chapter  21
15 Pages

A critical historiography of public relations in Canada: rethinking an ahistorical symmetry

WithAmy Thurlow

Public relations as an emerging profession (Lages & Simkin, 2003 ) has been criticized as atheoretical in its approach (Brown, 2006 ; Grunig & White, 1992 ). Critics contend that public relations is a discipline currently lacking “paradigmatic and topic diversity and strongly infl uenced by practice” (Lages & Simkin, 2003 : 298). Over the past three decades, public relations scholars have endeavoured to develop discipline-specifi c theories that represent a theoretically based body of knowledge representative of a scholarly profession. This process has been defi ned by excellence theory, introduced by Grunig and Hunt ( 1984 ). Excellence theory is a normative theory that prescribes how to do public relations in an ideal situation (Pompper, 2004 ). This theory articulates an evolution of public relations from asymmetrical (focused on organizational goals and one-way communication) to symmetrical (respecting both organizational goals and those of other stakeholders) two-way communication. Since its inception, excellence theory has dominated the public relations landscape, embedding with it a corresponding historical narrative which moves public relations from asymmetrical to symmetrical over a period of the past 100 years or so. The historical narrative which supports this theory attempts to construct a linear history which is singularly American, corporate, and characterized by the experiences of high-profi le (mostly male) practitioners of the twentieth century (Miller, 2000 ). Lamme and Russell ( 2010 ) describe the approach of excellence theory as a ‘periodization approach’ which sets up a linear progression from ‘worst’ to ‘best’ practices. This chapter calls, in broad terms, for increased research outside this dominant paradigm.