Two ditsy thoughts and one good answer to the question: what now after Grunig? Online Public Relations by David Phillips and Philip Young

In these recent weeks, and in various encounters with professionals and scholars from around the world, I have stumbled more than once on to the question: ‘what now after Grunig?’… as if the Excellence Project happened to be the most recent development for our body of knowledge.

I very much disagree with this interpretation, as much as I disagree with those late adopters who (on the other side?) tend to believe that nothing had happened between the Big Bang and the Internet for public relations’ body of knowledge.

These seem to me to be both ditsy thoughts (shallow but lovable, as I learned recently from Jon White to whom I am deeply grateful for this wonderful term I had never heard before).

Some of our more passionate visitors might remember a not so recent comment from David Phillips in which he announced the coming of a new edition of the 2001 Online Public Relations book by himself and Philip Young (Kogan Page in the CIPR collection).

David was kind enough to give me a copy when we recently met in Bled and I have now read it and strongly recommend it to all.

It is not an easy book as it mixes information, practical tips and theory; plus two highly different and equally respectable and stimulating authors:

While the information, given the subject, is in part already outdated and the practical tips are indeed very useful, the theoretical is really one bright and enlightened response to the question ‘what now after Grunig’.

In fact, as Jim himself stated in that interview he gave to our collective here a few months ago, the Internet and social media are really only a (dramatic) acceleration of his pre-Internet thoughts.

But the Young/Phillips book is certainly not the only possible answer to that question.

In these recent years many professionals in their day-to-day practice, many educators and scholars (and I provocatively, but of this I am convinced, include both the critical and postmodernist ones..) have covered significant steps towards the consolidation of a new approach to public relations thinking and practice, mostly along the integration of the generic principles and specific applications paradigm with the stakeholder relationship governance one.

Maybe we should begin to collect all these contributions and accompany them with some case studies in professional practice.

What do you say?

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21 Replies to “Two ditsy thoughts and one good answer to the question: what now after Grunig? Online Public Relations by David Phillips and Philip Young

  1. Hello all, I’m obviously late to the conversation, but if I can throw a nugget into the discussion, the book _Kotext, Kleenex, Huggies: Kimberly-Clark and the Consumer Revolution in American Business_ (Ohio State UP, 2004) that I wrote with business historian Thomas Heinrich examines the company’s journey into consumer marketing dating back to the late 1800s.

    As a matter of fact, the company’s ability to create its iconic products in the early to mid-twentieth century resulted from its early emphasis on R&D and marketing, dating back to its early paper business. Though most reviewers focused on the book as a company history, the most interesting aspect is showing K-C as a pioneer in integrated communications.

    K-C had a series of intuitive marketers that championed the company’s initiatives, thus making it difficult to label one as a marketing guru. Hopefully, some enterprising scholar will dig further into the marketers at companies like K-C, Scott Paper, and others to ferret out some of these “unknowns.”

  2. If anything, Paul, I am a victim of your stubborness….
    Thanks for the joyful and interesting ride…learned some, digested some grass, but an acceptable amount of food for thought…
    Am on to another

  3. Bill,

    I simply cannot agree. The Soviets mastered marketing and packaging in the modern form (nothing worthwhile inside, perhaps) before you were born. Their adoption of modern marketing techniques at many levels was copied by the US advertising and marketing industry because it was pure genius. Of course, in the West there was a better correlation between form and content.

    What both Toni and you miss is that marketing evolved as capitalism developed (and as other systems developed). You are both wasting your time looking for “the” guru or “the” moment in time in all began. Certainly, one can trace its development back to the 19 century and one can only be amazed at how modern some of their techniques were.

    Moreover, Bernays was not that significant to the development of marketing or to the theory of marketing. Toni, I fear you are a victim of Bernays’s self-publicity.

  4. Oh dear, I fear you miss the point about Theodore Levitt’s brilliance. It was not so much in his innovative thinking. He laid bare the anatomy of marketing to highlight what separated winners from losers.

