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Public Relations Review 38 (2012) 880–887
Contents lists available at SciVerse ScienceDirect
Public Relations Review
Fringe public relations: How activism moves critical pr toward the
W. Timothy Coombs ∗ , Sherry J. Holladay
Nicholson School of Communication, P.O. Box 161344, University of Central Florida, Orlando, FL 32816-1344, USA
a r t i c l e
Excellence Theory
i n f o
a b s t r a c t
The dominance of Excellence Theory in public relations theory and research may be eroding as contemporary issues in corporations, including the concern with activist challenges
to reputation management and corporate social responsibility, increase in visibility and
demand explanation. We argue that Excellence Theory‘s seemingly reluctant evolution has
provided unsatisfactory treatments of concepts like power and activism, even though it
has attempted to address some limitations of the symmetrical model’s efficacy in responding to activist challenges. Excellence Theory‘s acknowledgment of once-vilified concepts
like persuasion and power sets the stage for critical public relations theory and research
to emerge as significantly more capable of addressing activist advocacy and concomitant
issues. The paper argues that critical theory, buoyed by acceptance of its key concepts, its
increasing access to presentation venues and journals sympathetic to once-marginalized,
alternative perspectives, is poised to infiltrate the public relations orthodoxy. This possibility offers hope that once marginalized pluralistic approaches, especially critical public
relations, may disrupt the colonization of the orthodoxy and infiltrate mainstream public
© 2012 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
1. Introduction
Fringe science is “a phrase used to describe scientific inquiry in an established field that departs significantly from
mainstream or orthodox theories” (Friedlander, 1995). Unlike pseudo-science, fringe science relies on traditional scientific
methodologies and research conventions. Although fringe science research is viewed as highly speculative, it has, at times,
moved to the mainstream. Examples of this mainstream transition include plate tectonics, chaos theory, and the science of
black holes. Fringe scientists are regularly marginalized by scientists immersed in dominant paradigms and have difficulty
finding funding for their research. Their research is not taken seriously by the mainstream orthodoxy, perhaps primarily
because it frequently challenges accepted ideas.
Critical public relations can be easily classified as “fringe public relations.” It deals in topics that are on the periphery of
“orthodox public relations research” and departs significantly from the dominant paradigm of Excellence Theory. Critical
public relations researchers have found themselves on the fringe when trying to find venues to present and to publish their
research, especially in the US. Many mainstream public relations researchers regard the fringe public relations work as threat,
nuisance, or both. But cracks are beginning to emerge in mainstream public relations theory as “fringe” concepts begin to
play an increasingly important role in the field. Terms once ignored or shunned, such as activists, persuasion/advocacy, and
power, are emerging as legitimate concerns for mainstream public relations research.
∗ Corresponding author. Fax: +1 407 823 6360.
E-mail addresses: Timothy.Coombs@ucf.edu (W.T. Coombs), Sherry.Holladay@ucf.edu (S.J. Holladay).
0363-8111/$ – see front matter © 2012 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
W.T. Coombs, S.J. Holladay / Public Relations Review 38 (2012) 880–887
McKie (2005) notes that critical public relations draws upon broader critical theory as articulated typically by European
philosophers concerned with issues like power and oppression in society, including, somewhat ironically, Habermas (1984),
whose work on the ideal speech situation and democratic communication presaged Grunig’s two-way symmetrical communication model. McKie predicted that critical theory would infiltrate public relations theory and research as it did in
organizational and management studies. McKie also attributed interest in critical theory to the internationalization of the
field and the growing awareness of diverse philosophical traditions and social theories. In addition, we believe an increasing array of publication outlets, especially those outside the US that are less constrained by the orthodoxy and encompass
broader views of public relations, offer the potential to erode the symbolic capital and dominance of the US-based Excellence
One could argue the dominant paradigm is trying to co-opt terms like power, persuasion and advocacy, and activism.
