Oral Histories

James Grunig

Interview Segments on Topic: Public Opinion

James Grunig Biography


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: Have you thought much about the ethical challenges that are raised for public relations practitioners as a result of the rise of new media?

GRUNIG: I’ve said many times that the symmetrical model is inherently ethical. An asymmetrical model is not necessarily inherently unethical, as I’ve been accused of saying many times. But to practice an asymmetrical model, you have to be able to prove to yourself or to others that what you are trying to persuade someone else to do is actually in their best interest. And it may not always be in their interest because I think there are oftentimes efforts—I’ve talked about convincing people to smoke, to use guns, to do all sorts of things that are not in their best interest—but the person who’s doing the message really thinks it is. So with the symmetrical model, you leave it open to dialogue and you don’t try to decide for the other person what is in his or her best interest. It’s what theorist Ron Pearson, several years ago, called the obligation of dialogue. Ethically, you have an obligation to engage in dialogue with your publics whenever the organization that you represent has some kind of consequence on the publics. So there are two versions of ethics. Consequentialist ethics or utilitarian ethics says that whenever you have negative consequences on someone then you should examine whether that behavior is good for the other person. The problem with consequentialist ethics is that sometimes a behavior has good effects on one party but not on the other ones. So how do you decide which one gets precedence over the other one? That was always the problem with utilitarian ethics, the greater good for the greater number and so on. But I believe in utilitarian ethics because of the concept of consequences. I think that’s the most important term in public relations. A public comes into existence when an organization behaves in a way that has consequences on the public. And when a public recognizes those consequences, then it begins to think about them and to communicate about them. This comes from my studies of John Dewey when I was a graduate student many years ago. But then there are the limitations of consequentialist ethics. So I add deontological ethics to consequentialist ethics, which basically says, what are the rules that you could follow that would make—if you follow those rules—your behavior or your actions to be ethical. For me, the rule is the obligation of dialogue, which doesn’t mean that you make decisions for others or you always do what is probably the best thing or the thing that’s best for everyone.   But you leave it up to dialogue and people can come together. And the way you behave may or may not be the most ethical thing but at least you listened to the other party and you’ve engaged in dialogue with it. So, anyway, my theory of ethics is essentially whenever an organization behaves or is thinking of behaving in a way that will have consequences on a public and the consequences bring about the public, then you have the obligation to engage in dialogue with it. So then the question is what do you do after the dialogue? Do you do what they want you to do or what you think is what you would like to do or what is right? And that’s never easy to decide. But then one has to engage in some kind of social reason to think through, ‘now I’ve listened to the other side, I’ve thought through our side and I’ve made a decision based on the best information I have available.’ The other party, the public, may not always agree that this is most ethical but at least the other party will have had a part in that decision. So it is going to be more ethical than if you didn’t make that decision. So now if you apply that to social media you can find out what kind of consequences you’re having by doing environmental scanning. By looking at what people are saying on the social media, the digital media, about the effects of your company or your organization’s behavior on them and then you can engage in dialogue. Either by joining into blogs of which they may be a part or setting up your own blog or your own Facebook page or any way in which you can engage in dialogue with those publics. I think that the biggest ethical challenge comes with the concept of lurking; when can you listen in on people when they don’t know you are listening in to them. I’m not sure if anybody has an easy answer for that except that I think that you need to reveal yourself. Making it known that you were listening, that you’re present, that you’re part of the conversation, is an important part of that ethical challenge. I think there are times when we simply want to listen in to what publics are saying without actually saying, ‘well, I’m here from XYZ Company and I’m listening to what you’re saying.’ I think there are times when we can gain information in that way and take it to management and so on. But before we ever quote them or do anything with that information I think we have the obligation to reveal to those parties that we’ve been listening in and we’ve taken part in the conversation.

INTERVIEWER: Something else that strikes me that social media raises in terms of ethical challenges in the model that you’ve talked about, is this idea that the dialogue that you’re listening to is much more public. Everybody can listen to it right?

GRUNIG: Right.

INTERVIEWER: And so then the decisions that are made after you’ve listened can be viewed by everybody through that prism. Does that ratchet up the ethical stakes?

GRUNIG: Well, a good friend and former colleague, Mark McElreath, who taught originally at the University of Maryland with me, and then at Towson University, wrote a book on ethics. His first rule of ethics was ‘if you make this decision, are you willing to go on national television and announce it to everyone?’ That’s, I think, a very good rule. Because if you cannot make what you’re doing known to those that are going to be affected, then you probably shouldn’t be doing it. Or if you try to engage in a behavior without saying you’re doing it, somebody’s probably going to find out and they’re going to reveal it on digital media. It’s going to come out whether you like it to or not. So the question is, with social responsibility, if I’m making a decision, if management is making a decision that carries a great deal of risk for a public and I can’t announce that risk to the public, then I probably shouldn’t be making that decision. I think the social media then give us two things there. It really makes everything transparent whether we want to or not and if we try to withhold information from people, it’s probably going to come out. But then it also gives us the means for talking about potential decisions before they’re made and then making the decision with the best information. I stop here for just a minute because something happened at the University of Maryland just in the last couple of weeks. Maryland decided to join the Big 10 Conference. And the entire decision was made in private. Now all of my theories would say this is a terrible mistake. And from what I read about this decision it wasn’t totally in private. The Washington Post ran a very lengthy article about it this weekend and the president of the university consulted with the lawyers, of course, but also with primary, major donors, with some regents but not all of the board of regents, and with coaches; many people who would be affected by that decision before he made that decision. So in a sense he was gathering information. Now, there was a nondisclosure agreement made with the Big 10 conference that they couldn’t say anything about this before the decision was made. What would have happened ideally is that the whole thing would have been vetted on the internet and discussed and there would have been hearings. There would have been discussion of all of this. But, I suppose there’s a competitive advantage involved here. So this gets into a very difficult kind of area. How open can you be when a decision might be adversely affected and it might not be possible to make that decision if it’s going to be made in the open. I’m not quite sure whether that decision was made properly. It has even been argued that it violated Maryland’s public, open meetings law because the vote was taken without having an open meeting and so on. I think that’s a very interesting, ethical, question here that people should think about. I can see both aspects of it. On the one hand I think it should have been much more open and much more dialogued. Then on the other hand, it might have not have been possible to make the decision if that had actually been done.

INTERVIEWER: Sounds to me as though the Maryland case will make a great case study at some point.

GRUNIG: At some point, I think.

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.