The Two-Way Symmetrical Model of Communication

The two-way symmetrical model of public relations as described in Grunig’s Excellence Theory is focused primarily in making sure that decisions made by an organization are mutually beneficial between itself and its audiences. The goal of Grunig’s symmetrical communication model is one that embraces negotiation between the organization and its publics, and one that also fosters mutual understanding. During this aspect of Grunig’s research, his idea for symmetrical communication “also was stimulated by Carter’s (1965) and Chaffee and McLeod’s (1968) conceptualization of coorientation.” (Grunig, “Furnishing the Edifice,” 156) The roots for this model “represented a movement away from theories of attitudes held by one person and research on how to develop messages to change the orientations (attitudes) of person.” (Grunig, “Furnishing the Edifice,” 156) This model is drastically different in comparison to the stereotypical view of the PR practitioner as a manipulative figure who uses smoke and mirrors to control audiences. The symmetrical model “proposed that individuals, organizations, and publics should use communication to adjust their ideas and behavior to those of others rather than try to control how others think and behave.” (Grunig, “Furnishing the Edifice,” 156)

The symmetrical model of communication is a democratic framework for the PR practitioner to follow, and one that can both be effective or detrimental, depending on the situation. The overall goal of creating mutual understanding between parties also is much more palatable for audiences, because in human nature, no one desires to be controlled. If a person is controlled or feels inferior to another person or organization, they will not develop trust, and they are likely to withdraw completely from a relationship. The same goes for the organizational-public relationship as well. If we create a sense of open communication and build trust through the two-way symmetrical model, we are more likely to be in a positive position when a time of crisis does occur because of strong relationships that have created a strong reputation. The use of two-way symmetrical communication by a PR practitioner who functions at the strategic management level also allows our audiences to have a voice at the executive table. This model creates a level playing field for negotiation and mutual understanding to take place between the organization and its publics. The two-way model provides an organization with the tools and path needed to create a strong company reputation built upon solid, long-lasting relationships, because both the organization and its audiences are provided with a voice in processes and developing issues or problems. The two-way symmetrical model for communication maintains both the organization’s best interests and its audiences’ best interests at the forefront in the most fair and balanced way possible. Through the use of this model, both the organization and its audiences can collaborate together to both grow and strengthen an overall organization, leading it to greater success.

Two-way symmetrical communication and digital media

The worldwide success of social media websites, blogs and interactive online technology has provided companies and organizations with a direct link to customers and constituents 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Its impact can be seen on a global scale, as activists utilized Facebook in organizing the “Arab Spring” protests and uprising in the Middle East, and the websites are used by just about every generation today. These various sites provide organizations with the ability to reach new audiences and engage with potential new supporters on a daily basis. When an organization uses a Facebook page on a daily basis, providing interesting content that engages users to take action like make a comment, share a photo, or even click “like,” audiences are helping the organization to gain awareness across social media sites, while at the same time, feeling a one-on-one, interactive connection with a company. Facebook provides a space for our publics to have a voice in a centralized online location. Now more than ever, the two-way symmetrical model is a part of daily life for PR practitioners who are managing social media websites. Grunig stated via an emailed Q&A that now more than ever, symmetrical communication is a reality for PR practitioners regardless of whether or not they are trying to implement it. “I think that digital communication makes symmetrical communication fairly easy to practice and, in fact, might make it unavoidable,” Grunig said. “With digital communication, publics have much more control over their sources of information; and organizations have little choice other than to communicate with them symmetrically.”

At the same time, PR practitioners must understand how these platforms work. Social media sites are not simply websites where information can be posted and left to stand on its own. It must be utilized for two-way conversations to take place. Grunig also cautioned professionals to use these symmetrical communication tools in the right way. “Too many practitioners still use digital media as a way of dumping information on publics, the symbolic-interpretive approach, and therefore think of social media sites only as a means of disseminating messages,” Grunig stated via email. “Instead, they should think of digital media as a way of identifying problems, publics, and issues that require the attention of strategic managers and as a way of engaging in dialogue with publics. Most digital sites can be used in that way, but I fear that popular sites such as Facebook are used most to dump messages and not as interaction.”