    He challenged popular perceptions. He described how Henry Ford’s brilliance had little to do with mass production and production lines – they were a means to end – but everything to do with customer focus and delivering a product customers could afford and wanted; even if it had to be in black. He showed how production starts with customers – marketing – and then works backwards to the means to deliver what they need (solutions).

    Henry Ford – using the logic of modern marketing – was up and at it big time without Bernays and before Bernays really got going in his professional life. Levitt also reveals the 19th century origins of marketing.

    Levitt showed how effective capitalism is counterintuitive, particularly to those who claim – as does Naomi Klein on page one of NoLogo that it is all about production (her book is all downhill and wrong from that point on).

    Bernays and Lippmann were not marketing men (though Bernays dabbled and much of his PR was marketing focused) they were into PR and propaganda (difficult to separate), and there is nothing wrong with that. Bernays was a great PR practitioner and a second-rate thinker. Lippmann was much much better when it comes to theory and original thinking.

    What’s amazing about the Soviet contribution was how form was everything…but that’s another story.

  5. For the record, guys, marketing as a formal discipline is only about as old as I am, which is 62. I admire Levitt’s work in “The Marketing Imagination” very much, but to claim it originated in the 19th century is like claiming PR originated during the Classical Period. In fact, the references to “classical” marketing training (i.e., packaged goods experience at P&G or similar) only make me laugh.

  6. How do I disagree…let me count the ways…

    Ted Levitt is a monument of marketing but came some 40 years after marketing practices, fostered by Bernays on the basis of Lippman’s and Freud’s studies, had well pervaded the entire western civilization.
    So I stand by my previous indication.

    Bernays writings were probably shallow (have you read Larry Tye’s biography of Bernays?) and he was certainly not lovable (he would not fit Jon White’s definition of ditsy which is from where this concoted discussion Bill points out…). Yet, also according to the accounts of italian contemporary historian Ferdinando Fasce who was one the very first scholars to peruse all of Bernays papers before they were made public for his seminal ‘la democrazia degli affari’ carrocci editori 2002 (the democracy of business), his contribution to the creation of marketing whithin the world’s largest consumer goods company he consulted for well more than 40 years was very, very significant.

    Ewen is very comfortable with our craft and he depicts exactly what the american model of public relations is all about, Bill. Sure it will remain in our dna forever and I don’t think this is bad, to the contrary it is very good if we can learn from our own mistakes as well as beneift from the many good things that model represented.

    The only reproach (but it is only amild criticism..)for Ewen is that he did not give Bernays the credit of having fought for the regulation of the profession not on behalf of the practitioner’s interests but on behalf of the public interest.

    Which leads me to the contradiction Paul seems to have found in my thoughts.

    No, Paul, I have never claimed that the public interest is the interest of the public, but it is, as often stated even here in this blog, the mix between the existing normative environment and the interests represented by the active citizenship of a given society in a given time.

    Sorry, no contradiction there.

    There are of course many other in my thinking, which as you see is everything but fixed…but not in this case..I am afraid.

  7. Super comment, Bill (even if I did first mention Ewen). I’ll always warm to Bernays and to Ivy Lee. Sure, Bernays’s writing was shallow; any depth was repetition of what others had said before him, and his ego was huge and he was, er, creative about his own contribution. So I’m more with Bill than with Toni on this. As to Ewen, I’m indebted to the book for its scope. It is certainly better than good in parts. However, I accept, Ewen is uncomfortable with what our craft is really about. So, Bill makes some very considered points, and I thank him for sharing them robustly.

    Question for Toni: if, as you say, there is no such thing as the public anymore is there such thing as the public interest? You cannot have it both ways. Following the logic of your own argument, if there is no public but only multiple publics, then the CPRS definition of what our trade is about must be nonsense.

