Is it time to step away from the Grunig & Hunt four models of public relations?

pot plantsIf you’ve ever read a public relations textbook, you’ll be familiar with the Grunig & Hunt four models of public relations. Those who’ve studied a PR qualification will have written essays on the construct, even squidging it into papers where it wasn’t necessary because it has to be included, right?

No – there’s more to the scholarship of public relations than this framework originally published in 1984. Grunig’s own work has moved on through the Model of Excellence studies, conceptualisation of generic principles and specific applications for public relations, and more recently into consideration of two ‘competing theories’ of the symbolic, interpreted paradigm and the strategic management, behavioural paradigm. This work has all been related to the ‘age of digitalisation‘ by Grunig in 2009 (including a great ‘infographic’ originated by David Phillips).

Clearly there’s more to Grunig than the four model framework of two one-way models of communication (press agentry, public information) and two two-way models (asymmetric and symmetric). A fraction of the attention it is given has been devoted to Grunig’s Situational theory of publics, which in my view is a more interesting concept echoing the work of Dewey and Blumer.

But educators, students and even seasoned PR practitioners such as Stephen Waddington (who wrote his CIPR Chartered Practitioner paper on Grunig and digital communications) hone in on the 30+ year old framework.

Indeed, as we have our biggest ever intake for the CIPR qualifications at PR Academy starting this Saturday, the framework will undoubtedly be introduced to dozens more practitioners as students.

Of course it’s had its critics – and there’s a Pavlovian response in presenting these whenever the two-way symmetrical model is mentioned. But rather than liberating PR scholarship from the four models, the critiques appear to have anchored the framework further into the text books as a dominant paradigm. In education, we teach the four models to students who have never heard of them, and then we offer up critiques. But their central position remains the hub around which students’ understanding of PR theory remains.

PARADIGM: In science and epistemology (the theory of knowledge), a paradigm /ˈpærədaɪm/ is a distinct set of concepts or thought patterns, including theories, research methods, postulates, and standards for what constitutes legitimate contributions to a field. Source: Wikipedia

The Grunig & Hunt construct needs to be put in its place within a rich body of work that existed before, and has developed after, the four models were presented in 1984. That place is not as the fulcrum around which to lever open a theoretical underpinning of public relations practice. Rather than being positioned as the ‘best’ way of examining or explaining public relations, it is just one of many options within our academic and practitioner toolkit.

It shouldn’t be placed at the beginning of a student’s journey into the academia, nor be the only thing that is remembered at the end of a course to apply to the day job. It fits somewhere in the middle – but not the centre – of a substantive range of theories, models and ideas that stretch way outside the boundaries of public relations texts.

My call to step away from the models isn’t because they lack relevance, it is that other concepts offer greater, or at least, further potential for interesting and fruitful exploration of the links between PR academia and practice (a topic that is the focus of a CIPR Facebook ‘Community of Practice ‘group –

To return to my favourite rhizomatic metaphor, the four models sit like a neat row of little pot plants where we need to get our hands dirty in the wider public relations field, which offers many interconnected and varied roots, flowers, fruits and weeds worthy of our attention.

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.

4 thoughts on “Is it time to step away from the Grunig & Hunt four models of public relations?”

  1. Such a welcome post. I’ve noticed this too – including the danger than introducing critiques of symmetry/excellence only serves to confirm the impression that this is the only ‘correct’ theory of public relations.

    I’m now wielding a stick, and advising candidates that over-reliance on these models is not likely to impress those marking their critical reasoning test or project assignments.

    1. Richard – thank you for your comment. I agree that educators need to ensure students realise simply including G&H (or any other model) could be counter-productive. However, since most have not heard of the models until we introduce them, we have the responsibility to put them into context rather than creating the impression that they are the be all and end all of PR thinking. Because they dominate the literature, doesn’t me to say they should dominate our understanding of PR theory and practice.

  2. Well said, well thought and very welcome, indeed.

    It seems to me that in too many cases the 4 models are taught in class not because they make sense (which they of course do, but only up to a point and only in certain specific cultures) but beause they are ‘easy’ to teach and to explain.
    Maybe the models are the easiest way for a student to try and understand what we often try to explain and have difficulty in doing.

    A critical exlanation of the models (particularly in their simplification and normatization) is therefore required and this can certainly not be done at the very beginning but rather towards the end of a course. Rather like a ‘summing it up’.

    1. Interesting point Toni about whether we teach things because they are ‘easy’ to understand. I’ve been looking at social learning theory including the work of Vygotsky and increasingly try to think about concepts such as scaffolding in learning. I suppose the four models can be recognisable to PR practitioners and undergraduate students, and so fit with some expectations; they are something to learn and therefore feel you have knowledge of PR theory (that can be tested).

      But I’m not sure that they help us to construct a more in-depth understanding that is useful for active learning that has more validity for practice. To an extent, I feel that the criticisms are also just ‘to be learned’, where PR education needs to reflect a more mature approach to ensure theory is seen as useful not just a tick box exercise.

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