From Aardvark to Zebra: A New Millennium Analysis of Theory Development in Public Relations Academic Journals

Document Type


Publication Date



In a replication and extension of a 1984 study by Ferguson to investigate the status of theory building by public relations scholars, 748 abstracts or articles published in Public Relations Review, Journal of Public Relations Research and its predecessor, Public Relations Research Annual, since their inceptions through the year 2000, were subjected to content analysis. Nearly 20% of articles analyzed were found to have contributed to theory development in public relations, compared to only 4% in Ferguson's study. Theory was most prevalent in articles about excellence/symmetry, public relationships, ethics and social responsibility, crisis response, critical-cultural, feminism/diversity, and international topics. These and interdisciplinary influences are expected to continue to contribute to ever more theory building in public relations. Proportionally, Public Relations Research Annual made the greatest contributions to theory development, followed by Journal of Public Relations Research, although Public Relations Review published the greatest number of articles contributing to theory development. Public Relations Review and Journal of Public Relations Research published comparable numbers of articles regarding excellence theory, public relationships, and crisis response theory. However, Public Relations Review published far more articles on theories about academic versus applied research, ethics/social responsibility, international and role theory than Journal of Public Relations Research. Conversely, Journal of Public Relations Research published more content about situational theory and gender/diversity theories than Public Relations Review. The most prolific authors contributing to theory development were James E. Grunig, Robert L. Heath, Larissa Schneider Grunig, W. Timothy Coombs, and John A. Ledingham.