Engaging (and grilling) the social side of James Grunig


Regular readers of this blog are aware of my long-term, personal relationship with the Grunigs, yet I confess surprise when I read Jim Grunig’s first comment on this earlier blog post. As one might expect, the whole PR Conversations’ co-bloggers group—from Canada to New Zealand, South Africa to Portugal, Italy to England and Austria—agreed that it would be very interesting for all the readers of this blog if Jim continued as part of the discussion…which he certainly has done in that specific post! Up until now it appeared to me that Jim was not a proponent or user of social media; however, he had fairly recently indicated, “[it] creates the possibility of symmetrical communication” and that “[social media’s] greatest value may be in environmental scanning to listen to stakeholders and bring information into decision making”.

The outcome of his first engagement was a request to Jim for a collective interview, to which he wholeheartedly agreed.

Fourteen questions posed to James Grunig from PR Conversations contributors

Questions from Judy Gombita (Canada)

Q1. As a PR practitioner, I’ve chosen to use this channel to invite your answers to questions about social media and public relations. On a recent post on Bill Sledzik’s blog, you commented that you, “usually read blogs to find out what people are saying rather than as a means of passing on opinions.” We’re delighted you also waded into our blog’s territory to opine. But what is the primary reason for your change of heart? Is recent social media engagement related to new research and/or a growing personal interest, or is it mainly a tool for reputation management regarding possible (mis)interpretation(s) of your theoretical body of work?

A1. I have long had an interest in the potential of cyber media (including discussion groups, listservs, web pages, blogs, and the new social media) for use in public relations.

Early in the development of cyber media, I gave one of my graduate classes an assignment to identify potential issues for an organization of their choice by searching listservs, discussion groups, and websites on the Internet.

I gave this assignment several years before commercial services began doing the same thing. I thought the new media offered tremendous potential for environmental scanning, issues management, rumor control, and crisis communication.

I continue to believe the cyber media have great potential for research and listening, but I also see great potential for dialog, or two-way symmetrical communication.

My reading of blogs by public relations professionals also suggests that most of them see this same potential.

At the Arthur W. Page conference three weeks ago, a panel on the new media suggested that Google should be the home page for an organization rather than its own web page. That is, organizations should engage in dialogue with their publics by monitoring and posting on the blogs of other people.

I also think organizations should sponsor their own blogs to engage directly in dialogue with people who want to communicate with them. When engaging with people on their own blogs, I think it is a matter of judgement whether to simply listen to what people are saying about you or the organization and when to intervene.

If bloggers are interpreting the actions of you or the organization accurately, I think it is best to stay out so as not to change the nature of the discussion.

If you are being interpreted inaccurately, however, then I think you should intervene to try to correct or enlarge the interpretation.

One must be respectful, however, because an intemperate response will typically anger the other bloggers and make the situation worse.

Generally, this is what I try to do personally when I become aware of blogs in which people are discussing my theories and research. JG

Q2. Within Grunig and Hunt’s “four models of public relations practice,” where would you position the most viable applications of social media? And if you choose the “two-way symmetrical model” for (say) “collaborative advocacy,” do you view social media as having potential with all publics…or is perhaps best suited for targeted publics (e.g., employees, investors, etc.)?

A2. I believe the new media are perfect for practicing the two-way symmetrical model. I think it would be difficult to practice any of the other models effectively with the new media. Unfortunately, I’m afraid a lot of public relations practitioners try to practice these other models with cyber media.

Historically, whenever a new medium is invented people use it in the same way that they used the existing media. So, for example, when television was invented journalists tended to use it like radio by simply televising someone reading the news rather than using pictures.

With today’s new cyber media, public relations practitioners first used it like they used publications—as a means of dumping information on the public (following either the press agentry or public information model). With the advent of Web 2.0, however, practitioners seem to be adopting a dialogical model by listening to publics, discussing problems and issues with them, and interpreting their organization’s actions and behaviours to publics.

This kind of interaction is what I would call collaborative advocacy, which is a concept invented by Christopher Spicer and I think is a good descriptor for the two-way symmetrical model.

Using the press agentry or public information models, therefore, is a complete waste of the potential of the new media. I do think, however, that public relations people should put a lot of information on websites so that journalists and members of publics can search out information they need. The new media put information seeking under the control of publics, not the control of organizations. People can go anywhere they want at any time they want to search for information.

Public relations professionals should try to anticipate their information needs and make information available on the Internet so people searching for specific information about an organization can find it there. If formal or informal research is done to identify the information needs of publics, this provision of information becomes two-way and symmetrical rather than simply an information dump. There are formal ways of identifying information needs, such as research based on my situational theory of publics. Informal methods also can be used, such as content analyzing inquiries on the search engine of your website to see what people are searching for.

I dislike the term “targeted” publics. This suggests that the organization should try to limit its publics to those it wants to reach because of its self interests. I believe we have to identify publics from their own perspectives.

