Critiquing the Notion of Symmetry

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Following James Grunig and Todd Hunt’s development of the four model approach to public relations in 1984, there has been much discussion about the validity of one of the models, symmetrical communication, and the role it plays in the working life of public relations practitioners.

This essay will demonstrate an understanding of the history and development of the concept of symmetrical communication and conclude with a critique of the relevance of the approach in public relations theory and practice today.

The term symmetrical communication evolved from seminal research undertaken by Grunig and Hunt. They stated that the evolution of public relations practice could be divided into four “developmental stages” or models (Grunig and Grunig, 1992, p.290). The four models were described as press agentry, public information, two-way asymmetrical, and symmetrical communication.

Grunig (1995) argued that the four models were representatives of the values, goals and behaviours held or used by organisations when they practice public relations.

The essence of the symmetrical communication approach is based around an organisation and its public having a genuine two-way relationship. Grunig and his colleagues believed that by applying a symmetrical model of public relations “organisations get more of what they want, when they give up something they want” (Grunig, White,1992, p.39).

Fundamental to the model of symmetrical communication is the intent to change what Grunig refers to as the “dominant worldview of communications – asymmetrical communication” (Grunig, White, 1992, p. 40). He described this as “…the use of communication to manipulate publics for the benefit of organisations” (Grunig, White, 1992, p. 40). He advocated that asymmetrical communication steered public relations practitioners towards actions that were “unethical, socially irresponsible, and ineffective” (Grunig, White, 1992, p. 40). For Grunig (1995) the two-way symmetrical approach to communication represented a break from this dominant worldview.

Grunig also argued that “in spite of good intentions of practitioners –it is difficult, if not impossible to practice public relations in a way that is ethical and socially responsible using an asymmetric model” (Grunig, White, 1992, p. 42).

There has been endorsement and criticism of Grunig and Hunt’s model and both responses will be addressed in this essay.

Grunig (1992) states that other research has provided evidence that a two-way symmetrical approach to public relations makes organisations more effective. He cites the work of David Dozier (1989) who argued that the symmetrical model of public relations is the only model “inherently consistent with the concept of social responsibility” (as cited in Grunig, Grunig 1992, p. 308). William Ehling’s (1984) theory of public relations around conflict management stated that, “in essence, only symmetrical communication management can be considered to be public relations” (as cited in Grunig, Grunig 1992, p.310).

Grunig also cites work undertaken by J.V. Pavlik who concluded organisations get the greatest pay off from symmetrical communication when opposing publics have power equal to that of the organisation (as cited in Grunig and Grunig, 1992, p.318).

As previously stated, while there has been support for Grunig’s concept of symmetrical communication there has also been lively criticism. Critics such as Jacquie L’Etang and Magda Pieczka suggested the model was too idealistic and unrealistic (as cited in Heath, 2002, p.17).

Steve Mackey a lecturer from Deakin University, in Victoria, Australia writing in changing vistas in public relations theory in 2003, argues that organisations hire public relations people as advocates to advance their interests and not as “do-gooders” who “give in” to outsiders with an agenda different from that of the organisation. Mackey says, “Grunig’s critics believe that organisations would not hire a public relations person who does not practice asymmetrically” (Mackey, 2003, p.1).

Mackey says that Grunig has defended his symmetrical communication model, “despite the admission that most people believe professional public relations is best described as operating to an asymmetrical rather than a symmetrical model” (Mackey, 2003, p.2).

Mackey (2003) concludes that the asymmetrical model represents public relations programmes aimed at advancing the standing and the projects of the organisation paying for the public relations work.

Lana Rakow has criticised the symmetrical approach to public relations as impractical because she believes, “that organisations in the United States social system, at least, have more power than publics and therefore no motivation for reciprocity”(as cited in Grunig, White, 1992, p. 47).

G.R. Miller believes public relations is by nature asymmetrical, while Anne Van der Meiden says that it is unrealistic for an organisation to abandon self-interest (as cited in Craig Pearce’s blog, 2009, Public relations: changing the world, retrieved on March 9 , 3:38pm). Van der Meiden rejects both symmetrical and asymmetrical communication maintaining that public relations is just one instrument of persuasion along with marketing, propaganda and public affairs ( as cited in Thorsteinsson, 2000, p.12).

