James Grunig is the hegemonic theorist in the public relations sphere. I would wager it is because he was the first to the top of the theoretical jungle gym. Once he got there, he declared himself “King of the Playground.” I should note I do not totally disagree with Grunig’s curiously named excellence theory. I do appreciate that he has been developing his theory over many years. He is certainly dedicated and passionate. He also can admit his theory still has the potential to evolve. Further, there are elements I rather like, such as the notion of public relations serving as an important management function.
My hang-up with Grunig is he does not seem to move beyond thinking of public relations as a management function. He is too fixated on that aspect to fully develop his theory to a point where it may be more applicable. Grunig spends far too much time idealizing and expands too little on how his theory might be adopted by those who cannot force public relations to serve as a function of management or how agency public relations practitioners, for example, might level the playing field with a client. It seems as though, in Grunig’s eyes, those practitioners who are unable are not excellent. And if not excellent, what are they? Does Grunig’s theory have to be all or nothing? And if so, how can public relations practitioners who are attempting to reconcile Grunig’s theory with their practice ever be satisfied? He never truly explains. He is too busy idealizing a rigid excellence utopia. His theory is not grounded in reality.
Further, just as agency practitioners can never be on a truly even plane with a client, publics can never be on an even plane with a corporation. There will always be a power imbalance; there is no perfect distribution of power within an organization or among its stakeholders. Grunig seems rather incapable of recognizing the actual and perceived balance of power in relationships does not come as a natural byproduct of “empowering” corporate practitioners. Power is socially constructed.
Therefore, the best way to empower publics is through what Robert Heath calls “responsible advocacy and narrative theory” in his 2006 article Onward Into More Fog: Thoughts on Public Relations’ Research Directions (Heath, 2006). Grunig seems to enjoy viewing power not as a balance but as something with supernatural liquidity that can trickle down to everyone. “We conceptualized power as empowerment… the more people inside and outside the organization that were included in the dominant coalition, the more likely it was that the head of public relations and outside stakeholders and activists were included,” (Grunig, 2006). Heath presents a far more realistic concept, reconciling these issues in his fully functioning society theory.
I believe Grunig and Heath’s theories could work together if Grunig could push past his decades-long affliction of being blinded by hubris. The theorist cannot gracefully accept criticism. When Grunig’s treatment of power in his theory was challenged, he questioned in Furnishing the Edifice: Ongoing Research on Public Relations as a Strategic Management Function if “the critics even read the work they were criticizing,” (Grunig, 2006).
Heath is the more pragmatic of these two theorists when it comes to the question of how to apply the theory to practice. Heath, rather than trying to focus on an unrealistic two-way symmetrical communication model, instead recommends practitioners focus on creating shared meanings and realities with their publics in order to demonstrate both corporate responsibility and build trust. He is not merely focused on strategic publics but rather how to build communitas and how corporate reputation can best be served by adding value to constructed communitas.
He also emphasizes there will be times when relationships with a public sustain damage. Grunig fails to adequately prepare us for this situation. Heath emphasizes creating shared meanings and goals with publics ahead of a crisis so it is easier to maintain trust and be given the benefit of the doubt in a less-than-favorable situation in the future. Heath bridges the gap more effectively, I think, between theory and practice than Grunig.
Heath is offering insight into the oft-experienced problems of relationship management. In this way, Heath evolves into normative theory. As a practitioner-in-training, I prefer a theory providing a practical frame of reference upon which I can build my practice. Grunig instead provides fiction about a utopian corporate society where public relations and management coexist peacefully through some sort of legerdemain, which subsequently elicits two-way symmetrical communication. Grunig simply leaves too much unanswered.