However, an alternative view is that once these fringe concepts establish roots within the mainstream of public relations,
no one will be able to control how their influence might re-shape the field. Perhaps attempts to co-opt the terminology of
the fringe will instead terra form orthodox public relations. Or the actual outcome may lie somewhere between these two
extremes. What seems clear is that fringe public relations is having an effect upon orthodox public relations and is poised
to challenge and alter the dominant paradigm. In this paper we posit that the burgeoning interest in activism is the key to
fringe public relations’ growing influence on the existing public relations orthodoxy.
The initial part of the article examines what constitutes critical public relations and how its use of the key terms “persuasion,” “power,” and “activism” have positioned it in relationship to the public relations orthodoxy. Initially, these key
terms were reviled by public relations orthodoxy and embraced primarily by the critical theorists; however, they are now
accepted. We argue that it is the growing power and presence of the idea of activism in public relations and escalating interest in critical public relations that has promoted this sea change. The latter part of the article justifies the role of activists and
activism in awakening public relations orthodoxy to power and persuasion. The rapid development of reputation and corporate social responsibility as public relations concerns will help to illustrate the point. Finally, we consider how the spread
of activism moves beyond co-optation efforts to a genuine opportunity for fringe (critical) public relations to establish itself
firmly within the recognized theories of public relations.
2. Background: key elements of critical public relations
A central point in this article is that critical public relations is currently on the fringe of the field but in a position to
become more mainstream. To fully develop this point, we must begin by understanding what constitutes critical public
relations before we examine its fringe relationship to the current orthodoxy of public relations research. The definition of
critical public relations will introduce the key terms of power and persuasion.
While critical public relations represents a diverse set of views rather than being monolithic, the perspective does coalesce
around the idea of power. We can observe the centrality of power when we examine how critical scholars have conceptualized
public relations. Motion and Weaver (2005), extending on their work from 1996, used a discourse perspective to argue that
public relations is about “the struggle for and negotiation of power” (p. 50). Weaver (2001) noted that critical public relations
is “defined by a central concern with theorizing issues of power” (p. 280). Similarly, Edwards (2012) recognized that public
relations is value-driven and has the potential to “engender both power and resistance” (p. 19). Rakow (1989) posited that
the unequal distribution of power for creating information kept publics in a passive position to organizations. This sampling
of the critical public relations literature over a twenty year period illustrates the central role of power in this perspective. A
foundational observation from critical public relations is that existing power relationships privilege organizational interests
(Motion & Weaver, 2005; Roper, 2005).
Power is frequently linked to Gramsci’s (1971) term hegemony or “domination without physical coercion through the
widespread acceptance of particular ideologies and consent to the practices associated with those ideologies” (Roper, 2005,
p.70). Public relations practitioners utilize communication to create power. Practitioners create discourses that present
and justify their view of the world. When publics accept the practitioner’s view of the world, hegemony is created and
publics cede power to the organizations. Organizations can use power to dominate publics and much of the critical public
relations research seeks to illuminate this hegemonic domination. However, publics also can use power to transform their
relationships with organizations. Drawing upon Foucault (1972), Roper (2012), Motion and Weaver (2005) refer to the ability
to transform relationships as the “positive and productive” conceptualization of power.
The ability of discourse to create domination connects power with persuasion. Persuasion is the ability to influence
people’s attitudes and/or behaviors. The critical public relations writings are addressing persuasion when they discuss
organizational efforts to influence perceptions such as the use discourse to shape public opinion (Motion & Weaver, 2005)
or the promotion of the symbolic interests of an organization (Roper, 2012; Weaver, 2001). We are not equating persuasion
with efforts to establish hegemonic control but persuasion plays an integral role in the process. Our point is that persuasion,
like power, is closely associated with critical views of public relations. Moloney (2006) argues that persuasion is a defining
element of public relations because public relations is motivated by the “self-presentation-for-attention-and-advantage” (p.
121). Morris and Goldsworthy (2008) stated “PR is about persuading people to act (or not act) in particular ways” (p. 100).