Responding to questions in 2008 on about criticisms of the two-way symmetrical model, Grunig makes the point that the symmetrical model does not suggest that communication always benefits both parties equally or that it produces consensus, which he says are two ways the model is often misinterpreted. This misinterpretation in the 1980s may have led to more criticism of the model than was necessary.

With the advent of social media there has been further interest in the validity of symmetrical communication as the best way to practice public relations.

A symmetrical worldview of communications has gained more momentum in organisations since the advent of the internet. Social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter, along with the rise of citizen journalism due to the web, has meant many organisations have had to adopt a more symmetrical worldview. The concept of symmetrical communication being best practise, is still relevant and some would say increasingly so with the arrival of social media.

Writing in Paradigms of global public relations in an age of digitalisation, Grunig (2009) states that digital media would seem to force communicators toward the two-way symmetrical model with open corporate social media sites, Twitter, and interactive online community contributing to the two-way symmetrical model.

The reversal from Cadbury, on the decision to add palm oil to its chocolate in Australia and New Zealand, is an example of the power of social media – forcing an organisation who had taken an asymmetrical approach to its communications to change its behaviour. Writing in News & Culture, Caitlin Fitzsimmons said in 2009, “The reaction of the Australian and Kiwi public to such obvious spin was scathing. Furious chocolate lovers organised anti-Cadbury campaigns on Facebook and Twitter” (cited in Caitlin Fitzsimmon, (2009), Cadbury Bows to People Power, Drops Palm Oil, on August 21, 2009).

In what was called a victory for people power, Cadbury decided to remove palm oil from the chocolate recipe with the company saying “they got it wrong” (cited in Caitlin Fitzsimmon, (2009), Cadbury Bows to People Power, Drops Palm Oil, on August 21, 2009).

The Cadbury example illustrates that with the evolution of social media it is harder for organisations not to adopt a two-way symmetrical approach. On this point Grunig noted “…the new media make it difficult, if not impossible, for an organisation 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” (cited from Toni Falcon, (2008), – Engaging (and grilling) the social side of James Grunig, on October 15, 2008).

A comment Grunig makes which is still pertinent is, “no one public relations practitioner or even a single public relations department is accountable for the approach that an organisation takes to communication” (Grunig, White, 1992, p. 42). Grunig illustrates this point by referring to the dominant coalition – namely that this “group determines organisational policy”. (Grunig, White, 1992, p. 39). Grunig (1992) states that to be an excellent department, public relations must be part of the dominant coalition

An example of this is recent criticism levelled against the CEO of the Christchurch City Council. Despite having a large and experienced communications team, the Council has been accused of continuing to make fundamental communication mistakes, particularly since the September 2010 earthquake. In a submission to the Council’s communications committee, commenting on the appointment of an independent public relations practitioner to review the Council’s communications, public relations consultant David Lynch said the council’s problems were due to the culture within the organisation, rather than poor communication ( as cited in The Press newspaper, Culture Council’s real problem – PR Man, 21 February ,2012). This could be a case of the communications team unable to practice two-way symmetrical communication in many cases, because they are not part of the dominant coalition.

At a Spinwatch conference in Glasgow in 2004, James Grunig said there was even more need to strive for symmetrical public relations in the present climate (as cited in blog from Steve Mackey from Spinwatch (2012), Spin and Corporate Power, retrieved from March 12, 2012). Steve Mackey (2005) writes that Grunig, “expressed deep concern about the political turn in American society over the last year or so which seemed to mean powerful organisations feel there is less onus on them to consult and try to reach consensus with community organisations and interest groups” (as cited in blog from Steve Mackey from Spinwatch (2012), Spin and Corporate Power, retrieved from March 12, 2012).

While much information on the internet can be manipulated via fake blogs or by astroturfing to suit a cause, it is incumbent upon the public relations profession to ensure, where they can, that practitioners aim to have a genuine two-way relationship with their stakeholders and publics. With the advent of social media, the ongoing conversations around the validity of two-way symmetrical communication are indeed relevant, and its adoption can only raise the level of professionalism across the industry.

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