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Prof. James E. Grunig: Public Relations Research at the Functional Level

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Conceptualizing Quantitative Research in Public Relations. Part 8

At the functional level of analysis, a public relations department should conduct research to evaluate itself—how it is organized and what it does. Then it should ask whether the structure and behavior of the public relations function make it possible to contribute maximally to organizational and societal effectiveness.

Research at the functional level is “benchmarking” research. Typically, benchmarking studies identify organizations that are believed to be leaders in an area of practice and then describe how these organizations practice public relations or some other management function. Such benchmarking studies are useful, but they would be even more useful if they were based on a foundation of scientific research that provides a theoretical rationale explaining why the practices of the benchmarked departments contribute to organizational and societal effectiveness.

Our study of excellent public relations departments (L. Grunig et al., 2002) provides such a theoretical profile, a theoretical benchmark, of critical success factors and best practices in public relations. It is a profile that we initially constructed from past research and by theoretical logic. In addition, we gathered empirical evidence from more than 300 organizations in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom to confirm that this theoretical profile explains best actual practice as well as best practice in theory.

In most benchmarking studies, communication units compare themselves with similar units in their industry or with similar functional units inside the organization. The Excellence study, in contrast, is an example of what Fleisher (1995) called “generic benchmarking” in his book on public relations benchmarking, identifying critical success factors across different types of organizations. Generic benchmarking is most valuable theoretically because it is unlikely that one organization will be, in Fleisher’s words, “a world-class performer across the board.” In the Excellence study, only a few organizations exemplified all of the best practices, many organizations exemplified some of them, and others exemplified few of the practices. A theoretical benchmark does not provide an exact formula or detailed description of practices that a public relations unit can copy in order to be excellent. Rather, it provides a generic set of principles that such units can use to generate ideas for specific practices in their own organizations. The criteria we developed and tested in the Excellence study can be used as a theoretical benchmark for auditing a public relations function. This is an example of how research on the profession can result in useful concepts and tools for the practice of public relations.

The Excellence criteria require knowledge and professionalism by the public relations unit. They also require understanding of and support for public relations by senior management. They can be used both for formative and evaluative analysis of a public relations function, as prior research that can be used to plan and organize the function, and as a standard for reviewing the past structure and performance of the function.

The characteristics of an excellent public relations function fall into four categories, each of which contains several characteristics that can be used to audit a public relations function (for specific criteria, see L. Grunig et al., 2002).

  • Empowerment of the public relations function through participation in strategic management, providing public relations professionals access to key decision-makers, including women as well as men in senior public relations positions, and planning and evaluation of communication programs strategically.
  • Organizing public relations as a managerial role rather than as a technical support activity for other management functions.
  • Integrating all communication programs through the public relations function and not subordinating public relations to other management functions such as marketing, human resources, or finance.
  • Practicing public relations as a two-way communication process and with a “symmetrical” purpose of using communication to foster collaboration between organizations and their publics.


In the next chapter: Public Relations Research at the Functional Level

Read Part I, Part IIPart III, Part IV, Part VPart VI and Part VII

Grunig, J. E.: Conceptualizing quantitative research in public relations. In B. Van Ruler, A. Tkalac Verčič, & D. Verčič, (Eds.). Public relations metrics (pp. 88-119). New York and London: Routledge, 2008. Republish with the permission of author.

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