Through the use of Twitter, ongoing interactive conversations occur daily between companies and their publics. In this medium, complaints can be handled and resolved in an immediate fashion, and users discussing the same topics related to a company can also connect with each other through the use of hashtags paired with key words. Twitter gives the PR practitioner a chance to communicate daily with various audiences, while at the same time, provides an avenue for scanning the latest topics and trends, which connects to another facet of the Excellence Theory: environmental scanning. With the use of LinkedIn, companies are provided with a more informal platform to reach out to current employees to update them about various news and events. LinkedIn also provides companies with a way of attracting new employees through engagement and regular updates. Instagram allows the PR practitioner to take full advantage of the power of symbols in the climate of new media, however this also highlights Grunig’s fear of PR professionals using social media as a symbolic-interpretive tool rather than an interactive one. Start-up websites like Concert-oh, a company based in Pittsburgh, allow organizations to host virtual town hall meetings via webcams in which two-way communication can take place in a convenient and open manner. Social media websites and modern technology provides us with an array of platforms in which relationships can be strengthened and communication can take place anytime, anywhere. Access to a company’s leaders is just a click away in today’s social media-driven world.

Through the use of social media, every audience an organization works with via the two-way symmetrical model not only has a voice, but one that is very public in that everyone engaged on a social media site will have the ability to view an individual’s comments, concerns or complaints. With this fact comes the very unique challenges that social media presents to the PR practitioner in the midst of the very positive cultivation of two-way symmetrical communication. One example is posed by the use of blogs. A blog is a medium that is largely dominated by reader comments, suggestions and insights. Blogs provide a way to connect with various audiences on a regular basis, but they also open up an organization to regular scrutiny and comments from a wide range of people who can enjoy the anonymity of the Internet. In today’s world, the majority of people have experienced or witnessed the presence of “trolls” online – the anonymous commenters who want nothing more than to trash anything and everything they see online simply to aggravate others. This is why PR practitioners today must have solid social media policies in place that create a healthy balance of two-way communication that fosters mutual understanding, and a policy that protects the organization from shallow insults that have no merit.

PR Professional #1 said the practitioner must understand how to use each platform and also must understand that new media is a place for conversation. “I think that you have to acknowledge that social media is a two-way conversation, and if you post and someone reacts negatively, you can respond, but you run the risk of starting a dialogue,” she said. “You can take it down, then run the risk of being perceived as someone who really isn’t about open communication, or you can let it go and see what happens. Watch it very carefully, but do not react – that’s what I do. It’s really easy to decide when you need to delete something if it is obscene or extreme. If you watch it and it does become a thing, you need to respond. It needs to be measured, thoughtful and strategic.” The world of social media opens the floodgates for two-way communication to take place, and it must be managed by the PR practitioner in a rational and professional manner to uphold the integrity and reputation of the company.

Grunig noted a specific successful example of the use of social media in negotiating with the public and engaging in two-way symmetrical communication in his emailed Q&A interview. “I will cite a recent paper by Shannon Bowen that provides an example of how Starbucks has used digital media to engage its publics symmetrically,” Grunig said. “Here is a direct quote from her paper with the citation following:”

“Starbucks® provides a classic case in the development of social media and the active engagement of publics. Starbucks was among the first large organizations to take social media to an innovative level by using it to actively conduct research and generate public feedback. The idea page promotes engagement of the public with the organization, and offers a space in which publics can share ideas as well as discuss topics with each other. The page invites participation with the opening:

‘You know better than anyone else what you want from Starbucks. So tell us. What’s your Starbucks Idea? Revolutionary or simple—we want to hear it. Share your ideas, tell us what you think of other people’s ideas and join the discussion. We’re here, and we’re ready to make ideas happen. Let’s get started (’

By actively inviting participation, the organization is not only promoting engaged relationships but is also able to use the site as a cost-effective source of research data. The site provides a valuable information, opinion, and attitudinal data freely offered by Starbucks customers. Numerous ideas that originated with Starbucks customers on the website have been launched, from recycled Starbucks cards to eco-friendly cup sleeves. In addition to the cost savings, publics to engage with Starbucks on the website will, in most cases, have increased knowledge about Starbucks and relationship satisfaction with the organization resulting in increased brand loyalty. In public relations terms, the “my Starbucks idea” campaign creates a win-win scenario.”

