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Generic principles and specific applications in public relations

April 15, 2013


In this post, Toni Muzi Falconi presents his development of a paradigm of public relations that seeks to establish common understanding of its strategic role in the contemporary, increasingly globalised environment.

Toni subsequently discussed the concept in an email conversation with Rob Wakefield from Brigham Young University (the first scholar to theorize the paradigm a couple of decades ago), which was followed by a review of their elucubrations by Jim Grunig. That conversational development is the subject of the next PR Conversations post.

In the meantime, we welcome your thoughts on the conceptual framework outlined below.


It is impossible for an organization to apply its generic principles if not in the operative context of specific applications; while, conversely, the latter are not effective unless embedded into the former.

  • Generic principles are ‘the characteristics which define excellent public relations’ as Jim Grunig identified in respect of the Excellence study of the mid-1980s/early-1990s (which described the practices of some 300 US, British and Canadian organizations).
  • Specific applications relate to the implementation of public relations activities within particular contexts.

This proposition of an essential linkage between generic principles and specific applications argues that an organization cannot effectively apply generic principles of public relations (as approved by its dominant coalition) throughout the entire network of relationship systems without considering infrastructure characteristics within specific territories, nor can it effectively consider those infrastructure characteristics in absence of the generic principles.

Based on the increasingly interrelated dynamics of public relations and the ever-changing environment in which it operates, we propose six generic principles, and six infrastructural characteristics that need to be considered in understanding the operative implications of day-to-day practice.

Generic principles of public relations (as reviewed by Toni Muzi Falconi) Public relations is a unique management function helping organizations to develop effective relationships with stakeholder publics as well as its operative environment
The value of public relations can be determined by measuring the dynamic quality of relationships the organization establishes with its stakeholder publics, as well as by the improvement in the quality of the organization’s decision making processes enabled by the listening process related to the (quality of) stakeholder expectations and environmental scanning (listening processes)
Public relations serves a strategic, a managerial, as well as a technical role
Public relations departments plan, administer and evaluate public relations programs
Public relations activities are powered by (integrated by) the public relations department or a senior public relations executive, not subordinated to other management functions, who supplies, facilitates, enables, distributes and supports relationship and communication competencies to all other management functions of the organization (, empowered by the dominant coalition of the organization and)
Public relations is two way and tendentially symmetrical, values diversity as a specific added value to the relationship, and is based on a responsible communicating-with, rather than a communicating-to platform
Public relationship infrastructure in a given territory: an overview

Embracing this conceptual framework of generic principles and specific applications delivers a number of (strategic) organizational benefits:

  • It accelerates the institutionalization process for the public relations function within an organization
  • It supports the development of a distributed (central, but also peripheral) managerial monitoring dashboard in each territory It upholds stakeholder relationship governance as the overall responsibility of 21st century public relations

Whilst this development of the original paradigm is helpful, a number of issues remain. Four key questions are:

1. Does the paradigm apply only to public relations?

Potentially, the concept could similarly apply to any other management function or profession with the caveat that relevant generic principles and specific applications be specifically researched. In other words, is the paradigm situational – and if so, is this an oxymoron?

2. Do the generic principles need to reflect the unique characteristics of the organisation as well as the industry in which it operates?

In ensuring effective public relations practices around the world, organizations need to reflect three sets of analysis related to generic principles: the specific practice (PR) and its global principles, the organization’s specific and unique characteristics that are globally valid, and, the industry’s specific and unique characteristics that are globally valid.

3. Should other territorial systems be analysed to determine specific applications?

Are there other territorial systems in addition to the six identified, which need to be analysed? And, can we identify, as I have been now doing for some time, as the ‘public relations infrastructure’ of a given territory? And wouldn’t any of these given territories, by the sheer nature of their being specific, always need to be adaptable to the identification of additional territorial possibilities? In other words, don’t ‘universal specifics’, to at least some degree, create certain rigidity against the notion behind specific application in a given territory?

4. Should the framework directly evidence the interconnectedness between the generic principles and specific applications?

As the constant interconnectedness of the modern world implies that generic principles are valid only if specific applications are acted and vice versa, perhaps this should be indicated by one of the generic principles and one of the specific applications to ensure an effective and equal balance between the two elements of the paradigm.


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