  8. I don’t know quite what to make of a post that progresses from two ditsy thoughts to the work of Stuart Ewen, but I do know that Professor Ewen doesn’t get it right in his “social history” of the PR business.

    The book is interesting but hardly definitive, and Ewen is in love with the theories of French social psychologist Gustave LeBon.

    And the way Ewen limns the crackpot theories of Bernays would make you believe that the old fraud invented the modern practice of public relations—which he didn’t—and that his famous uncle Sigmund Freud’s assessment of Bernays (“He was an honest boy when I knew him. I do not know how much he has become Americanized.”) was an uninformed smackdown—which it wasn’t.

    Moreover, Ewen doesn’t have much regard for practitioners of PR, whom he regards as masters of a black art based on manipulation of facts, half-truths, influence peddling and hype. He maligns Ivy Lee, whom he calls a “necromancer.” Harold Burson isn’t even mentioned, and the book completely overlooks Benjamin Sonnenberg, which is too bad, because Sonnenberg was one of the high priests of manipulation, half-truths, influence peddling and hype in the first half of the twentieth century.

    But Sonnenberg also made one of the more notable advances in the development of the PR business. That is, he wouldn’t deal with anyone but the CEO. If a mere executive vice president called and tried to talk to him, he simply hung up. He also insisted on living better than his clients, (His biography is titled, “Always Live Better than Your Clients”). This attitude made his Gramercy Park townhouse one of the most active and prestigious salons of its time. He was a relationship builder before anyone even recognized what that meant, and profited handsomely from it.

    There may be growing disdain for the so-called “American” model of PR, but it gave life to all the other little models, and it will be a very long time before they work that DNA out of their systems.

  9. Toni, Edward Louis Bernays was a great PR man (one of the greatest to have practiced) but he was a lightweight thinker who contributed little that has lasted to marketing theory (For instance, Dale Carnegie was sharper and earlier on the Freudian-type stuff, whether he quoted Freud or not).

    The Soviets had access to the best intellectuals, artists and designers in the world and they had a problem – how to market a revolution that was not working. Here’s a good account from a University of Georgia academic:

    My 20th century marketing super hero was Theodore Levitt. He was German and worked at Havard. His thoughts were really heavyweight. Moreover, he showed me that modern marketing began in the 19th century.

    If anybody wants to pay me I could lecture on this stuff. Let me know.

  10. Interested in learning more about the invention of marketing in the 19th century and ,even more, of the bolshevik contribution to modern marketing…. It seems to me that no single thinker/doer like Bernays has done more for the western marketing pratice which has so pervasively conquered all organizations worldwide…let us know…

  11. Toni, once again we are closer to agreeing about some tough issues. For reasons of politics, I have tried to avoid the controversy of Thatcher’s “there’s no such thing as society” (replace society with public). But when we talk about reputations – opinions – are we talking in the general abstract sense, or the specific sense of those whose opinions we care about or who matter to us because they can damage us; the rest be damned? It’s a brave (foolish?) man who says the latter trumps the former (even if it does?).

    Was Ewen biased about Bernays? I suspect you might have point (regardless, I agree Ewen’s book is close to brilliant in many respects). But I stand by my statement that Bernays did not invent marketing. Modern marketing originated in the 19th century. The Bolsheviks made a major contribution to modern marketing. They pioneered many marketing techniques, concepts and innovations that came to dominate corporate America’s best practice. The origins of modern marketing are varied rather than the work of Bernays, even if he made a major contribution, which I still maintain was less than he staked a claim for.

  12. Paul,
    two post-thoughts:

    – as much as I believe that Stuart Ewen’s book is exceptionally interesting and revealing (one of the very best in understanding the collateral consequences of the now defunct(?) american model of pr and its impact on publics) I remain of the idea that he was biased in his analysis of Bernay’s topical contribution to marketing, much more in his doing than in his thinking (procter and gamble for example…);

    – I also believe that Walter Lippmann said highly important things and that Bernays was greatly influenced by him (and his own uncle of course) in creating that explosive integration of sociology and psychology which I owuld not hesitate to call marketing…

    – finally, when Lippmann described the concept of public opinion the public existed. Now public relations in my view stand for relationships with publics, plural as public opinion has vanished into liquidity.

