coefficients of 0.78 for press agentry/publicity, 0.60 for public information, 0.81 for two-way asymmetrical and 0.76 for two-way symmetrical (Grunig & Grunig, 1992).
The resulting questionnaire items used across Excellence surveys to gauge press
agentry/publicity practices were:
Statements relating to the public information model were:
+ In public relations, nearly everyone is so busy writing news stories or producing publications that there is no time to do research.
+ In public relations, accurate information should be disseminated, but unfavorable information should not be volunteered.
+ Keeping a clipping file is about the only way to determine the success of public relations.
+ Public relations is more a neutral disseminator of information than an advocate for the organization or a mediator between management and publics.
Statements measuring the two-way asymmetrical model were:
+ After completing a public relations program, research should be done to determine how effective it has been in changing people’s attitude.
+ In public relations the broad goal is to persuade publics to behave as the organization wants them to behave.
+ Before starting a public relations program, one should look at attitude surveys to make sure the organization and its policies are described in ways our publics would be most likely to accept.
+ Before beginning a public relations program, one should do research to determine public attitudes toward the organization and how they might be changed.
Besides boosting reliability coefficients, the open-ended fractionation scale more accurately measured opinions about the four public relations models than a five-point Likert scale and increased options for statistical analysis, Grunig, Grunig & Dozier (2002) maintained. While both scales yielded ordinal data—and precise location on the scale varied by respondent—the fractionation method allowed a wider range of answers.
Increasing scale range could positively influence correlations between items (Clason & Dormony, 2000). Furthermore, by introducing an apparent true zero, the scale could mimic ratio data. Such interval data could also affect reliability calculations (Jaccard & Wan, 1996). Treating ordinal data as interval data is commonly done in social science research using scales with five or more items. That practice usually does not alter research conclusions (Jaccard & Wan, 1996).
Grunig and Grunig (1992) acknowledged the consistently low reliability coefficient for the public information index in the foundational research. They attributed that to items describing information dissemination. That function was common to all models. Nevertheless, Excellence surveys continued to use that suspect four-item index (Grunig, Grunig & Dozier, 2002).
Grunig and his colleagues began surveying the 327 organizations in the Excellence study in 1991. The purposive sample included 168 corporations, 64 nonprofit organizations, 59 government agencies and 36 associations. Participating organizations came from the United States (n=237), Canada (n=57) and the United Kingdom (n=33).
The stated research goal was to reach analytical rather than statistical generalizations.
Scholars compared empirical findings to previously developed theory and models (Grunig, Grunig & Dozier, 2002).
Top communicators in each organization received a 21-page paper-and-pencil questionnaire asking for 313 responses. Chief executives received a seven-page questionnaire asking for 96 responses. Up to 20 employees in each organization received a different seven-page questionnaire asking for 116 responses. Some organizations that originally agreed to participate in the surveys dropped out when they saw how long the survey instruments were. A few top communicators declined to participation when they saw the fractionation scale (Grunig, Grunig & Dozier, 2002).
Excellence researchers relied on top communicators to help make sure chief executives and employees completed their questionnaires. Of the 327 organizations involved in the study, 316 returned communicator questionnaires, 292 returned chief executive surveys and 281 returned employee instruments. Survey results did not mention response fatigue or say how it might have affected completion rates (Grunig, Grunig & Dozier, 2002).
Grunig and Hunt (1984) originally presented the four models as normative concepts. The press agentry/publicity, public information and two-way asymmetricial models were based on historical analyses of how practitioners did or described public relations. The two-way symmetrical model presented how the authors thought public relations should be practiced. The authors ranked the models according to their interpretation of organizational excellence. The order of excellence moved from press agentry/publicity through public information and two-way asymmetrical to two-way symmetrical (Grunig & Grunig, 1992).
Excellence survey results showed the four models were positive as well (Grunig & Grunig, 1992; Grunig, Grunig & Dozier, 2002). Grunig originally contended that excellent public relations organizations would use only two-way models. He rejected persuasion as inherently unethical. But research in 327 organizations showed that excellent organizations practiced all four models of public relations, depending on the situation. All four approaches could contribute to organizational objectives. Furthermore, persuasion could be an element in the two-way dialogue between organizations and their publics. (Botan & Hazelton, 2006; Grunig, Grunig & Dozier, 2002). “Symmetrical communication does not move relationships inexorably to consensus, equilibrium or harmony,” researchers noted. “Rather, it is the give-and-take of persuasion and collaboration that organizations and publics use when they must interact with each other” (Grunig, Grunig & Dozier, 2002, p. 551). Nevertheless, Grunig and his colleagues have suggested that two-way symmetrical, two-way asymmetrical or a combination of the two approaches—dubbed the “mixed motives model”—would allow public relations to make the most effective contribution to an organizational (Grunig & Grunig, 1992; Grunig, Grunig & Dozier, 2002). Two-way symmetrical public relations uses research to learn about and balance interests of an organization with its publics. “As a result,” researchers said, “two-way symmetrical communication produces better long-term relationships with publics than do the other models of public relations” (Grunig, Grunig & Dozier, 2002, p.
15). But Grunig acknowledged that publics sometimes were not willing to cooperate with organizations. Publics could behave in ways that destroyed relations with organizations or hurt society in general (Grunig, 2006b).