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James E.

Grunig and Jon White, The Effect of Worldviews On Public Relations

Theory and Practice, in James E. Grunig (ed.), Excellence in Public Relations
and Communication Management, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Hillsdale, NJ.,
Throughout our discussion of asymmetrical and symmetrical worldviews about public
relations, we have mentioned concepts such as community, the
-50social system, and social responsibility. Public relations has a role in society, and
many European scholars such as Ruhl ( 1990) have devoted more of their theorizing
to understanding that role than to understanding the value of public relations to an
Most practitioners and scholars have presuppositions about the social role of public
relations, even though they may not articulate them or be aware of them. Some of
these extant presuppositions enhance the excellence of public relations and others
detract from it. In addition, some are symmetrical and some are asymmetrical. First,
we look at some of the worldviews on social role that are less likely to lead to
The Pragmatic Social Role
This view of social role appears in statements about the contribution of public
relations to the bottom line or in public relations as a results-oriented practice. The
presupposition here is that public relations is a useful practice, which "adds value"
and which can be used to meet the objectives of a client organization in a way that
benefits the client. This presupposition underlies the commercial practice of public
relations and typically allies it with marketing objectives. It also may underlie
arguments against the development of codes of conduct or ethical standards in public
relations practice, because these may set unacceptable limits on what can be done to
achieve the client's objectives.
When followed to its extreme, this presupposition leads to practices that, if brought to
public attention, brings public relations into disrepute or, at least, allows the client to
dictate public relations practice. Public relations firms, especially, practice pragmatic
public relations when they provide any service to a client in order to make money for
the firm. When practiced pragmatically, the pragmatic worldview sees society as
composed of competing groups, target audiences, and markets from whom
commercial advantage is to be won. Society is a marketplace for ideas, services, and
products. Publics are customers, and opposition is to be neutralized in pursuit of
commercial objectives.
The pragmatic social view is common in public relations; because of its concern for
doing what the client wants, however, it cannot be excellent and seldom makes the
organization more effective. Generally, the pragmatic worldview also is asymmetrical

because that is how the client organizations perceive public relations. The next two
presuppositions about social role, however, are clearly asymmetrical.
The Conservative Social Role
According to the conservative presupposition, public relations defends and maintains
the status quo (see, e.g., Tedlow, 1979, who described public
-51relations as a "defensive political device"). Pimlott ( 1951) suggested that public
relations justifies and defends the privileges of the economically powerful and that
public relations practitioners, like politicians and teachers, are essentially articulate
apologists for a social system based on what are, in some cases, insupportable
inequalities. Sussman ( 1949) described public relations as based on a defensive
Modern reflections of this view are found in the writings of Philip Lesly ( 1984) in
books such as Overcoming Opposition, which explains how public relations can
overcome threats to the status quo. In practice, a conservative view of social role leads
practitioners to adopt a defensive or protective outlook on their client's interests -- that
is, an asymmetrical outlook.
Practitioners with this social view also see society in conservative terms. They believe
in defending the status quo and an idealized capitalist system from attack. Writers on
public relations working from this presupposition talk of public relations' "arsenals,"
armories or weapons, which can be used to overcome opposition, target audiences, or
defeat "intellectual terrorists" (a term recently used in the United Kingdom to describe
opponents of some of the activities of tobacco and drug companies [ Pielle
Newsletter, 1988]). The next worldview, which comes from the opposite side of the
political spectrum, is equally asymmetrical.
The Radical Social Role
The radical worldview presupposes that public relations contributes to change, within
organizations and in society. It does so by providing an outside perspective to
management about the organization and its internal functioning. In the wider society,
public relations contributes to social change by providing information for use in
public debate, by establishing links between groups in society, and by bringing
resources together that can be brought to bear on the solution of social problems.
This worldview sees society as a system in which knowledge and information provide
power and influence, which can be used to bring about change. Goldhaber, Dennis,
Richetto, and Wiio ( 1979) argued, for example, that power and influence within
organizations now have passed to people such as public relations practitioners who
can provide information about the environment to decision makers. Hofstede ( 1980)
argued that practitioners should act as agents of change within organizations, to help
them to adjust to changing public expectations.
Both the conservative and radical worldviews assume that organizational
communication can have powerful effects on society. They see public relations as a