  13. Toni, useful feedback, thanks. We have very different styles of speech. But whenever we discuss at length we discover much middle ground, and often we are in full-on agreement on more stuff than we are not.

    Please let me clear up a few points. You jump to conclusions when you say that I see PR as being focused specifically on the media. I don’t. The subject under discussion in my PR blog post was simply: Is the “social media” really “social” or “media”? So on this issue we agree.

    Moreover, I said that while telephones always constituted a communication medium they never formed part of the media (I’m talking about POTS here, plain old telephones).

    Moreover, I think that when you say I refer to indistinct publics, I guess your refer to this point from me, “public relates to the people as a whole”, but that is simply a dictionary definition, which I’m sure you won’t challenge. After all, our trade is entitled public relations. You might make a case for changing the title, and I think it would be worth a proper debate.

    I agree with you that PRs certainly break down the public into groups of stakeholders, audiences, influencers, advocates and more. But my point in defining in the article what the word public meant was to say the mass still lives – and it does, even as media – and to reject Jarvis’s nonsense about PR’s demise.

    As for Mr. Bernays, I’m a fan. But Walter Lippmann was an earlier and more original thinker than was Bernays. Moreover, Bernays certainly did not invent modern marketing. Stuart Ewen’s PR A Social History of Spin deals with Bernays’s contribution very well, and it does not support your view. Does Ewen get it wrong? I hope not. My own reading of Bernays and Lippmann supports Ewen’s much more considered (than mine) assessment.

  14. Paul,

    both here and in your interesting ‘considered’ post you seem to reiterate a conceptualization of public relations as a communication profession based specifically on mass media. In my view this has been the major obstacle to our credibility and has ultimately reduced it to a poor and handicapped, although much cheaper, half sister of advertising.

    Historically speaking this is not really as much as a given as you seem to indicate.

    Public relations as a profession began when organizational leaders decided that the world, within and around them, was getting too complicated for a one-man-band to succeed and began to delegate relationships with other relationship systems -i.e. birth of organizational management.

    In our specific case the media (publicity bureau and media relations in 1900) and the public policy process (william wolff associates and public affairs/lobbying in 1904), followed closely by trade and consumers (marketing pr in the mid twenties), and then investors (investor relations in the mid fifies), employees (employee relations in the mid nineties).

    When you say that the telephone is not a medium because it is a one with one (a small semantic change which rells it all, rather than a one to one, one with few and even one with many)channel of communication to create, develop and consolidate a relationship with any of these specific publics.. in my view, you confirm that public relations deals with communicating-to rather than communicating with.

    You make this even more clear when you say that pr deals with the indistinct public, which frankly I do not think exists any longer (if it ever existed… and even it does still exist, there are fantastic analytical tools which allow you avoid falling into this jelly…).

    Social media, a discontinuity from the traditional mass media concept, allow us the enormous benefit of being able to also return to our original role of improving relationships between our employer/clients and some of their stakeholder publics, without losing all that we have learned since the early twenties when Bernays developed his scientific persuasion approach which led to the invention of marketing) and to narrow cast these publics specifically by creating attractive spaces in which these may relate not only with the organization we represent (in this case it matters less whether top down or bottom up) but with others horizontally ( to say).

    But while you seem to be speaking in english I seem to be replying in chinese.
    Is this not so?
    Where do you think we can find a middle ground?

  15. Toni, the telephone as a medium of communication, which you mention above, was never considered to be a part of the media: telephones enable communication one to one, or few to few, or – rarely – one to many on conference calls. Traditionally, the term media was reserved for its reference to its mass nature, as in one to many.

