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The OCR Glossary

Excellence Theory

James E. Grunig

Excellence theory is a general theory of public relations that resulted from a multiyear study of best practices in communication management funded by the International Association of Business Communicators Research Foundation from 1985 to 2002. The research tradition that culminated in excellence theory conceptualizes public relations as a strategic management function rather than a symbolic-interpretive function (messaging, publicity, and media relations). This general theory incorporates a number of middle-range theories of public relations, including theories of publics, public relations, and strategic management, as well as models of public relations, evaluation of public relations, employee communication, public relations roles, gender, diversity, power, activism, ethics and social responsibility, and global public relations. The rest of this entry discusses the background of the research that produced excellence theory, as well as six principles of excellence theory that were derived from the research conducted during the excellence study.

Since the completion of the excellence study, scholars in this research tradition have continued to conduct research in order to help public relations professionals participate in strategic decision processes—research on relationships, reputation, environmental scanning and publics, scenario building, empowerment of public relations, ethics, the value of public relations, evaluation, relationship cultivation strategies, specialized areas of public relations, and global strategy. As part of this research program, James Grunig of the University of Maryland and Chung-ju Flora Hung of Massey University in New Zealand examined the concept of reputation, which became popular in the management literature at about the time the excellence study was ending, to determine how that concept fits into the theoretical structure of the excellence program of research. That research produced an understanding of reputation that is somewhat different from that prevailing in the management literature.

Whereas most reputation researchers think of public relations as an interpretative or messaging activity, researchers in the excellence tradition isolated the importance of organizational behavior and organization-public relationships to explain the source of an organization’s reputation. Grunig and Hung’s research showed that reputation largely reflects the behavior of an organization, which in turn affects the quality and type of relationships that the organization establishes with its stakeholder publics. From this perspective, reputation is not managed through symbolic interpretive strategies but rather by allowing chief communication officers to participate in strategic decision-making processes to help shape the behavior of the organization and its relationships with publics.

The Excellence Study

The research team for the original excellence project consisted of five scholars and a practitioner from the United States and the United Kingdom. James Grunig and Larissa Grunig were professors at the University of Maryland, and David Dozier was a professor at San Diego State University. William Ehling, now deceased, was then a professor at Syracuse University. Jon White, then of the Cranfield School of Management in the United Kingdom, is now an independent consultant and teacher in London. Finally, Fred Repper, now deceased, was a distinguished senior public relations practitioner who had retired as vice president of public relations for Gulf States Utilities in Beaumont, Texas.

The theory was tested through survey research of heads of public relations, CEOs, and employees in 327 organizations (corporations, nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and associations) in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. The survey research was followed by qualitative interviews with heads of public relations, other public relations practitioners, and CEOs of 25 organizations, with the highest and lowest scores on a scale of excellence produced by statistical analysis of the survey data.

The excellence study began with a comprehensive literature review that integrated most of the prominent middle-level theories of public relations and communication management that were available in the discipline at the time the study began. The goal of the research team was not to impose a single theory on public relations but to try to bring both complementary and competing theories together in a way that would answer questions and solve problems of concern to most public relations practitioners and scholars.

The excellence study resulted in three books. The first book, Excellence in Public Relations and Communication Management, edited by James Grunig, reported the results of the extensive review of the literature in public relations, communication, management, organizational sociology and psychology, social and cognitive psychology, feminist studies, political science, operations research, and culture. The team conducted this review to identify the characteristics of public relations programs and departments and of the organizations in which they are found that make public relations more effective. The team also searched the literature for concepts that would explain the value of individual public relations programs and the overall public relations function to an organization. It then linked these two sets of theories to identify the characteristics of a public relations function that are most likely to increase organizational effectiveness.

The second book, Manager’s Guide to Excellence in Public Relations and Communication Management, authored by David Dozier with the collaboration of Larissa Grunig and James Grunig, summarized the literature review and presented a short version of the theory and results of the study in a format intended mostly for practitioners rather than for scholars. The third book, Excellent Public Relations and Effective Organizations: A Study of Communication Management in Three Countries, coauthored by Larissa Grunig, James Grunig, and David Dozier, reviewed and updated the theories from the first book and presented the complete results of the quantitative and qualitative portions of the study.

The Excellence Theory

The comprehensive theory of public relations that resulted from this extensive literature review and analysis of research data began with a premise of why public relations has value to an organization. That premise allowed the team to identify and connect attributes of the public relations function and of the organization that logically would be most likely to make the organization effective. This general theory consists of several generic principles that seem to apply throughout the world, although it specifies that these concepts must be applied differently in different cultures and political-economic systems. The theory also applies in different organizational settings, such as government agencies, corporations, nonprofit organizations, and associations. In short, the theory offers a conceptual framework for the professional practice of public relations, which, with appropriate applications and revisions in different organizational and national cultures, is a fundamental component of effective management throughout the world.

