Oral Histories

James Grunig

Interview Segments on Topic: Counselor/Counseling Advisor

James Grunig Biography


INTERVIEWER: Many students of public relations who go on to careers as practitioners have learned your theories. Do you have a sense of how much your theories are impacting the practice of public relations today?

GRUNIG: I think it depends on whether I’m feeling optimistic or pessimistic on a given day. I hear a lot from people who say that their career has been influenced by different theories: the two-way symmetrical model, for example, or public relations and strategic management. So when I hear that I can be very encouraged. But then oftentimes when I read about what PR people are doing and I read their blogs and so on—and they seem to be doing the same old things that they did years and years ago—I think, this is hopeless. I think, by and large, the theories have made an impact on the practice. But it’s in a way that you might not think of. I think it was Bruce Harrison who told me at one point —Bruce Harrison, you may have interviewed him already but he’s a well-known environmental public relations practitioner—he said, ‘You know, what you did was provide a name for something I’ve been doing for many years.’ So I don’t think the theories are totally unique in the sense that I made them up without any relationship to practice; because a good theory is always based on reality as well as conceptual thinking about it. The symmetrical model, for example, we found many times is actually practiced in different ways and it’s quite effective. It’s a name that has been given to things that people haven’t had a name for before. Then I look around the world. I think the theories have had a great impact on what is taught in public relations, perhaps more than what is practiced in public relations. I’ve travelled in somewhere between 40 and 50 countries and lectured to people and to students and practitioners and so on and I’m always amazed that people know the theoretical language and they’re using it. And I think that it’s being practiced a great deal. I like to contrast the symbolic interpretive approach and the strategic management approach. My approach is essentially the strategic management approach. I believe that the role of public relations is first and foremost to bring information in from outside the organization from members of publics or stakeholder publics so that management makes better decisions. And the role of public relations is essentially to help management make better decisions. So that’s the strategic management role. The symbolic interpretive approach is more, ‘how can I change the meaning that people ascribe to what management does so that it makes it look better?’ I keep seeing that quite frequently. I think management would like to behave in the way it would like without thinking of the impact on publics. And then they think a public relations person can come in and craft the appropriate message and make it look better than what it is. I see a great deal of that, particularly in marketing communication and persuasive aspects in public relations. That’s very hard, very difficult, to burst that bubble in a sense, to break into that way of thinking; that public relations is a way to make organizations look good when they’re doing bad things. Or to make what they’re doing appear to be in the interest of publics when they’re not, actually.

INTERVIEWER: Can you talk about your theories in the age of social media—I think about your symmetrical model for instance?

GRUNIG: That’s very interesting. I just saw a blog in someplace in the UK last week that said the Grunig theories need to be reevaluated now in the age of social media. And I looked at it and said no, they’re more applicable now than they ever were, in fact, with digital media; digital media in a broad sense. I think digital media are broader than social media. But they’ve made the symmetrical model inevitable, in my opinion. I just don’t see how any organization can try to communicate with publics without listening, without engaging in dialogue, without trying to understand how they see their interests when organizations make decisions to behave in certain ways. There was what I call the illusion of control, that public relations people and organizations in general seemed to believe they could control the messages that were going to publics and that would control the way they thought about their organization. I never really did think that was true. People were able to talk to each other and they got information from different sources. They weren’t restricted to media or advertising or what else. They had their own experiences. They talked to other people. They read other sources of information. But now digital media just make it much easier to do that. So if you want information about a product… For example, I’m at the age now where I use a lot of medical products and I don’t take anything without doing an internet search first. The site I’m least likely to trust is the one that’s coming from the pharmaceutical company. In the same way, I wouldn’t buy a dehumidifier for my basement without seeing whether people say it breaks down after a year. So, the control, I think, was always in the hands of people; individuals and publics. But now it is much more in their hands because you just can go anywhere to get information and you’re not restricted to what organizations choose to make available for you. So this symmetrical model basically is a model of dialogue. It’s a model of looking out both for the interest of your organization and for the publics that are affected by the organization, and it’s much easier for an organization to find out how publics are affected because they can simply go online and do searches and read blogs and find out what people are saying about how decisions are affecting them. I think the new media make it very interesting to practice public relations because I think it’s going to be much easier to convince management that it has to be more open in communicating with publics and that you really can’t use the symbolic, interpretive approach to try to put out an interpretation that you want people to hear because they easily can get a different interpretation someplace else.

INTERVIEWER: You’ve talked a little bit about this but I want to give you the chance to expand on what you’ve said already if you want to and that is—you’ve talked about the strategic management role that public relations should be part of and the role of public relations practitioner as management counselor. Is that growing in importance or diminishing in your mind?

GRUNIG: I think if you look at major corporations and—I’m a member of the Arthur Page Society and to be in the Arthur Page Society you have to be the senior-most person in a corporation or a public relations firm—I believe in major corporations it’s essentially universal at this point. I think they’re all doing that kind of role. Government agencies, I’m not so sure. Other organizations that still see public relations more as a publicity or a journalistic role and they may still be doing that. That’s still part of corporate public relations but I think the idea that the senior public relations person is a counsel to management, I think that’s essentially universal. I shouldn’t say just the senior public relations person because, what I discovered in the last year working on a project with my former student Jeong-Nam Kim looking at how public relations is practiced in Korean organizations, we did some case studies of U.S. corporations. And the question was, how did you get this role? How did you get this strategic management role, what did you have to do to do it? The answer that keeps coming up was, ‘develop the expertise to be able to do it, to really understand business.’ To not just communicate in the sense of giving out messages but how to communicate in the sense of doing research; because research is a form of communication. But also having expertise on decisions that are made. If you’re in the financial industry you have to be able to understand how different forms of mortgages, for example, are going to affect people who take out those mortgages. What are going to be the impacts on them? And the expertise isn’t just in the senior-most person. We sort of have this image that there’s a senior person who does all the management consulting and then all the other people in the department are technicians who do communication. But, increasingly I think that there may be expertise in employee communication or in financial communication or in community relations or in particular products or activities that is throughout the organization, throughout the public relations department. So it’s not just one person who has all of the expertise but everybody. And you get that expertise from education but also from constant listening. Listening not just to publics but also reading about financial information, about new products, environmental policies, government policies and so on. You don’t learn it just by studying how to pitch a news story to the media. You have to really be a policy expert and have policy expertise. Not everyone can have expertise in everything so you have to delegate that throughout the public relations department. Now, when it comes to public relations firms I think you have two types of activities. One is those firms or those parts of firms whose job is mainly delivering messages and they’re not often involved in strategic decision making. But then there are other parts of firms who are strategic counselors. And there are lots of smaller firms—one person, two person, three person firms who are primarily in business to consult management. For example, a friend, Fraser Likely who is a practitioner in Canada in Ottawa, he doesn’t necessarily call himself a public relations person; he’s a management consultant. So I think there’s a great deal of that kind of expertise. But there’s still a huge amount of activity primarily in the marketing communication area where you’re just trying to create buzz and get messages out; most of which, in my opinion, has no affect but there’s still a huge amount of that kind of activity going on.