    You have raised many valid points. I shall answer them on my PR blog rather than take up too much space here.

  16. interesting conversation as I expected…. some brief notes:

    Paul, you write that ‘media is a term relating to mass communication’ which would imply that, for example, the telephone is not a media….are you really convinced of this or is it not a ‘pavlovian’ reaction of twentyeth century public relations culture?
    The mass mediatization of social media like twitter is in no way comparable to what we normally would ‘pavlovly’ define mass media, in that every single twitter adopter (or any other interned based interaction one with one, one with few and one with many), individual or organizational, is a medium.
    And this is one of the most detectable and visible differences which cannot be overlooked.
    I certainly agree that it is likely that the term social media will eventually bite the dust, but only because it will be integrated in mainstream media producing as much change there as it has in each one of us.

    the questions you raise on the basis of the facts and thoughts you expose only increase for the public relator the need to:

    a) understand the interdependence between physical and virtual stakeholder relationships considering the interactions between human and technologically driven behaviours;

    b) understand that in today’s (more so in tomorrow’s presumably) society publics form, dissolve, recreate themselves and redissolve themselves constantly for many cultural and social reasons (only one obvious citation, baumann..but of course there are many more) and this implies that public relators if they still wish to assist their clients/employers in the creation, growth and consolidation of effective relationships with their stakeholders, need to focus much more on their behaviours rather than on their opinions because there is still some but much less than there used to be)correlations between opinions and behaviours.
    If clients/employers begin to understand this,and we have not been conceptually able to develop appropriate tools, they will ask themeselves what may is the point of changing someone’s opinion if no coeherent behaviour derives from that change…

    Many of the stimuli you give, I believe, should also be read from this perspective…

  17. Thank you Paul. Well made points, and I am far from being an expert on the Obama election.
    The parallel of the introduction of other communication media like radio and television is a consideration if one considers the internet one or more communications channels.
    The other view may be that the impact of Internet Protocols go much further and when associated with deep web data and programmes there is a deeper effect.
    Thus, one might ask the extent to which the use of the network effect mediated the Obama fund raising activity.
    A range of communications channels were used and were linked (Facebook, Blogs ….. etc) in the process of machine networking the internet acted as an agent with both human and technical interventions.
    The extent to which the network effect, technology and human interventions were affective is a moot point.
    My thesis is that they did have, to a greater or lesser degree, an effect. But to what extent were internet technologies significant to outcomes is where the debate starts.
    For example did they deliver information to, for example journalists who would in other times not have received information upon which to write stories.

    There is a lot of work yet to be done.

  18. I’ll answer just one of David Phillip’s questions. “Was, for example, the Obama election derived from human interventions or the interventions of technologies? Or to what degree were they dependant each on the other. Can we ever know?”

    The contribution of the internet to Obama’s election has been exaggerated. Obama raised funds on the internet from mostly young people using predominantly one-way – rather than two-way – communication techniques. He then spent that money on an unprecedented scale on traditional TV advertisements. The result was a rather ordinary election outcome.

    Obama made little impact on the overall electorate. For example, around 122 million people voted in the 2004 Presidential election when George W Bush beat the equally uncharismatic John Kerry. In 2008 around 129 million voted, which, given the increase in America’s population in the meantime, suggests the two election outings were very similar in terms of voter turnout. In fact, the votes for the two major contenders were very similar in both elections. There was no landslide victory for Obama in 2008. If you doubt this, consider this: Richard Nixon (in 1972 against George McGovern), and Ronald Reagan (in 1984 against Walter Mondale) received about 60 per cent of the total Presidential vote, far higher than Obama’s share.

    As for interactivity and the internet, consider these question. Does Obama Twitter? Or does somebody do it for him – mostly, always? Is Obama’s use of the internet really any more interactive or revolutionary than, say, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s introduction of regular folksy radio broadcasts?