Publics consist of people who are affected by the consequences of an organization’s behaviour—either positively or negatively. Other publics also seek consequences from an organization that the organization might prefer not to provide—such as a pharmaceutical company producing an orphan drug that might cure a disease but is not profitable.

The great thing about the new media is that publics are free to identify themselves rather than waiting for the organization to identify them. Obviously, therefore, we should engage all publics—at least to the extent that the organization has the resources to engage them.

If resources are insufficient, then we should prioritize publics according to the impact the organization has on them or the impact they have on the organization. Such a prioritization requires judgement both about social responsibility and about the strategic interests of the organization. JG

Questions from Markus Pirchner (Austria)

Q3. For decades public relations has accustomed to the idea (or model) of stakeholder relations as a number of distinct bi-lateral communication processes. The growing significance of the “social web” (or web 2.0, if you prefer) appears to have changed the situation, insofar as relevant communication processes (or “conversations”) can and do take place partly without the involvement of the affected organisations or their PR departments. Do you think that this development has added an extra “dimension” (e.g., multi-lateral communication processes)? And if yes, how does this affect PR theory (or theories)?

A3. Even with the old media, publics typically interacted with each other as well as with the organization. For example, often they formed coalitions to interact with government and then with the government interacted with an organization.

Publics often disagree with each other, so the organization must engage with several of them jointly to try to get them to talk with each other. For example, the Brookhaven National Laboratory, on Long Island in New York, found that community groups disagreed with each other about whether the laboratory should restart a nuclear reactor after it leaked radioactive waste into the ground water.

Business interests wanted to restart the reactor, whereas environmental groups opposed restarting it. To deal with this situation, the Laboratory formed a community advisory panel consisting of these competing publics and asked the panel members to help make a decision about restarting the reactor.

Thus, I think organizations have always had to deal with multilateral communication, but they often didn’t realize it.

The interaction among publics on the Internet simply makes these multilateral relationships obvious. JG

Q4. As those processes, which usually are not initiated and/or managed by PR, may (and do) affect the way organisations are perceived by publics, one can assume that they have direct influence on those organisations’ overall reputation. If at all, how do you think this development is influencing the methods, means, ways and chances of the management of relationship and communication models and systems?

A4. I believe it is an illusion to believe public relations ever could initiate and manage interactions and relationships with publics.

I have said many times that the difference between a market (for marketers) and publics (for public relations professionals) is that an organization can create its markets but that it cannot create its publics.

Publics create themselves, and we have little choice but to engage with them unless the organization chooses to endure negative publicity, legislation, litigation, and regulation that comes from ignoring the interests of publics and refusing to develop relationships with them.

The difference now, I think, is that the new media make it difficult, if not impossible, for an organization to deceive itself by thinking it has the ability to control which publics it wants to develop a relationship with and the communication that takes place with those publics.

A reputation is nothing more than what members of a public think and say about an organization. Now they are saying what they think in a huge international arena and even obscure publics can have a great impact on the organization’s reputation. To develop and protect a reputation, therefore, organizations must develop quality relationships with publics who come forth on the internet. JG

Questions from Catherine Arrow (New Zealand)

Q5. Where do you think public relations is heading? Do you think practitioners (and academics) have got their act together sufficiently to provide the type of counsel and service necessary in today’s world or do you think there is more we should be doing?

A5. I think public relations is headed in two incompatible directions, although I caution that I may be stereotyping and failing to recognize important differences by limiting myself to these two directions.

You can read my descriptions of these two directions in the lecture I delivered two years ago to the U. S. Institute for Public Relations

I call these two competing approaches to public relations the symbolic, interpretive, paradigm and the strategic management, behavioral, paradigm.

Scholars and practitioners who embrace the symbolic paradigm generally assume that public relations strives to influence how publics interpret the organization.

These cognitive interpretations are embodied in such concepts as image, reputation, brand, and impressions.

The interpretive paradigm can be found in the concepts of reputation management in business schools, integrated marketing communication in advertising programs, and some critical and rhetorical theories of public relations in communication departments.

Practitioners who follow the interpretive paradigm emphasize messages, publicity, media relations, and media effects to put up a smoke screen around the organization so publics cannot see the organization’s behavior as it truly is.

In contrast, the behavioral, strategic management, paradigm focuses on the participation of public relations executives in strategic decision-making so that they can help manage the behavior of organizations.

In this paradigm, public relations is a bridging activity that strives to build relationships with stakeholders and to base organizational reputations on behavior rather than messages. The strategic management paradigm emphasizes two-way communication of many kinds to provide publics a voice in management decisions and to facilitate dialogue between management and publics both before and after decisions are made. The strategic management paradigm does not exclude traditional public relations activities such as media relations and the dissemination of information.

Rather, it broadens the number and types of media and communication activities and fits them into a framework of research and listening. As a result, messages reflect the information needs of publics as well as the advocacy needs of organizations.

I see public relations moving in both directions.