Excellence theory explained the value of public relations to organizations and society based on the social responsibility of managerial decisions and the quality of relationships with stakeholder publics. For an organization to be effective, according to the theory, it must behave in ways that solve the problems and satisfy the goals of stakeholders as well as of management. If it does not do so, stakeholders will either pressure the organization to help solve the problems they experience or oppose the organization in ways that add cost and risk to organizational policies and decisions. To behave in sustainable ways, organizations must scan their environment to identify publics that are affected by potential organizational decisions or want organizations to make decisions in order to solve problems that are important to them. Then, organizations must communicate symmetrically with the publics (taking the interests of both the organization and the publics into account) to cultivate high-quality, long-term relationships with them. The interviews with CEOs and senior public relations officers revealed that good relationships had value to organizations because they reduced the costs of litigation, regulation, legislation, and negative publicity caused by poor relationships; reduced the risk of making decisions that affect different stakeholders; or increased revenue by providing products and services needed by stakeholders.

Based on this theoretical premise about the value of public relations, excellence theory derived principles for how the function should be organized to maximize this value. First, the research showed that involvement in strategic management was a critical characteristic of excellent public relations. Public relations executives played a strategic managerial role as well as an administrative managerial role. Public relations was also empowered by having access to key organizational decision makers (the dominant coalition).

Second, the study showed that public relations loses its unique role in strategic management if it is sublimated to marketing or other management functions. Sublimation to another function resulted in attention only to the stakeholder category of interest to that function, such as consumers for marketing. Sublimation to marketing also usually resulted in asymmetrical communication. An excellent public relations function was integrated, however. Programs for different stakeholders were gathered into a single department or coordinated through a senior vice president of corporate communication. An excellent public relations function did work with other management functions to help them build relationships with relevant stakeholders.

Third, the excellence study showed that a symmetrical system of internal communication increased employees’ satisfaction with their jobs and with the organization. However, internal communication generally was not practiced symmetrically unless organizations had a participative rather than an authoritarian culture and a decentralized, less stratified (organic) structure rather than a centralized, stratified (mechanical) structure. Fourth, the excellence study examined the effect of the growing number of women in public relations and evidence that women had difficulty entering managerial roles. The research showed that organizations with excellent public relations valued women as much as men for the strategic role and developed programs to empower women throughout the organization. The emphasis on gender also led to inclusion of diversity of race and ethnicity as a fifth part of excellence theory. This focus, along with the international nature of the project, expanded the theory to make it appropriate for use outside the United States in diverse cultural, political, and economic contexts. Replication of the study in Slovenia by Dejan Verčič, James Grunig, and Larissa Grunig showed that excellence theory is generic to many contexts, as long as the theory is applied differently when contextual variables are different. For example, the principle of involvement in strategic management had to be adapted because senior managers in Slovenian companies generally did not respect their chief public relations officers, so outside consultants had to work to educate and empower the officers. The problems of visibility and respect for public relations were even greater when the practitioner was a young woman. Sometimes it was necessary to put a man’s name on a proposal or have a man make a presentation. More important, however, was working with women to help them gain experience and demonstrate success. In addition, after having worked in what was a socialist country, Slovenian workers believed that they owned the companies for which they worked, so symmetrical internal communication had to be emphasized when they became mere workers in a capitalist system.

The research in Slovenia also resulted in the addition of ethics to excellence theory—a sixth component.

After the Excellence Study

Since the publication of the last book from the excellence study, research based on the theory has been conducted in many countries and on many types of organizations and specialties of public relations, such as donor relations, investor relations, employee relations, community relations, government relations, media relations, relations with members of nonprofit organizations, and consumer relations. Researchers have paid special attention to the role of public relations in strategy and corporate governance. The influence of excellence theory has been documented in a citation analysis conducted by Yi-Hui Christine Huang and Joanne Chen Lyu and published in a chapter of the book Public Relations and Communication Management: Current Trends and Emerging Topics, edited by Krishnamurthy Sriramesh, Ansgar Zerfass, and Jeong-Nam Kim. Other research emanating from excellence theory can be found in that volume and in a 2007 book, The Future of Excellence in Public Relations and Communication Management, edited by Elizabeth Toth.

Dozier, D. M. (with Grunig, L. A., & Grunig, J. E.). (1995). Manager’s guide to excellence in public relations and communication management. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Grunig, J. E. (Ed.). (1992). Excellence in public relations and communication management. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Grunig, J. E. (2006). Furnishing the edifice: Ongoing research on public relations as a strategic management function. Journal of Public Relations Research, 18, 151–176.

Grunig, L. A., Grunig, J. E., & Dozier, D. M. (2002). Excellent public relations and effective organizations: A study of communication management in three countries. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Grunig, L. A., Grunig, J. E., & Verčič, D. (1998). Are the IABC’s excellence principles generic? Comparing Slovenia and the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada. Journal of Communication Management, 2, 335–356.

Kim, J.-N., Hung, C.-J. F., Yang, S.-U., & Grunig, J. E. (2013). A strategic management approach to reputation, relationships, and publics: The research heritage of the excellence theory. In C. E. Carroll (Ed.), The handbook of communication and corporate reputation (pp. 197–212). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Sriramesh, K., Zerfass, A., & Kim, J. N. (Eds.). (2013). Public relations and communication management: Current trends and emerging topics. New York: Routledge.

Toth, E. L. (Ed.). (2007). The future of excellence in public relations and communication management. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

See Also

Communication Management; Corporate Governance; Corporate Social Responsibility; Organizational Effectiveness; Organization-Public Relationships; Public Relations; Publics; Stakeholders

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