    I’ll leave it to others to decide whether the following is ditzy or not: “Will publics form round artificial concepts? Will publics AND technologies both form round concepts and is it possible for artificial publics to form round artificial concepts?”

  19. Thank you, Toni, for your commendation.

    Professor Grunig gave us an excellent model and in an internet mediated era, there is every reason to believe in his Excellence Theory on web steroids.

    There is no doubt that we are now able to see that publics form round concepts as much as issues and, as we saw at Bled, it is now probably possible to prove this in blogging discourse.

    Right now, I am working towards a new view of internet society. It is uncomfortable and I am reluctant to think it and even more reluctant to articulate it.

    I see more evidence of a move from internet mediated society to one where the diferences between its technologies and human interactions are indistinguishable.

    I offer a single instance. I have a twitter account Its content is exclusively derived through bots, taking published works and presenting them in shortened form into 120 character Tweets (much frowned upon by purists, one has to note). But what I see is extraordinary. People re-Tweet this content. They seem to care little that the content is derived exclusively by robots and in doing so give these Tweets a new human aspect.

    There are other, more profound, examples and they become very evident using Google Wave where one can mashup information from a database into a conversation seamlessly. I have tried it. It works.

    As a concept, this is not compelety new, just much more evident in our daily lives. It is the extension of the mashup between locations of hospitals and Google Maps etc.

    For the public relations theorist, where does this put relationships, relationship management and public relations?

    Was, for example, the Obama election derived from human interventions or the interventions of technologies? Or to what degree were they dependant each on the other. Can we ever know?

    With my colleague Girish I am using fuzzy logic a lot in the work we are doing now (a combination of Boolean and Bayesian maths). This means we can get computers to make very complex and nuanced decisions. They seem to be human.

    Soon we will be using neural nets to enhance this capability and the outcomes will be used in advising humans – just as such technologies do in machine production and even the flight of aeroplanes. The difference is that, in the hugeness of the internet, such capabilities are now mediating our lives in a much more profound and far reaching way. In machines humans can over-ride and limit the scope of such technologies, across the internet we can’t.

    For me this puts the idea of publics forming round artificial concepts and structures into a new environment.

    Are the concepts (issues) human or of human making, or are they, like the re-Tweets a combination of both or are they completely artificial? Will publics form round artificial concepts? Will publics AND technologies both form round concepts and is it possible for artificial publics to form round artificial concepts?

    I think you will agree that this takes Grunig’s 1984 postulate a long way.

  20. I prefer to use the word ditzy to mean scatterbrained. Much current PR theory and terminology qualifies in that category. Take social media. Social here is used to denote interaction and conversation between individuals and small groups (the opposite of mass). While media is a term relating to mass communication. The result? Arguably, an oxymoron. But – in my view – that does not disqualify the term’s temporary adoption because it described a seemingly contradictory development that was difficult to define using existing terminology.

    Meanwhile, as “social media” matures, the likes of Twitter, considered by many as a flagship social media company, are transparently becoming mass media channels: Twitter is being collectivized. Size and numbers of followers matter as brands – personal, corporate etc. – take the show over. For instance, stars such as Barack Obama communicate to audience’s (sorry, followers) directly in a mostly one-sided fashion because nothing meaningfully interactive (social networking-style) can be achieved in any relationship between one person/body and millions or hundreds or tens of thousands, or even hundreds of followers. That’s why traditionally the most important social networks were understood to consist of little more than mum, dad, wife, husband, and best friend; they were interactive, intense and personal relationships, and they remain unique in that sense.

    Hence, I maintain that the category social social media will fade just as the e in e-commerce did back in the days of Web 1. Let’s not overlook that there is today more Internet-based commerce than ever and it is more personalized than ever, which is fantastic use for lovers of choice. When the term social media does bite the dust, PR theory will become that little less scatterbrained and online networking will be just what we do (and more so). Bring it on.

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