I hope it will move away from the interpretive approach and become more of a strategic management approach. I have done everything I could do in my career to move it in that direction. However, I believe practitioners who emphasize marketing communication and media relations in their work are pushing hard to maintain the interpretive approach.

I also believe that a large number of scholars embrace the interpretive approach and that critical scholars, in particular, assume that the critical paradigm is what public relations actually is in the real world and that my strategic management approach is an illusion.

Finally, I believe the interpretive approach has been institutionalized in the minds of journalists, many clients of public relations firms, and the general population.

I believe the strategic management paradigm now is practiced in most major corporations, and I believe a major challenge for the profession is to reinstitutionalize public relations in the same way in the minds and practice of others. JG

Q6. Would you consider that social media tools have facilitated an improvement in global understanding of public relations or simply created a lot of “noise and confusion” as people offer conflicting views? Or, amidst all the noise, would you hold the view that by holding such conversations better understanding and approaches will develop?

A6. As I read blogs from around the world, I see that the strategic management approach being discussed predominantly as the ideal, or normative approach to public relations.

I also see arguments against that approach, primarily from critical and persuasion scholars in universities. Many of these counter-arguments are heated.

If students and professionals around the world read these blogs, I think they will develop a broader understanding of public relations.

I believe that dialog, discussion, and interaction are almost always beneficial, so I also believe that the new media will improve global understanding of the profession.

At the same time, however, almost everyone can find reinforcement for their ideas somewhere on the internet so that the discussion probably won’t change the minds of those with firm positions. JG

Questions from Benita Steyn (South Africa)

Q7. You said in Bled, Slovenia (2002) that you were drawn to the European concept of “reflective” public relations (bringing organizational decisions into alignment with society’s changing norms and values) and were even “titillated” (i.e., excited) by it. Also, that reflective PR provided the field with an enticing way to think about what we know and do. Have you pursued this line of thinking in any way?

A7. When I first heard about the “reflective” approach to public relations, I could see very little difference from what I have called the strategic management approach. That is, public relations works with other managers to get them to reflect about the consequences of their decisions and actions on stakeholder groups and the publics found within those groups.

However, my European colleagues argued that society is more than a network of relationships among organizations, publics, and other groups—that society reflects the interests of everyone. That perspective seems to reflect European social theory, which generally is broader than the way Americans think about society.

I still lean toward thinking that there are relatively few problems or interests that everyone in society shares, but I am intrigued by the idea that public relations people should try to think this broadly.

Problems such as global warming and the current global financial crisis affect everyone in the world, and I think public relations people should work to get organizations to think about these broadly shared problems.

In that light, therefore, I think that reflective public relations is a valuable contribution to public relations theory. JG

Q8. Would you interpret the concept of symmetrical communication as “mutual (reciprocal) reflection?” Why or why not?

A8. I think that reflection by both organizations and publics about the effects of their behavior on the other is a major part of the symmetrical model of communication.

I do want to emphasize that the symmetrical model does not suggest that communication always benefits both parties equally or that it produces consensus—two ways in which the model often is misinterpreted.

Thus, thinking about the symmetrical communication as reflective does suggest an emphasis on how organizations and publics think about their relationships rather than on equality of outcome. In that way, I think mutual (or concurrent) reflection is a good way to think about the symmetrical model.

At the same time, I think the symmetrical model goes beyond reflection to also describe a set of communication strategies and activities designed to influence the behaviour of both management and publics and to produce a set of relationship outcomes that, at least to some extent, benefit both parties over the long run. JG

Questions from Heather Yaxley (England)

Q9. Do you have a view of why so many PR practitioners focus on craft skills and are reluctant to educate themselves despite many decades of body of knowledge creation? Are practitioners themselves to blame for this, or does the blame lie more with the research and education establishments?

A9. I think that most public relations practitioners do what they know how to do. Many entered the profession because of their craft skills, such as writing or editing, and that is what they continue to do. Many also are unaware that there are theories of public relations, programs of research, and a body of knowledge.

Typically, their employers only think of public relations as a craft, so the vicious circle is completed; and there is no reason for these practitioners to think beyond what they have done in the past, what they continue to do, and what their employers expect of them.

Since many employers continue to look only for new practitioners with craft skills, many educational institutions meet that demand by supplying graduates with mostly craft skills.

Thus, these educational institutions also are to blame. In short, for a large number of practitioners, employers, and universities, public relations has become institutionalized as a craft rather than as a strategic management discipline.

Fortunately, I believe that leading universities are working hard to reinstitutionalize public relations as a strategic management profession, as have most of the leading professional societies in the world (e.g., the Arthur W. Page Society in the United States).

Often, though, there is a disconnect between this emerging view of public relations and the views of those who practice it as a craft.

Eventually, I believe that the vicious circle will be broken, but that will not happen until most people change the way they think about public relations.

Just last week, for example, I talked with a man waiting in line to board an airplane in London as I returned from teaching a seminar in Nigeria. He asked what I had done in Nigeria, and I said I had lectured about public relations.

He broke out in laughter. Basically, he didn’t think anyone could change the “image” or “reputation” of Nigeria.