Critical public relations scholars openly recognize that public relations is about persuasion rather using the veneer of public
relations as information.
W.T. Coombs, S.J. Holladay / Public Relations Review 38 (2012) 880–887
Table 1
Central concepts in Excellence Theory.
• Top management understands the value of public relations
• Public relations contributes to strategic planning
• Public relations enacts a managerial role
• Public relations utilizes the two-way symmetrical model of public relations
• Practitioners have skills and knowledge to enact the managerial role and two-way symmetrical model of public relations
• Activist pressure can create the need for organizations to communicate
• Organizations have a participative culture
• Diversity in race and gender benefits public relations
Activists are among those publics that engage organizations. Activists seek to change organizations in some fashion and
that requires them to utilize power and persuasion. Typically activists are marginalized by and have much less power than
organizations. Through public relations, activists can attempt to build power and to persuade organizations to alter their
behaviors and policies (Coombs & Holladay, 2007).
Critical public relations has been on the fringe of the field because it asks the tough questions about power, persuasion,
and activism that the orthodoxy of public relations chooses to ignore. From Rakow (1989) to Pieczka (1996) to Motion and
Weaver (2005) to Edwards (2012) we witness a steady stream of critical public relations work that challenges the orthodoxy
to consider power and persuasion in a serious manner. Those challenges set the stage for the considering critical public
relations’ relationship with the public relations orthodoxy.
3. The dominant paradigm/orthodoxy of public relations: Excellence Theory
As Botan and Hazleton (2006) observed in Public Relations Theory II, Excellence Theory is the closest the field of public
relations has to a dominant paradigm. The effects of Excellence Theory are easily visible in the published literature that
comprises the corpus of public relations theory and research. Hence, Excellence Theory is the orthodoxy to critical public
relations’ fringe position.
Excellence Theory began life as the four public relations models (Grunig & Hunt, 1984) and was designed to explain the
evolution and practice of public relations. The two-way symmetrical model of public relations evolved into the symmetrical
“worldview” (Grunig & White, 1992) and eventually the Excellence Theory (Grunig, 1992a). Table 1 presents a summary of
the central concepts that comprise Excellence Theory. As with any theory, Excellence Theory has evolved over the years.
What is of interest to us is how Excellence Theory has changed in relationship to three concepts central to critical public
relations: (1) persuasion, (2) power, and (3) activism. The changes related to these terms are what suggest an opportunity
for critical public relations to gain greater prominence and acceptance in public relations.
The term “activism” emerged early in discussions of two-way symmetrical communication (e.g., Grunig, 1992b). McKie
and Munshi (2007) noted how activists were characterized as “obstacles” in the early discussions of two-way symmetrical
public relations. Grunig (1989b) stated, “When members of active publics join activist groups, they contribute to the constraints on organizational autonomy that creates a public relations problem and bring about the need for a public relations
program” (p. 3). Grunig (1992b) echoed this idea, “This chapter represents an attempt to help public relations practitioners
deal in a more than an ad hoc way with the opposition their organizations often face from activist groups” (p. 513). In general,
activists are treated as constraints or problems that public relations must address. As Holtzhausen (2007) observed, there
was an ongoing hostility toward activists in public relations research.
The incipient discussion of the four models of public relations recognized persuasion as a relevant concept. Scientific
persuasion was the hallmark of two-way asymmetrical public relations and practitioners using this model relied upon
theories of persuasion to guide their message construction. “They [practitioners] use what is known from social science theory
and research about attitudes and behavior to persuade publics to accepts the organization’s point of view and to behave in
a way that supports the organization” (Grunig & Hunt, 1984, p. 22). In contrast, two-way symmetrical was characterized by
mutual understanding and guided by theories of communication. Two-way symmetrical communication reflected a balance
in the relationship between the organization and publics in contrast to asymmetrical’s focus on changing public behaviors
and attitudes. Although primarily descriptive, the early discussion of the four models still endorsed the two-way symmetrical
model. Persuasion was to be avoided in public relations in favor of mutual understanding in part because persuasion was
inexorably linked to an organization acting in its own self-interests (Grunig & Hunt, 1984).