tool to be used in a war among opposing social groups. More excellent public
relations programs, we believe, take the next, more symmetrical approach.
-52The Idealistic Social Role
Idealistic presuppositions about public relations appear in codes of conduct,
definitions of the practice, conference speeches, and academic writing about the
practice. Indeed, they can be found throughout this book. This worldview presupposes
that public relations serves the public interest, develops mutual understanding
between organizations and their publics, contributes to informed debate about issues
in society, and facilitates a dialogue between organizations and their publics.
This worldview sees society as emerging from compromise -- from the peaceful
resolution of conflict between groups in society. It assumes a pluralist and progressive
society, in which a diversity of views and their reconciliation lead to social progress.
In other terms, the idealistic social view assumes that a norm of reciprocity governs
society and that norm makes it possible for public relations to play the role envisioned
in the symmetrical worldview, which is closely aligned with this worldview. Excellent
public relations practice, therefore, generally will be symmetrical and idealistic. Two,
more academic views of the social role of public relations remain, however, which are
analogues of these more practice-oriented views.
The Neutral Social Role
Scholars who take this view adopt the view of science that we called logical
positivism early in this chapter. They view public relations as a neutral object of study
and focus on such questions as the motivations of organization when they initiate
public relations activities, the goals and objectives toward which public relations
activities are directed, and the effects of public relations. Like sociologists, these
scholars view society as an object of study and raise questions about the social role of
public relations.
Observation and interpretation are the essence of all scholarship, but philosophers of
science now generally reject the idea that observation and interpretation can be
neutral. Worldview and values affect both, and both lead to criticisms of the behaviors
observed and recommendations for more effective behaviors. As a result, the final
social role reflects the approach of this book.
The Critical Social Role
Critical scholars range from radical Marxists to empirical scholars who draw
implications from their data for change in public relations practice. Critical scholars
view organizations and society as constructed systems,
-53systems that can be deconstructed and reconstructed. Critical scholars have done
research to document the poor ethics, negative social consequences, or

ineffectiveness of forms of public relations that differ from normative theories of

excellent public relations.
Some critics have evaluated public relations from a political perspective. Olasky
( 1987, 1989), a conservative, maintained that corporations have used public relations
to consort with government -- thus restricting competition. Gandy ( 1982), a Marxist,
argued that public relations helps to preserve the dominant power structure in society.
Other critical scholars such as Rakow ( 1989b) have suggested that the two-way
symmetrical model of public relations cannot work in the United States without a
radical transformation of its culture and political structure.
Rhetorical theorists such as Smilowitz and Pearson ( 1989), Cheney and
Dionisopoulos ( 1989), or Pearson ( 1989a, 1989b) have examined public relations
against the yardstick provided by rhetorical theories such as Habermas ( 1984) ideal
communication situation or Burke's theory of "identification" in persuasion -- the
cocreation by the persuader and persuadee of a state of affairs ( Gusfield, 1989).6 As
mentioned earlier, a large and growing community of scholars have begun to use
feminist theory to criticize public relations (e.g., Cline, 1985; Creedon, 1991; L.
Grunig, 1988, 1989; Rakow, 1989a; Toth, 1988). Finally, quantitative researchers have
used the theories they have developed from observing how organizations practice
public relations to criticize that practice and to advocate more effective practices (see,
e.g., chapters 10, 11, 12, and 14 of this book).
Excellent public relations, in summary, views its role in society from an idealistic
worldview. And it is fostered, we believe, by scholars who criticize actual practice
against such a standard. Many public relations practitioners reject that worldview,
however, as well as the criticism of scholars. Thus, they would not be receptive to the
theory developed in this book. One aspect of the dominant -- but not excellent -worldview of public relations remains, however, before we examine the normative
implications of the excellent worldview.
Public relations is a craft, a technique, a discipline; but it's not a profession. . . .
Apart from academe, who ever worries about PR's not having a
6 Toth and Heath ( 1992) have provided a complete volume of research using rhetorical and
critical approaches to public relations.

-54substantial body of knowledge? I'll bet it keeps Hill & Knowlton CEO Robert
Dilenschneider awake nights.
-- The Ragan Report, March 20, 1989
This opinion, stated in one of the mostly widely read newsletters on public relations
and communication, reflects another element in the worldview of many organizations
and public relations practitioners -- that public relations is technique and not theory. It

can be found in popular books on public relations such as Confessions of a PR Man

( Wood with Gunther, 1988), which was written by a former executive of Carl Byoir
and Associates and which describes the day-to-day work of public relations only in
terms of technique. The worldview also can be found in the more sophisticated book
by Hill and Knowlton former CEO Robert Dilenschneider ( 1990), Power and
Influence, which Edward L. Bernays ( 1990) described in a book review as more
about tactics than strategy.
The worldview of public relations as technique is associated closely with the press
agentry and public information models of public relations. And it underlies the notion
that public relations is a marketing function. Kotler and Andreasen ( 1987), for
example, argued that marketing is strategic but public relations is not.
Chapter 12 documents the need for a managerial as well as a technical role in
excellent public relations departments. The need for a managerial role falls on deaf
ears, however, when the prevailing worldview among practitioners or in an
organization is that public relations is a set of techniques and that a theory of
management is not necessary to underlie those techniques.