I pointed out the multinational oil companies in Nigeria have many problems in their relationships with activists and communities. We were thinking about public relations very differently. I was too tired at the time to try to educate him. JG

Q10. Do you feel that the practical ideas within situational theory have not been studied, recognised and applied as much as they could have been?

A10. The situational theory of publics, including the practical ideas it suggests, has been studied extensively for more than 40 years. I first introduced the theory in 1966 and developed it in my doctoral dissertation published in 1968.

Since that time, I have used the theory in research conducted both by graduate and undergraduate students in classes I have taught. Many of these studies have been published, but the applied ones generally have not.

In 1997, I wrote an extensive review of research on the theory in the article titled, “A situational theory of publics: Conceptual history, recent challenges and new research,” which was published in D. Moss, T. MacManus, & D. Vercic (Eds.), Public relations research: An International Perspective, London: International Thomson Business Press.

Most recently, a Ph.D. student of mine, Jeong-Nam Kim, wrote a dissertation on the theory in which he extended the theory considerably. Previously, the theory explained when and how members of publics seek and process information. Jeong-Nam extended the theory to explain how people use the information they seek and process and to explain when and why they share it with others.

Thus, he has made the theory into a theory of cognition and social use of information as well as a theory of information acquisition alone.

Jeong-Nam and I have a contract with Routledge publishers to publish a revised version of the dissertation as a book, which will be available in about two years.

In addition to the research conducted by my students and me, a number of scholars at other universities have researched the theory. Others have critiqued the theory, but they often have done so inaccurately.

So, to answer your question, I don’t believe this theory could have been studied any more than it has. Now, has it been applied by practitioners as much as it could have been? Probably not. The theory is rather simple conceptually, but it requires some specialized knowledge about research and statistics to apply it in practice that most public relations professionals and research companies lack.

When he was alive, Pat Jackson of Jackson, Jackson and Wagner, discussed the theory extensively in his newsletter pr reporter and applied the logic of the theory informally in his practice.

Others have used the theory in practice, but I regret that more have not used it.

I think the situational theory contradicts most of the conventional wisdom that public relations practitioners have about publics, and a great deal of wasted effort in public relations would be prevented if practitioners would think a little more about why their “target publics” might have little need for the information they provide in campaigns and other public relations programs.

Basically, the theory says that people pay little attention to messages that are not related to problems they recognize (problem recognition), that involve them (involvement recognition), and that they have the power to do something about (constraint recognition).

Typical public relations programs ignore all of these conditions that explain why and how people seek and process information, and most of them have little effect. JG

Questions from João Duarte (Portugal)

Q11. Would you agree that “sustainable PR” is also the art of incorporating into decision-making processes other interests than just those of the two parties directly involved? And if so, would this represent something different than “two-way symmetric?”

A11. Although I believe I already answered this question in responding to the question from Markus Pirchner, I think there are often more than one organization and one public involved in decision-making processes.

Therefore, a strategic public relations manager must think broadly about the different publics that might be affected in different ways by management decisions and behaviors and about how different publics might affect each other.

He or she must also think about how to organize symmetrical communication among these different parties.

Thus, we are still talking about symmetrical communication, but we are talking about multi-party symmetrical communication rather than simple two-way communication.

Remember, though, that the basic idea of symmetrical communication is that public relations professionals should be collaborative advocates—that is they should advocate the interests of the organization they represent while also understanding and advocating the interests of several publics, both to the organization and to the other publics. JG

Q12: Is it possible that more focus on the “opinion of the publics” (i.e., a group’s common way of thinking or its “social will”) could lead to develop of communication and relationship modes aimed at better understanding and working directly with those publics—rather than working indirectly and through “public opinion?”

A12. I would have to ask what you mean by “public opinion.” Pollsters generally think of “public opinion” as the opinions expressed by members of a population, rather than opinions of publics. Thus, they are not really measuring “public” opinions. They are simply tabulating the number of people in a population who hold different opinions.

I think instead that public relations people should try to focus on the opinions of publics, or, more importantly, on the problems of publics and then try to communicate with these publics to help them solve the problems they experience in interacting with an organization or the problems they hope an organization will help them to solve.

Thus, as you said, it is important to identify and segment publics and then communicate with them to develop relationships and to discover symbiotic means to solve the problem that organizations and publics face as they interact with each other.

In general, I reject the idea that there is such an entity as a “general public” or that this general public has an opinion.

Mostly, the idea of working indirectly through public opinion is a rationalization of the belief that communicating widely through the mass media is an effective way of solving public relations problems. JG

Questions from Toni Muzi Falconi (Italy)

Q13. You often distinguish between process and outcome, but somehow the distinction fails to come through in actual public relation practice. Why do you think this is so? Do we need more organizational and managerial rather than communicational/relational related culture?

A13. In the conventional language of most public relations practitioners, the word “manage” is attached to a number of outcomes, such as perceptions, reputations, images, issues, crises, and relationships. Thus, practitioners claim they have the ability to manage perceptions, reputations, or relationships.

