Oral Histories

James Grunig

Interview Segments on Topic: Mentors

James Grunig Biography


INTERVIEWER: You’ve talked a little bit about looking forward, I’m going to ask you to look back just a little bit and talk about maybe one or two—I’m going to call ‘pioneering practitioners’—who you admire. Because they practice in a way that you think is really a model for public relations or they espouse certain ideas that you really think are important for practitioners today.

GRUNIG: When I wrote Managing Public Relations—it doesn’t seem like too long ago, I wrote it mostly in 1980-82, something like that. Thirty years ago, forty years ago? I wrote a chapter on history, at least that’s how I came up with the four models of public relations and finding typical examples of who had practiced those models. Ivy Lee, I think, was a forerunner of the public information model. I think there are problems with that model, although what Ivy Lee did at the time was very important. I think Edward Bernays was very important for introducing social science into public relations. I think he is essentially a practitioner of the two-way asymmetrical model which I don’t admire that much. But I did think social responsibility was important to him and social science was important to him and research was important to him so that was extremely important. You’re representing the Page Center so Arthur Page has to be, I think, one of the most, if not the most important practitioners of public relations. If you look at the Page principles, if you look at what he did at AT&T, they’re really the embodiment of the theories that I’ve taught and developed: from social responsibility to symmetrical communication. I think often people think of me mostly in terms of symmetrical communication, but I think my most important public relations theory is the strategic management role of public relations. Public relations is involved in decision making and consults management before decisions are made, and I think Arthur Page did that to a great deal. Then there’s another practitioner that I’m not sure gets the recognition he deserves, that I didn’t discover actually until after I had written Managing Public Relations. I rewrote the history chapter for Managing Public Relations, although I never finished writing a second edition. But this was Earl Newsom who was practicing in the 1950s. I believe he worked for Ford Motor Company, among others. He always saw his role as a counselor, as a public relations firm that puts itself out of business. That is, he would help consult public relations practitioners in a corporation on how to do public relations so that they wouldn’t need him to do it for them. There are some famous examples of his counseling. I believe it was Ford that he counseled that they should provide medical benefits to employees at a time when all of the other companies were fighting the idea because they didn’t want to pay for it. So the labor relations were much improved as a result of that. Then when it comes to public relations education I think Scott Cutlip is the father of public relations education. Scott was my teacher. When I went to the University of Wisconsin I had been an undergraduate student at Iowa State University. Actually, I had never taken a public relations course but in my PhD program I sat in on Scott’s introductory public relations theory course. At the time I was studying agricultural economics. I had studied agricultural journalism as an undergraduate, and I had wanted to work in the agricultural industry until the Vietnam War came about and I decided a PhD program was more in my interest than visiting Vietnam at that time—that’s another story. Scott always referred to me as that kid from ag journalism who took my course. But when Scott won the Deutschman research award from AJMC, we did a program for him and I went back and read the first edition of his textbook and I could find every concept basically in there that I’ve used from environmental scanning to public relations as a management function, and so on. It was not as well developed theoretically, but I think Scott set the stage for public relations education. And he fought all the early battles with journalism deans and educators over whether public relations was just applied journalism or whether it had a theoretical basis of its own. Persons who were very influential for me were Jim Tyrone of AT&T and Ed Block at AT&T. Ed Block was vice-president of AT&T at that point and he asked Jim Tyrone who was a researcher to set up an evaluation research program for AT&T. This was in the 1970s. I worked with Jim for about a five-year period, and he really instilled in me the idea that theories had to be practical. I learned how to do evaluation research working with him. He didn’t come in with the ideas. He didn’t really know how to do evaluation research. And I didn’t really know—I knew how to do research but not necessarily evaluation research—so the two of us working together, until he died of a heart attack I think in about 1979 or something like that—we made a good deal of progress. I admire him a great deal. He’s someone that most people won’t mention. But if you mention him to Marilyn Laurie at AT&T for example, she will understand him or Ed Block, and so on. Harold Burson I admire a great deal. I think that what he talks about now are very similar concepts. He used to say, “people ask me what should I say, I could be called in by management and asked, ‘what should I say’ and now they’re called in and say, ‘what should I do.’” I think that’s an important change. I think Johnson & Johnson, Larry Foster and Bill Nielsen who you’re going to interview also, they set an excellent example. And then there are many colleagues who were in public relations education at the same time I was, Glenn Broom and David Dozier at San Diego State University. My wife, Lauri Grunig, who worked with me for years and years on the Excellence Project. Jon White from the U.K.; Fred Repper who was our practitioner member, all of these. And then Bill Ehling at Syracuse University who was a very important part of the Excellence team. Elizabeth Toth who was at Syracuse and now is at the University of Maryland, and so on. So those are some of my contemporaries. There was this first wave of Scott Cutlip and others like him who basically inaugurated public relations education. And there was a second wave of us who are now about my age and they’re out of business. There’s a whole new generation who are doing their thing. Sometimes I like it and sometimes I don’t.