(Bowen, S. A. (2013). Using classic social media cases to distill ethical guidelines for digital engagement, Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 28, 119–133.)

Other arguments and analyses

Integrated Marketing Communication also is a useful, two-way communication tool that can inform the PR practitioner about its audiences needs, so that more strategic messages and narratives can be created, making sure a company can meet those needs in reality. While Grunig states that public relations should be utilized as a “bridging activity – of value to organizations, publics and society,” IMC offers PR practitioners’ research methods to execute this bridging activity in the practical setting. (Grunig, “Furnishing the Edifice,” 172) “IMC strategy that uses the Dialogic Bridge opens itself to consumers on common ground and develops meaningful messages that affect their purchasing habits, attitudes and brand loyalties…Openness establishes a two-way exchange of information between parties, otherwise known as dialogic engagement.” (Malcolm, “Philosophical Bridges,” 27) IMC represents a compromise of sorts between Grunig’s two-way symmetrical model and more traditional thoughts on the art of persuasion and public relations. While IMC aims to affect attitudes, and the basis for Grunig’s two-way symmetrical theory marks a move away from this position, the tools of IMC are in fact used to foster stronger relationships between an organization and its audiences because the research collected from various publics informs the organization or company in how it can better serve and better communicate with those audiences. It could also be argued that Grunig’s development of scenario building and environmental scanning tools allows PR practitioners to accomplish the same goals that IMC tools aim to achieve through research that can inform company-wide decisions.

For example, when a company uses surveying as an IMC tool, it is initiating two-way symmetrical communication with its audiences. Surveys also can be used as a tool while thinking of the work from the environmental scanning approach of Grunig’s Excellence Theory. IMC simply happens to be a school less interested in negotiation and collaboration and more interested in information that can contribute to the success of future organizational campaigns. At the same time, this does not mean a company or organization is inherently selfish or serving its own needs above its audience – it is simply ensuring that it can better serve its customers by getting to know their needs in a direct and more in-depth way. From another perspective, the use of IMC could actually be seen as the audience shaping the message for the practitioner, because the end message created will be based on the needs and responses of the group of people surveyed, thus reflecting Grunig’s idea of symmetrical, collaborative communication between an organization and its publics.

Despite Grunig’s assertion: “persuasion involved communication without concern for publics,” I personally believe that rhetoric should be considered both an ethical and balanced mode for two-way symmetrical communication to take place. (Malcolm, “Philosophical Bridges,” 129) Rhetoric encourages a public discourse – a two-way conversation or debate – between an organization and its audience to take place. Grunig has stated that rhetoric focuses more on the organization than its audiences, but I disagree with this assumption, especially when it comes to the nonprofit sector. The relationship between a nonprofit organization and its donors is one that is reliant upon persuasive language that is backed up with solid facts as to why people should financially support its mission. Without the use of rhetoric, it would be incredibly challenging for successful fundraising to take place, because in order for people to reach into their wallets to support a cause, a personal connection must be made through the use of a narrative that highlights exactly why their support is needed. According to Grunig’s two-way symmetrical model, which is focused on mutual benefit, it could be more personally beneficial to the potential donor to keep his or her own money and buy something for himself or herself. However, this would not be of the greatest benefit to society, because it is the ultimate goal for nonprofit organizations engaging in fundraising to make society a better place for all. Nonprofits are the liaison between the public and real social change, which actually is mutually beneficial for all for generations to come.