They cannot do so. They can only manage the processes that affect these outcomes.

They can control, to some extent, how they communicate with publics and with management and the strategies they use to develop a relationship or a reputation.

If they manage these processes well, they can “influence” the outcome. However, they cannot control the outcome directly.

Now, you might ask why this distinction does not come through in practice. I believe it is because few practitioners conceptualize what they are doing—that is, think logically and theoretically about concepts, definitions, and measures and how they affect each other.

For example, the concept of “perception management” is a logical impossibility. The concept of perception is typically confused with the concept of cognition. In psychological theory, perceptions are what people recognize in their environment. Cognitions are how they think.

Perception management is impossible because you cannot influence what people recognize.

Cognition “management” is somewhat more likely because you can “influence,” but not “manage,” how people think.

Thus, I have tried mightily to get public relations people to think logically about what they are doing and the claims they make about the effects their practice has.

If they would do so, I think public relations would be on much firmer ground both theoretically and in practice.

I’m not sure what you mean by an organizational and managerial culture rather than a communicational/relational culture. I think you mean that public relations people should think more about how to organize and plan (“manage”) what they are doing rather than to just communicate and relate to publics. If that is what you mean, I strongly agree.

In general, I think we need to think about, plan, and organize how we communicate (processes) in order to cultivate relationships (outcomes) with publics that are strategic to an organization (because the organization affects them, they affect the organization, or publics expect something from the organization). JG

Q14. How committed are you to the generic principles and specific applications concept? Have you had second thoughts? Where do you think and hope this concept will end up?

A14. I am strongly committed to this concept and really have no second thoughts. The idea is that there are certain concepts (generic principles) that at an abstract level apply to public relations in different cultural, economic, and political settings and across different types of organizations. At the same time, these concepts must be applied differently in different settings (specific applications).

These generic principles include the strategic management role of public relations; the symmetrical model; the integration of the public relations function; resisting the sublimation of public relations to marketing, human resources, or other management functions; the importance of diversity; and the role of public relations as a counsellor of ethics and social responsibility.

A theory of generic principles and specific applications occupies the middle ground between those who say that public relations is the same everywhere and those who say it is different everywhere.

At an abstract level, public relations is the same everywhere; in specific applications it is different.

It is important to recognize that the theory of generic principles and specific applications is a normative rather than a descriptive theory—that is, it describes how public relations should, or could, be practiced but not how it is always practiced.

Those who have argued against the theory have done so by identifying public relations practices that do not fit within the generic principles and thus claim, as one study did, that there was no evidence that symmetrical public relations is practiced in India.

That may be true, but it does not mean that in a normative sense public relations could not be practiced that way in India. Another study in South Africa identified an African model of public relations that supposedly was unique and different from the symmetrical model.

When I read the same results, I concluded that the African model was actually a specific application of the symmetrical model in an African setting.

I think that the public relations profession is striving for a global set of principles to apply throughout the world.

If there are no such principles, there is little reason for public relations people to interact with each other in international organizations such as the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management or the International Public Relations Association.

Without such generic principles, it would be difficult for global corporations or public relations firms to operate in different settings. They would have no shared principles or values. They would simply turn public relations over to local practitioners throughout the world, and few practitioners would understand or appreciate what other practitioners are doing.

Where will this concept end up?

My vision is that there will be a global public relations profession in which we share common values and principles but also value the diversity necessary to apply these values and principles in different settings.

Unity in diversity, I believe, is a wonderful and achievable goal. JG

* * *

Thank you, Jim Grunig, for engaging with PR Conversations and its contributors!

Engagement from other blogs

A ‘two-way symmetrical’ with James Grunig
Tapping Twitter / Tapping Twitter
The Week’s Best, 20 October 2008
Two-way communications as strategic management – the past and future of PR?
Facing up to Facebook


  1. Dr. Grunig, Toni and All –

    Thank you for offering such an excellent Q&A. I wish I could join you at the Congress to hear more.

    I’m very interested in the response to question nine from Heather Yaxley. There is indeed a disconnect between this emerging, strategic management view of public relations and the views of those who practice it as a craft. As someone who just received a master’s in public relations and corporate communications at New York University, I’m especially sensitive about the idea that PR is simply a “craft.” Certainly, there are aspects of public relations—like any other profession or trade—that require experience managing certain logistics such as writing a press release or speaking with a reporter. However, I agree that the PR profession needs to elevate its reputation to be recognized as consistent and strategic counselors—able to provide the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ to inform the craft. It is definitely a problem and there are no easy solutions. It will be a slow cultural change but thankfully, it is being accelerated by Dr. Grunig, Toni Muzi Falconi and colleagues. Thank you! Kristin

  2. Thank you, Dr. Grunig, for clarifying the fact that your generic principles are normative and not descriptive. As such, they are useful for comparative purposes and agenda setting but not much else, I’m afraid.

