The PR Model of Excellence: a Greenbanana guide in 500 words

The following is intended as a quick revision guide to the PR Model of Excellence study undertaken by David Dozier, Larissa Grunig, James Gunig, William Ehling, Fred Repper and Jon White in the 1990s.  It is not a substitute for wider reading and reflection on the topic, but provides a brief overview – in 500 words.

In 1990, Grunig and colleagues undertook a $400,000 three-nation study funded by the International Association of Business Communications (IABC) Research Foundation to identify the essential elements of excellent communications, which applied globally to all organisations.

This Excellence Study surveyed 321 organizations in Canada, US and UK, followed by case studies with 24 participants.

The 10 year study tested a “general theory of PR” derived from literature, that had revealed much understanding of PR was based on presumptions. The researchers’ perspective was to look at PR “as a profession and a function in society as something that can be constantly improved”.

The Excellence Study’s general theory proposed analysis at four levels:

  1. programme – PR should be managed strategically to be most effective in meeting its objectives
  2. departmental – the common characteristics most successful communications departments are: an integrated PR function, distinct from marketing, practising two-way symmetric communications. With equal gender opportunities, the top PR person reports to senior management. The team has knowledge of the symmetric model, PR’s managerial role, is academically trained in PR and reflects professionalism.
  3. organizational – conditions associated with organisations demonstrating successful PR include reflecting two-way symmetric communications, power for PR with the dominant coalition (senior management), a participative culture, organic organizational structure, and a complex and turbulent environment with pressure from activist groups.
  4. economic – successful communications delivers a tangible value including achieving communication objectives, reduced costs of regulation, pressure and litigation and high job satisfaction among employees.

The study used Grunig & Hunt’s definition of PR as the “management of communication between an organization and its publics” – equating PR and communication management (ie PR is broader than media relations or publicity) as “the overall planning, execution, and evaluation of an organization’s communication with both external and internal publics”.

As a result of the study, communication excellence was defined as “the ideal in which knowledgeable communicators assist in the overall strategic management of organizations, seeking symmetrical relations through management of communication with key publics on whom organizational survival and growth depends.”

This encompasses three spheres of communication excellence:

  1. Knowledge base of the communications department
  2. Shared expectations of top communicators and senior managers about the function and role of communications
  3. Organizational culture which should be open and supportive of minorities

PR was seen as having a monetary value to the organization by “building quality, long-term relationships with strategic constituencies”. That is, reflecting the two-way symmetric model as a core practice of the PR function.

Cheney & Christensen criticised the study as relying on self-reporting by participants. L’Etang said the two-way symmetric model is idealistic, PR is “inherently partisan”, and relationships between organisations and publics are imbalanced in power and influence. Pieczka felt the study had an inherent bias favouring the two-way symmetric model.

Grunig reconceptualised the two-way symmetric model in 2001 drawing on Murphy’s game theory to identify a mixed motive continuum with symmetrical communications used to seek a win-win zone between the interests of the organization (pure asymmetry) and its publics (pure co-operation).

Useful sources: Excellence project summary, Excellence study books series, Google book search


  1. Philip says:

    Thanks, but, oh Heather, how many times will I realise students have only read this!!!!

  2. Philip – My motivation was to assist the first year undergraduates in their exam revision as I find myself repeating face-to-face or in email exactly what the Model of Excellence is and how it is not simply two-way symmetric communications.

    However, as the questions our Uni students face require application and reflection, anyone repeating this “parrot fashion” would gain minimal marks.

    Of course, if students cut and paste these words in an assignment, they should be marked down for plagiarism, exactly as if they’ve copied from a textbook.

    The Google search they use to find this guide should also be their undoing.

  3. Very keen summary, Heather, and very useful: inspired me to do some further reading via your links, so that’s a result! Also good to read some of the ideas I’ve already been genning up on via Grunig texts.

    Posts such as this really help define what leading PR should be: symmetric, strategic, NOT marketing-infused and conducted with senior management input.

    All sounds like a dream, and I can already think of many case studies in the car industry that employ it. More reading ahoy on this!

  4. Richard – thanks for the comment and your view as a working journalist that there is practical evidence of “best practice”. If reading more on Grunig, you should also start to look at his critics such as L’Etang and Pieczka who have some valid observations about the feasibility of many aspects of the two-way symmetrical model.

  5. Hi Heather – I’ve lost my copy of Managing Public Relations and have been checking up on my PR theory. You rank at the top of Google for ‘Grunig Excellence model’. Congratulations. Its a very useful primer as well. Thanks. I’m now off to Amazon to replace my copy of the original. Thanks, Stephen

  6. Thanks for the comment Stephen. I am going to return to this idea of theory in 500 words to support some writing I’m doing for a new PR textbook.

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