Over time, the criticisms of the two-way asymmetrical model and the persuasion function became more incisive. In
1989, persuasion became linked with manipulation. Here is a sample description: “two-way asymmetrical models intend
to persuade or manipulate publics” (Grunig, 1989a, p. 30). On pages 29 and 30 in the 1989 Public Relations Theory chapter,
persuasion and manipulation are paired together five times. This description maligns persuasion and positions it as a “devil
term” in public relations. Persuasion, now demonized, was a practice to be avoided in public relations and a practice linked to
unethical behavior. Additionally, in 1989 the presuppositions of symmetrical and asymmetrical models of public relations,
the precursors of worldviews, were detailed. The asymmetrical presuppositions were largely negative while the symmetrical
presuppositions were positive. Works by Gandy (1982) and Olasky (1987) were used to indict the two-way asymmetrical
W.T. Coombs, S.J. Holladay / Public Relations Review 38 (2012) 880–887
Table 2
Two worldviews in Excellence Theory.
Asymmetrical (persuasion)
Internal orientation
Closed system
Central authority
Symmetrical (mutual understanding)
Decentralization of management
Conflict resolution
Interest-group liberalism
model of public relations. The solution was to use the innately ethical, two-way symmetrical model of public relations. The
demonization of persuasion left only one legitimate alternative, the “inherently ethical,” two-way symmetrical model.
In 1992, the publication of the Excellence in Public Relations and Communication Management articulated the case for
the two-way symmetrical model (Grunig, 1992a). In chapter two of the book, the presuppositions were expanded and
were labeled “worldviews.” Again, persuasion was equated with manipulation. The two-way asymmetrical model of public
relations, synonymous with persuasion, was vilified. Here are examples of the blatant negativity associated with the two-way
asymmetrical model:
(1) “the asymmetrical worldview steers public relations practitioners toward actions that are unethical, socially irresponsible, and ineffective” (Grunig & White, 1992, p. 40).
(2) “it is difficult, if not impossible, to practice public relations in a way that is ethical and socially responsible using an
asymmetrical model” (Grunig & White, 1992, p. 40).
In addition, the worldviews of asymmetry are clearly negative while those of symmetry are clearly positive. Table 2 provides a brief contrast of the two worldviews. Persuasion is negative as it is associated with unethical and socially irresponsible
It is in this chapter of Excellence in Public Relations and Communication Management that power begins to enter the
discussion as Rakow’s (1989) criticism of symmetry is refuted. Her criticism was premised on the unequal power between
publics and organizations. Excellence Theory argues that the power issue has been resolved “because publics have gained
power by organizing into activist groups” (Grunig & White, 1992, p. 47). In addition, Grunig and White (1992) turn to Alvin
Gouldner and structural–functional sociology to support their contention that power is not an issue. They argue that the
norm of reciprocity keeps the more powerful in check. In other words, people do not abuse their power because they know
others may respond in kind. Those who abuse power are punished for those actions. The term power became reserved for
whether or not the public relations department was part of the dominant coalition, those actors in the organization that
make the decisions (Berger, 2007). The discussion of power centers on the public relations department and its connection
to the C-suite, not the relationship between publics and the organization.
In 2001, Dozier, Grunig, and Grunig (2001) perpetuated the view that asymmetrical public relations is about behavior and
attitude change—persuasion—and that it poses ethical problems. Dozier et al. (2001) state, “public relations practitioners
are not convincing when defending the ethics of many asymmetrical, commercial campaigns” (p. 235). Persuasive efforts
designed to change the attitudes or behaviors of publics are positioned as unethical. They contend the more appropriate
and ethical approach is to build mutual understanding through the two-way sym …
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