    Moreover, in a dynamic field like public relations, the notion of global principles applied to public relations practice feels like the equivalent of top-down communication, with the global entity prescribing the methods and setting the rules of engagement. This is hardly different from the one-way symmetrical model advocated by Bernays and others.
    Any practitioner who has tried to implement a national campaign at the local level can confirm the central weakness of this argument.

    Finally, Dr. Grunig’s statement, “Perception management is impossible because you cannot influence what people recognize,” is intriguing, because public relations will never shake the perception articulated by celebrity publicist Cindy Berger in a recent CNN profile of her life and work:

    “I graduated college and I was laying in a friend’s pool reading Cosmopolitan magazine, drinking a can of Tab. And there was an article about celebrity publicists. And I thought, my God, that’s what I want to do. That’s it.”

  3. I see that I made a typing error (difficult to type in these little boxes at times). I should have written, “This is hardly different from the two-way asymmetrical model advocated by Bernays and others.”

  4. Bill,

    Although I am not advocating universal application of any particular model to all situations (that’s far too modernist for my tastes), I do believe there are universal principles that need to be at the heart of public relations theory and practice. Concepts such as discussion, trust, respect for others, willingness to listen, etc are not simply normative or ideal; nor exclusive to anyone culture or part of the world.

    PR practice that is founded on these, rather than predicated on spin, manipulation, propaganda, lying, etc, surely has global and local application.

    So when you talk about the likes of Cindy Berger, I note that she is clearly labelled as a “celebrity publicist” – why are you confusing that with public relations?

    I object when our UK equivalent, Max Clifford, is described as a PR guru, because he is not. But when he is termed a publicist – that’s fine because his role with clients is focused on maximising (or minimising) publicity.

    Surely it is much better if the media convey a perception of publicists doing what publicists do, rather than us, or them, confusing this with activities that have much more value to organisations and those with whom they engage. That’s public relations.

  5. Heather: I don’t for a moment confuse what Cindy Berger does with public relations. But nearly everyone else does, and it is this perception that PR will never shake, not as long as there are no barriers to entry into the business. Laying (sic) in the pool reading a copy of Cosmo is hardly a preparation for any career, even one in public relations.
    And sure, we can all subscribe to the principles of discussion, trust, respect for others, etc., but we might as well join hands and sing “I’d like to sing the world a song . . .”

  6. Heather, Bill:

    These generic principles include the strategic management role of public relations; the symmetrical model; the integration of the public relations function; resisting the sublimation of public relations to marketing, human resources, or other management functions; the importance of diversity; and the role of public relations as a counsellor of ethics and social responsibility.

    this, taken verbatim from Jim’s response on generic principles in this same post -in my view- has little, and only indirectly, to do with what Heather picks up in her comment:
    ‘discussion, trust, respect for others, willingness to listen’ and Bill ironizes about.

    For three days in Milano some two hundred scholars and professionals from differen continents discussed precisely the global dynamics of those very generic principles.

    The final plenary session
    -with three fresh from-the-field research reports given by Jerry Swerling (USC Annenberg), Ansgarr Zerfass (University of Leipzig) and Emanuele Invernizzi (IULM Milano)-
    concluded that:

    °the trend of pr reporting to top management is increasing in the USA, in Europe, in Italy (elsewhere we all know it is even more so, but no figures shown in Milano)and accounts for more than 65/70% of cases;

    °pr managers reporting to marketing are dramatically declining everywhere and are around 25/30% of cases;

    °our active participation to organizational decision making processes is a regular feature in an increasing number of organizations (private, public, social) as discussed by the second plenary session and many, many, many of papers presented in the parallel session.

    What are we talking about?

    Institutionalization is a substantial and growing factor in the market place.

    What clearly is much less evident is the awareness of this process amongst our own selves:
    always navel gazing (interviewing our own kin rather than sounding out the business, the political, the financial, the social communities).

    I trust this is only a generational issue.

    We elders carry an awful stigma.

    One element of it is to be so convinced of our own prejudices and stereotypes rather than attentive to the process of listening, which is essential to perform any boundary spanning, intepretative or strategic function.

    And listening also implies reading carefully, understanding and intepreting….

    Having said this, let me add, Bill, that the generic principles and specific applications framework implies that no applied generic principle can be effective if and when not integrated into specific applications, and viceversa.

    It makes no sense to isolate one of the two parts of the equation.

    The operative (and not only normative..) consequence is that organization X, headquartered in Delhi and also operating in Peru, will run effective public relations in the latter country by:

    a) globally applying globally the generic principles mentioned before

    and in parallel

    b) integrating them into a sound, intelligent and dynamic understanding of Peru’s legal, political, economic, sociocultural, active citizenship and media systems.

    The understanding of these six systems form the public relations infrastructure of a given territory (not necessarily country… as pr is done differently in Louisiana than in New York City…)and, in my view, is the one of the most powerful and operative contributions that recent research and conceptualization has offered to the practice of our profession.