While Grunig acknowledged via email that persuasion can be used in both asymmetrical and symmetrical communication, he also stated that he believes scholars are overly concerned with the topic. “I have always found it difficult to understand why communication scholars are so preoccupied with persuasion,” Grunig said. “It is one of the least common effects of communication, and the concept itself is not clear. Persuasion involves changing something, but what is changed: Awareness, cognitions, attitudes, behavior, or something else? I think we need a different concept for each type of ‘persuasion.’”

Thoughts on media relations

Grunig also has labeled “images, perceptions, messaging, reputation, ROI, strategic communication and corporate responsibility projects as fads, while claiming that professionals who focus on these topics ‘have skill sets that are limited to media and media relations.’” (Batchelor, “Toward Pragmatic Public Relations,” 160) In today’s world of the combination of both print and online media, activities related to gaining media placements cannot be viewed as futile, rather, they should be utilized as a piece of a larger PR strategy. Through the use of press releases and story pitches, sociodrama can be utilized to create a narrative that can help to shape a new reality for readers, in which our organizations have meaning. While these methods are a form of one-way asymmetrical communication, they do have a place in the overall strategy for PR practitioners. In the practical setting, many company leaders, in my own experience, view the number of media hits per year as a way to measure success. However, there are weaknesses that come with the use of one-way communication, which highlight the strengths of the two-way symmetrical model of communication. Through the establishment of a feature story in a newspaper or online publication, a PR practitioner must surrender a certain amount of control because naturally, the perspective of the reporter and the reporter’s interpretation of facts will be present in the story. This also applies to any subjects being interviewed as well.

In addition, when relying on media placements as a way to create more relationships in the community, an organization relies upon a reader to take the first step in initiating that relationship, which they most likely will only do if they have a need that can be fulfilled by the organization, or if they have a personal connection to the narrative that they read in the newspaper. This is an example that explains why we cannot depend on media placements alone to motivate people to form a relationship with a company or organization. With the use of two-way communication, relationships are built through mutual communication, negotiation, understanding and a give and take. Media placements in a newspaper are presented to an audience and then digested or rejected by an audience. There is not necessarily a chance for audience members to respond unless they are so moved to do so, or if an online comment section is provided, and even then, the commenter is not communicating directly with a company, but rather, they are communicating on the media outlet’s platform.

PR Professional #1 offered her own insights on the topic of media relations by stating publicity in and of itself is not a communication strategy. “It’s part of an overall strategy, however, with that said, when I think about your various audiences, including your customers, your employees, sometimes those media placements have greater value to your internal audience, stockholders, whatever it might be, as a tool in terms of changing opinions,” she said. “But it is still just a part of a whole process. Relationships with media people are very valuable, but less so than they were 10 years ago. Why? New media. You can have great relationships with a lot of media and some nameless, faceless person can post a YouTube video that goes viral and it can decimate you.”

Media relations and the power of symbols cannot be dismissed in today’s 24-hour news cycle in which all organizations strive to increase visibility and awareness, however, in terms of relationship building and mutual understanding, the two-way symmetrical model seems to be more effective in that regard. Media relations activities should serve as a tool to use to benefit the overall success of an organization, but should not be relied upon as a sole relationship-building tool.

Is the two-way symmetrical model a utopian ideal?

Some have suggested that Grunig is too idealistic in his theory of two-way symmetrical communication, with some arguing that it simply is not realistic in the practical setting. I have to disagree with these arguments and say that Grunig’s theory challenges PR professionals in the field to implement components of his theory in a world where most people view the work of PR professionals as simply securing media coverage as a main task and goal. Grunig’s theory challenges PR practitioners in the practical setting to move deeper into their field in order to increase the value of PR as a whole to an organization. He moves the profession beyond a process of media relations and into a function at the strategic management level. The two-way symmetrical model is possible to achieve in the field and can ultimately result in stronger relationships between an organization and its publics, which is what we all strive to build as PR professionals – after all, these relationships lead to an even stronger reputation for the organizations we represent in our communities.

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