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
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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