Oral Histories

James Grunig

Interview Segments on Topic: PR Education/Training

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: Speaking of case studies and you talked earlier about your travel and of course you’ve been a leader in the public relations education field for decades and I guess I’m wondering, how should the teaching of public relations be different today than it was a decade ago?

GRUNIG: There are two aspects of public relations education. One is the theoretical aspect of it and the other is the implementation of theory. Actually, I would teach public relations theory today the way the way I taught it 20 or 30 years ago although I wouldn’t teach it exactly the same way because I know more than I did 20 or 30 years ago. I’ve done a lot more research. Every year that I taught public relations theory I would teach something a little bit different although the basic framework was the same. I have written an article I called “Furnishing the Edifice” and the idea of the edifice meant that I framed the house, I put the pieces together but then there were a lot of details that need to be worked out. So, there are certain theories that I’ve developed—for example, the situational theory of publics on the nature of publics. I developed that theory when I was doing my doctoral dissertation. It was part of a term paper in a communication theory class at the University of Wisconsin. And I tinkered with that theory over the years but the basic framework is the same and I’ve worked with a former PhD student, Jeong-Nam Kim, who’s now at Purdue University, who has made substantial changes in that theory. So, it would change but again it would be this similar sort of thing. The symmetrical model, the strategic management approach, all of those I think are as relevant today or even more relevant than they were some time ago; particularly, as I said, with new media. The new media affect the techniques, the actual programs and activities that one does in public relations but I think the theory is essentially the same. There’s the idea that keeps going around about the excellence theory, for example. I’ll read on the internet that somebody says this is an old theory. It’s been discredited, etc., etc. And I look at practice now and I can’t see that it’s any different than when we did that study or that the study isn’t just as relevant now as it ever was. I think we keep reinventing the wheel. The situational theory of publics came from John Dewey who wrote a book called The Public and its Problems in the 1920s. So I suppose I reinvented the wheel, although I think I came up with new ideas. So, I think the theories are more relevant today than they ever have been. Publics evolve more than they have—evolve in different ways, they can evolve on the internet and so on. And we need to develop new ideas. But I can see the day where the typical thing of trying to place news stories in newspapers and so on will be the thing of the past. It’s much more effective and efficient to do things on the internet, to engage publics on the internet. I think research is going to be much more done via the internet. We can monitor what people are saying. It’s much easier to do research because we can do questionnaires and even focus groups via the internet, via new media. I’m not always sure how representative the sample is that we get in that way, but we can do research in that way. I think that just by monitoring the content and analyzing the content of what is on digital media, we can do a huge amount of research. People talked about big data and so on. I think research is going to be considerably different in public relations with new media. And then I think simply the way we communicate with publics, whether they be employees or communities or students or anyone, we’re going to do it more and more on the internet, on social media. So we have to teach students how to do those things. I think the nature of the research, the nature of the dialogue, the kinds of messages, what we do—that hasn’t changed a great deal--but the way we actually implement those theories is considerably different.

INTERVIEWER: If I’m a young person and I’ve earned that public relations degree and I’m going out and I’m now going to be a public relations practitioner but I aspire to move into that counseling role and develop the expertise you talked about, what should I do?

GRUNIG: Hopefully it began when you were a student. And not just studying communication or public relations but taking courses in management, taking courses in political science and social science and developing an interest in policy and in management and that sort of thing. So, that’s crucial to have that interest. Then it’s a matter of finding the right job. Now that’s not always easy because it’s often just finding a job that’s important. I’ve just thought of one of the people that I admire the most that I didn’t mention: Pat Jackson of Jackson Jackson & Wagner. I’ve probably learned more from Pat Jackson than anyone else having worked with him for some time. But this question came up with Pat at one point. He said what he would recommend is counseling from below. So, you may get into one of those positions where you’re mostly a messenger and you don’t have much of a managing role but if you kind of keep your head above water and constantly think, ‘what would I do if I were in a more senior position and what would I recommend before I’m asked’—at some point someone may ask you. Or the opportunity may come in the elevator or something in which you’re talking with management, to provide that kind of knowledge and that kind of expertise. I think I would also try to be involved in research in whatever way I could. I would want a student to have studied it and be competent as a researcher because I think research is the future of public relations and if you can’t do research, I don’t think you’re going to be successful in public relations. There are many, many public relations research firms. Working with them or in them is a good way to gain expertise and knowledge that could be useful in many different ways.

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.