Oral Histories

James Grunig

Interview Segments on Topic: Challenges/Accomplishments

James Grunig Biography


INTERVIEWER: What do you think is the greatest challenge or one of the greatest challenges facing senior public relations executives today and how can it be met?

GRUNIG: I think the greatest challenge comes from the institutionalization of the public relations function or the way it has been institutionalized or the way it needs to be institutionalized.   If you go back into sociology and something becomes institutionalized through repeated practice and repeated behavior, if people do the same things over and over again then others begin to think that’s what it is. If you did an interview on the street and asked people what is public relations, you would get very different concept of what I think public relations is. And because it’s become institutionalized as something that is done to people it’s, I think, become institutionalized as a symbolic interpretive approach. That is, what public relations people do is try to make something look good when it isn’t. Or it’s trying to persuade us to do something that is really not in our best interest. Or it’s trying to create favorable publicity in the media. And, you can’t trust what a public relations person says. Or it’s unethical and so on. Now I think to a large extent, for sure in the media, journalists think of public relations in that way. In their minds that’s the way public relations has become institutionalized. In business schools for the most part, I think if you interview the typical business school dean, they will have institutionalized public relations in that way. And I think, to some extent, particularly in marketing faculties, that’s the way public relations has become institutionalized; perhaps less so in management faculties in business schools. I think senior management in corporations increasingly is seeing public relations more as a strategic management function. Still, when the function is institutionalized as a symbolic interpretive approach, it’s going to be hard. Say I set up a public relations firm to do something else and to do strategic management counseling and someone would say, but that’s not public relations. I remember giving an interview at one time in South Africa and a colleague said, ‘but, does anybody do public relations in that way?’ Because, in her mind public relations was media relations and publications and publicity and so on. So I think public relations people still face that challenge. And management consulting firms are moving into and are anxious to take over what they would call stakeholder relations or a stakeholder relations model, and that is public relations. And if it’s institutionalized any other way then it’s difficult for public relations to move into that gap. I always ask my students, what did your parents say when you told them you wanted to study public relations? Then they all sighed. When a student said I want to study public relations they would say, ‘why would you want to spend your life taking advantage of people?’ Instead of saying, ‘well that’s wonderful, you would help make corporations more socially responsible and more ethical and make better decisions.’ And that hasn’t occurred yet. So that’s what I mean, when it becomes institutionalized in that way then I think that public relations will have come of age.

INTERVIEWER: A final question and this brings it back around to you and your career and that is, what has been the greatest challenge of your professional life?

GRUNIG: Finding an academic home for public relations. I think that goes back to the institutionalization function. I think we are either in journalism schools or in communication, formerly speech communication, departments. And each of those units has institutionalized public relations as something different from what I think it is. I taught in a journalism school for nearly 30 years and communication department for nearly 10 years. I don’t think public relations was ever fully understood or accepted in either of those places. In journalism, journalism educators tend to think of public relations as applied journalism and communication people think of it as applied persuasion or organizational communication or something. I think my role has been—not just me but many others in my generation—to create a unique body of knowledge in public relations that is communication- oriented but it’s not journalism. It is communication, but it’s not one of those other communication disciplines. There is something I’d like to mention here, something I haven’t mentioned and that’s the importance of relationships in public relations. The last research that I was doing—and many of my students are carrying on now—is on relationships. We looked into communication theory on interpersonal communication and also interpersonal psychology to find out what is known about the nature of relationships; when a relationship’s good, when they are bad for the people involved. And so, public relations is about public relationships and I think that’s been very important. That idea again, came out of speech communication. Now the challenge is that all of a sudden the concept of reputation has become so popular in public relations. Public relations is a discipline of fads. So it used to be everybody was creating images. Now they’re creating reputations. I think both are cognitive representations, and I don’t see a huge amount of difference. I think what’s really important are relationships. So now the challenge has been, how do I break into that sort of mindset that we’re reputation managers? First off, I don’t think you can manage any outcome like reputation or even relationships; you can only manage the processes that produce a reputation. So, if you really want to manage your organization’s reputation, you have to help manage the organization and then that will produce behavior, which produces a good reputation. Our research has shown, I think, quite strongly that reputation is essentially a byproduct of the quality of relationships that an organization has with its publics. And that takes us back to the term that Edward Bernays used. He said he invented public relations but it’s really relationships with publics. A key thing has been defining what is a public, identifying publics and determining how best to build relationships with those publics. And I believe that relationships are best cultivated through symmetrical practices rather than through asymmetrical practices. I think that one of the key roles of public relations is to identify the stakeholders or as I would say, stakeholder publics that an organization needs to have relationships with. The challenge has been to get educators, universities, practitioners to think strategically and to think—I’m not just trying to get my name out there, the organization’s name out there, but with whom does this organization truly need a relationship and what’s the best means to cultivate that relationship? Again, that takes us back to institutionalizing public relations as that kind of function.