Oral Histories

James Grunig

Interview Segments on Topic: Strategy/Strategic Thinking

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: 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: 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.

INTERVIEWER: I want to switch gears just a little bit and ask you to talk about ethical mission statements or credos. I want to find out from you—my bottom line question—is it important for a corporation to have an ethical mission statement or credo? What does it do?

GRUNIG: You’re going to be interviewing the representative from Johnson & Johnson which is very famous for its credo and that has often been attributed…when Johnson & Johnson made the Tylenol decision it was equated to its credo. There’s also a great deal of discussion right now going on in the Arthur Page Society about character and corporate character and how the role of public relations in the organization should be to help define corporate character. And I get somewhat worried about that. I think credos and statements of character or lists of ‘these are our values’ and much of this takes place in a committee getting together or somebody writing down what our values are. I think that this can be taken over by a symbolic, interpretive approach. That is, we write down all of these values and we say this is what we stand for, or this is our credo, but that doesn’t show up in the behavior of the organization. I fundamentally believe that our values are exhibited through our behavior. So if indeed the credo or the corporate value statements are reflected in behavior or they are derived from behavior, these are our values because here’s what we’ve done before. They shouldn’t just be symbols that are put up there to make us look good that we don’t actually follow. There is much discussion in the symbolic interpretive approach of what I call a cognitive representation. That is, what people think about something. And it has gotten many names—images, reputations, brand, impressions—I don’t care what you call it; they’re basically all the same thing. That is, what members of a public think about an organization. And branding for example, the idea is more proactive in a sense. A brand is what we want people to identify with our organization, where reputation is more what people think after the fact. I tend to believe a brand is our behavior; that our behavior, the organization’s behavior, brands it. So when we say, if you damaged our brand by doing something unethical, that’s indeed the case. But somehow thinking up a brand and saying this is the Republican brand, for example; political parties now have brands: the Republican brand and the Democratic brand and so on. To me the brand is more of a marketing than a public relations concept and rarely, if ever, useful because I think it’s a symbolic, interpretive concept that is used to try to create some kind of meaning for people that doesn’t always exist. This is a long answer to your question. Although I think those things are important, they’re less important than day-to-day involvement in decision making. If we really want public relations to influence the character or the ethics of an organization, it does this not by writing statements but by advising and participating in decision making and communicating with publics. And then our brand emerges or reputation emerges because a reputation is what people remember that the organization did. It’s not something we create through publicity.   It’s what people recall. What is your reputation? It’s what people remember that an organization did. That takes you back to the strategic management approach and I think what’s important is to have some sort of statement or some sort of set of principles that say, this is the role of the public relations function and this is what we are trying to do. We want to influence character, we want to influence ethics but public relations has to be a part of decision making or strategic management if it’s going to do that.

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.