Excellence Theory and American Airlines PR Case Study

This week for my Public Relations Theory course, I was required to write a pretty in depth paper on the Excellence Theory and apply it to a current news story. This is an excerpt from the piece, which I feel can highlight how the theory is still relevant, even in today’s shift into a world with heavy social media use, a focus on technology, and more consumer to consumer communication.

“Following the Four Models of Public Relations, Grunig founded the Excellence Theory. This looks at how Public Relations can be a management discipline (Waddington, pg. 2). There are four levels, Programme, Functional, Organisation, and Societal. In the programme level, organizations must make public relations a critical part of management. Next at the functional level, Public Relations should be separate from other management, such as marketing. At the organization level, organizations should build relationships using the two-way symmetrical model. Lastly, at the Societal level, organizations must recognize the impact they have on other organizations and its public. This is where social responsibility is suggested to greatly impact an organization and cannot be effective if they do not (Waddington, pg. 3).

There should be a strategic management by building relationship with the public and highlights the importance of PR to an organization if it wants to be successful. The PR manager should be part of the head decision makers and be able to make decisions without a long process (Coombs and Osborne, pg. 205). It states that there are three stages to strategic public relations, which are stakeholders, publics and issues. First, PR looks at who the stakeholders are in the organization. Those most active are treated as publics and are more likely to be active due to the high level of involvement. Since they are directly affected by the organization, they will directly feel either the rewards, or the consequences (Coombs and Osborn, pg. 205). In the last stage, these publics create issues out of problems. These issues are best resolved by having research-based information and also includes the publics in making the decisions.

Let’s take a look at a headline in the current news and see how the Excellence Theory can be applied. In the past few months, we have seen a rise in stories regarding airlines and customer service. Specifically, how the airline workers kick customers off flights. On NBC News this week, the headline read, “Instagram fitness model Jen Selter kicked off American Airlines flight”. The article, written by Kalhan Rosenblatt, is about how American Airlines asked Jen Selter, who has 11.7 Million followers on her Instagram account and 1 million Twitter followers, to leave the airplane this past Saturday night. The article shares a video taken by Selter, showing the pilot asking her to leave the flight. The plane had been sitting there for more than two hours, and Selter claims to have stood up to put her jacket on while the other two passengers in her aisle were using the restroom.

We can see the shift in technology in this case that the critics speak of in the criticisms of the theory. The issue of social media and the ability for Selter to bring her complaints straight to the public and fellow American Airlines customers and potential customers is brought to light. The interaction between an angry customer and the staff can now be seen by a very large number of people, and very quickly after the incident occurred. American states in the article that they offered her hotel accommodations and transportation, but states she declined. The company should be very aware that with camera phones in nearly everyone’s possession, arguments and disagreements between their employees and their consumers could be spread immediately. The Excellence Theory states how PR needs to be a focus and have decision-making abilities. In this case, it is key for American Airlines to be aware of social media, hashtags, and complaints being spread from its publics to other publics directly. If they have a presence on these sites, they can try to de-escalate consumer issues by corresponding to comments online, and know exactly what its publics perceive as their problems. This demonstrates the third stage in the theory, which is publics create issues out of problems. One minor complaint of the consumer, which may have been being stuck on the plane for two hours on the runway, is now a larger scale issue of being kicked off the flight. In a broader sense, it displays what American Airlines publics see as an issue of customer relations. The airline is portrayed as not caring for its passenger and over-using its power the kick off unruly passengers.


Image source

American Airlines should also be aware that this topic has now been trending in the news for months. These situations are only becoming more and more publicized, so having employees that realize when they should, and when they should not, kick passengers off, should be a priority to the organization. This case also highlights the important factor in the Excellence Theory of having PR practitioners be able to make decisions without a long process. This is a situation that needs quick responses, along with direct and almost instant communication with its public and fellow social media followers. The PR team needs to be able to release statements, become aware of the Airlines side of the story, and reach out to the disgruntled passenger, without having to go through 10 managers above them.

Social media, technology, and the online communication process are only becoming bigger platforms than ever. Companies should be aware of the changing dynamics of communicating with its publics, and how they can still maintain a two-way symmetrical approach. The Excellence Theory is a great starting point in understanding how a PR team can have a successful relationship with its publics. This two-way communication and PR having a key role in management should be a key focus in today’s businesses. The days of one-way communication are gone, and being aware of what your public sees as problems can help save time, money, and embarrassment to even a well-established company.”


     Cooper, Adrienne. Two-Way Communication: A Win-Win Model for Facing Activist Pressure: A Case Study on McDonalds and Unilever’s Responses to Greenpeace. Ball State University. Retrieved at http://www.instituteforpr.org/wp-content/uploads/SymmetricComm_IPRRC1.pdf

Grupp, Robert W. 20 October, 2010. Excellence Theory 2010. Institute for Public Relations. Retrieved at http://www.instituteforpr.org/excellence-theory-2010/

Rosenblatt, Kalhan. 29 January, 2018. Instagram fitness model Jen Selter kicked off American Airlines flight. NBC News. Retrieved at https://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/airplane-mode/instagram-fitness-model-jen-selter-kicked-american-airlines-flight-n841906

Sledzik, Bill. 10 August, 2008. The “4 Models’ of public relations practice: How far have you evolved? ToughSledding. Retrieved at https://toughsledding.wordpress.com/2008/08/10/the-4-models-of-public-relations-practice-how-far-have-you-evolved/

Waddington, Stephen. 2012. A critical review of the Four Models of Public Relations and the Excellence Theory in an era of digital communication. MCIPR. MPRCA. Retrieved at https://bb.siue.edu/webapps/blackboard/execute/content/file?cmd=view&content_id=_1184003_1&course_id=_36998_1


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s