    It is with great sadness for me to see -day in day out- other management, financial, risk, crisis, strategy, m&a consultants effectively use this process elaaborated by our own scholars; while our ironic and criticall colleagues shrub their shoulders, don’t even make the effort to keep updated, smile and get on with their daily press announcement, while continuing to complain of not belonging to the dominant coalition.

    The younger generation, I know, knows better…much better.
    As long as it doesn’t age the same way ours has.

  7. One of Ogilvy’s creative directors once said, “Oh, for the freedom of a tightly defined strategy.”
    PR practitioners long for something similar: the freedom of a tightly defined, universally applicable theory of PR that can be duplicated in a repeatable process, time after time. Without specialized tools or research apparatus available only to the richly resourced.
    Because without process, there is no practice. Any management consultant can confirm this.
    Believe me, the two-way symmetrical model doesn’t cut it in that regard.

  8. The security word reminds me that I forgot to include, “in good times and bad.”
    Because ethics and social responsibility are the first things to go during a severe downturn, right along the with PR department itself.

  9. Nor does anything else, Bill.
    Public Relations is much too complex a process to farm out easy going easy doing formulas for success.
    Of course, the technical role can be and is being performed all over the world (and increasingly adopting the two way symmetrical inspiration)admittedly more in Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America than in the United States….
    Of course the managerial role can be and is being performed all over the world by integrating technical competencies with managerial ones.
    It is the strategic role which needs, as you say, the ‘freedom of a tightly defined strategy’ and this is not easy.
    David Ogilvy certainly was not operating in a globalised society and when he also said ‘corporate advertising is like peeing in one’s own pants: you feel very warm inside and nobody notices’…highly funny but today hardly acceptable in the world of global brands….

  10. I didn’t say easy, Toni. But tightly defined, tested, repeatable, and explainable to others. Nearly every other profesional discipline can do this, but public relations can’t even seem to define itself, much less explain what it does for the organization.

  11. Ok Bill. Please make an extra effort for this stubborn Italian and give me one globally acceptable definition today of a doctor, a lawyer or accountant which is less generic than:

    a professional public relator assists his/her employer and/or client in establishing effective relationships with the organization’s stakeholder publics in a given territory, in order to allow to improve the quality of the organization’s decisions, accelerate the time of their implementations and improve its reputation: the value of those relationships is what the public relator brings to the organization. The public relator achieves this function by listening and intepreting stakeholder expectancies, facilitating other organizational functions in improving the quality of their relationships with respective stakeholder publics and conceving, developing and facilitating dialogue through available communication tools, spaces and channels.

    I am convinced that, while what you indicate was true some 15/20 years ago it is not so today for at least two good reasons:
    a) all other professions have completely blurred their traditional boundaries and cannot define themselves comprehensively like they used to,
    b) we have made great strides forward to understanding that communication is only the tool through which we help organizations develop relationships.

    Let me quote Gary Shaeffer (not a scholar, but senior vp of GE):

    “I think that PR has always been about relationships, but it has changed fundamentally in that relationships have almost become the primary responsibility of a PR practitioner—and it’s not just with the Wall Street Journal or New York Times—it’s relationships with everyone who has a significant influence on the reputation of your company. I think it’s great for the function, for the profession, and it’s much more exciting for me to think about managing relationships and issues rather than practicing stereotypical PR, which is…get something from the marketing team that they want to sell, then put a press release together and call a few reporters. It’s a very good development.”

    And, finally, let me direct you to the press release which describes how J&J reorganised in public relations department only a few days ago: http://www.prweekus.com/JJ-restructures-its-public-affairs-corp-comms-leadership/article/118809/

    Both GE and J&J are global organizations and their approaches to public relations have always led the way.

  12. Okay Toni, here are a few points to consider:

    1)There is still no comprehensive, tested theory that describes how public relations works, only some “normative” and spottily tested theories of how it SHOULD work. In that respect, we are no further along than 20 years ago, 40 years ago, or even 60 years ago.

    2)You are clearly of the “relationships” school, which I consider a direct descendant of the old “smile and a shoeshine” school of public relations practiced for decades in America. There is nothing at all new about it, and I maintain that you can have all the relationships in the world, but unless you can persuade people to do something you want them to your presence isn’t necessary and your good work is ultimately worthless.

    3)GE and J&J, while admirable for what they do, are not the global paradigm for public relations. They are corporations with an agenda. GE’s world is shrinking every day, and we learned this week that the company would seek help from the Federal Reserve’s commercial paper lending facility. As for J&J, I fail to see anything new in this reorganization that supposedly aligns its public affairs unit with key stakeholder groups. In fact, it is entirely opposite to Professor Grunig’s point of view in the Q&A above, i.e.,

    “I believe it is an illusion to believe public relations ever could initiate and manage interactions and relationships with publics.
    I have said many times that the difference between a market (for marketers) and publics (for public relations professionals) is that an organization can create its markets but that it cannot create its publics.
    Publics create themselves, and we have little choice but to engage with them unless the organization chooses to endure negative publicity, legislation, litigation, and regulation that comes from ignoring the interests of publics and refusing to develop relationships with them.”

    I concur with this view one hundred percent, and I don’t believe that having a presence on YouTube puts you on top of the game.

  13. I also concur 100% with Jim’s quote. So what?

    I find it somewhat difficult to grasp why organizations invest something like 400 billion dollars around the world today (see my paper ‘how big is pr and why does it matter’ on http://www.instituteforpr.org under research) in public relations activities if, as you imply, there is nothing that proves how it works.

    I find the term persuading inappropriate to describe our mission. I believe much more in con-vincing, which implies winning together….
    Lofty? Maybe, but more accurate.

    In any case, Bill, thanks for the discussion.
    Maybe someday we can get together and have a nice friendly chat and we will probably discover that we share more ideas than we disagree on.

  14. Toni,

    I cringe when I see expressions like “pr is done differently in Louisiana than in New York City”. I believe wholeheartedly in the generic principles/specific applications concept (and the variables that you identify), but for me that local adaptation is not about “doing PR differently”, and I think saying so is exactly the type of language that perpetuates common misperceptions that PR is subjective and unprofessionalized.

    To return to the medical metaphor, a doctor will perform medecine the same way on patient A and patient B, but will adapt the treatment to the case of each one. To improve the external image and understanding of PR, I think we need to be careful about stressing what part is the science (the generic principles) and what part is the art (the specific applications), just as doctors need to combine their theoretical and scientific knowledge with their empathy, instinct and other “arts” in order to identify the best response for each patient.

  15. Kristen, this is a good way of explaining the generic principles versus the specific applications concept (and I will use it for my students–thanks).

    And I usually cringe when somebody says that PR in South Africa is so different and so different from the rest of the world because I have never found that to be true. Rather, in my view the principles are much the same in spite of our great cultural and political differences, and level of development. But then that shouldn’t come as a surprise, since I mostly research theoretical principles and not specific applications.

    Having said this, I must admit to substantial surprise a few years ago when one of my Honours students in the subject ‘Development Communication’ applied my model for developing corporate communication strategy to community development. We both expected that substantial changes will have to be made to the model (and were looking forward to the challenge of doing so)!

    However, the results of the qualitative study indicated that the model was as applicable to the communication between a development agency and the village headman/his tribe living in the rural areas of South Africa in their mud huts as it was to the communication between Anglo American (one of South Africa’s biggest companies) and their stakeholders. I had both projects on my desk.

    If you don’t believe me, I wrote an article about it for an academic journal in South Africa. It is available, if anybody is interested– just email me.

  16. I realize that this blog entry has long been put to rest, but I it ran while I was on a series of trips when I was not able to respond. I appreciate the interest and comments that my interview generated.

    There is one thing that Bill Huey said, however, that represents a typical misunderstanding of what a normative theory is. I realize that people read these blogs entries for some time, however, and I would like to set the record straight. Bill said:

    “Thank you, Dr. Grunig, for clarifying the fact that your generic principles are normative and not descriptive. As such, they are useful for comparative purposes and agenda setting but not much else, I’m afraid.”

    Bill seems to have suggested that a normative theory is completely hypothetical and not actually practiced. A good normative theory is descriptive as well as prescriptive. That is, the best normative theory is one that is accompanied by actual examples of its being practiced according to the normative principles and evidence of its effectiveness. Typically, such a normative theory is called a theory of best practices in the management literature. Public relations textbooks also are filled with normative theories. Public relations educators teach normative theories–i.e., what they think are the best ways to practice public relations. Few would advocate practicing public relations in an ineffective or unethical way, even though that is how public relations might be practiced most often.

    The generic principles that make up our global theory of generic principles and specific applications are supported with numerous examples of their effectiveness in actual practice. They originally came from the Excellence study, which provided both statistical evidence from a survey of over 300 organizations as well as case study evidence from 25 organizations. Evidence supporting the generic principles has been found in studies throughout the world. Thus, in contrast to what Bill said, a normative theory of public relations is of great use: It describes, and prescribes, how to practice public relations to be most effective.

  17. I am a graduate student studying the groundswell theory/effect and the implication that the phenomenon strengthens the two-way symmetrical model via social media tools and therefore effective public relations practice. What are your thoughts on the groundswell and the effects it has on PR? Thanks for feedback.

  18. i am student at the LIMKOKWING UNIVERSITY IN LESOTHO so i would to thank u with analysing skills tha u have regarding public relations.personally i am still wondering about how do you manage to be so brilliant and analytic like that and by so saying i take my hat off my head.

  19. Hi Liteboho, I didn’t know that Limkokwing now had a campus in Lesotho too. Even better to hear that it is offering public relations. We are practically neighbours, since I teach on the web-based master’s programme in PR Management at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology in Cape Town. We have students from all over Africa and even further away, but seldom from Lesotho. Tell your classmates/lecturers to visit when in Cape Town or join us on PRConversations sometimes.


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