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James Grunig: The biggest challenge is coming from those who believe public relations is a marketing discipline

james_grunigIf public relations is collapsed into marketing, I believe it will do little more than provide messaging support for marketing objectives. Thus, a huge challenge is to define and explain public relations as a unique management discipline. I believe that public relations must be understood as a strategic management function whose role is to help management make better decisions and build relationships with publics affected by management decisions.

Jim, how did public relations come into your life?

Like most people who entered the public relations field when I did (in 1962), I thought that public relations was a form of journalism. My first job in public relations was as a part-time writer for the Iowa State University Agricultural Information Service while I was in the second year of my undergraduate studies. I grew up on a farm in the state of Iowa and, with my two brothers, was in the first generation of my family to go to a university. My grandfather immigrated to the United States from Switzerland when he was 19 years old, and my father did not go to high school because his father needed him to work full-time on the farm. I studied agricultural journalism at Iowa State University because it seemed like a natural extension of my farming background, but yet it was a way to get off the farm into a better occupation.

Many agricultural journalists worked for newspapers or magazines at that time, but the majority of them worked in public relations—for agricultural businesses such as farm equipment, fertilizer, or meat processing companies or for research organizations such as agricultural universities or the U. S. Department of Agriculture. In fact, my first four jobs in public relations were for the Iowa State Agricultural Information Service, the U. S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, DC, the International Harvester Company in Chicago, and an international agricultural research center at the University of Wisconsin. In each job, I wrote press releases or magazine articles about agricultural research.

In postgraduate school at the University of Wisconsin, I enlarged the way I thought about public relations. I studied communication theory and research and began to think about how they could be applied to public relations. I also studied under Scott Cutlip, author of one of the first public relations textbooks, who taught me that public relations was a management discipline. At that point, I began to think of public relations as something much more than journalism. I then began to do research on public relations and began to think of it in theoretical and management terms when I began teaching at the University of Maryland in 1969. Public relations management has been the focus of my career ever since.

After an extensive and very successful academic career, how do you believe your scientific research has shaped your personal beliefs?

That’s an interesting question. I do know that my personal beliefs have shaped my scientific research, at least the assumptions that I have about public relations. I came from a rural background where a sense of community and concern for others was important. Those values underlie what I have called the two-way symmetrical model of public relations. My parents and others in the community also taught me to be accountable for the effects of my behaviour on others, which is the major assumption of my strategic management approach to public relations.

My scientific research also has affected my personal beliefs. For example, leaders of organizations and public relations people often seem to believe that their decisions and actions meet resistance from publics because the people in these publics are uninformed or irrational. One of my first major research projects was a study of peasant farmers in Colombia, South America, from 1967-1969. The prevailing communication theories of the day were of ways to persuade or change the behaviour of these publics to make them more “modern” or to adopt new “innovations.” I spent many days over two years talking with these people on their farms and trying to understand why they thought and behaved as they did. I came to understand that their thinking reflected their life experiences and that they had good reasons for behaving as they did. What was “modern” or “innovative” to organizations trying to change these people really was not very modern or innovative in the situations in which they lived. Organizations never took the time to talk to members of publics or to listen to their ideas and experiences before conducting research to identify innovations or in crafting messages to change their publics. Thus, I began to believe that most public relations failures come not from the failures of publics to behave in a reasonable way but from the failures of organizations to understand their publics and, in turn, to behave in a responsible, sustainable way.

Over the years, I have conducted many studies of the behaviours of publics, using my situational theory of publics, and the behaviours of organizations, based on my models of public relations.  I have come to believe that publics are usually, although not always, right and that organizational rigidity often leads to poor decisions that could be improved by listening to the publics who would be affected by those decisions. Of course, that takes me back to my original core values of concern for others and accountability for the effects of one’s own decisions and behaviours.

The world is getting more sophisticated than ever. Are PR professionals still capable of understanding the very big, the very small, and the very complex in this world?

Many critics of public relations would question whether PR professionals ever were capable of such an understanding—at least without assistance from others. A PR person would have to be almost God-like to be able to understand everything. The best professionals are those who seek the advice of many types of experts and use their skills as communicators to bring people with different types of expertise together to solve problems collectively. One of the most common, but underused, forms of expertise is lay expertise—expertise of people who are not scientists or senior managers but who are affected by the decisions of people we normally think of as experts. This explains the importance of giving publics a voice in organizational decisions along with giving voice to the other experts. Thus, public relations professionals can’t be expected to understand everything, but they should know who to consult to bring necessary knowledge together to solve problems.

As an example, I often have asked whether public relations professionals working at or advising large financial institutions could have done anything to avoid, or to warn management about, the financial risks that organizations took that led to the financial collapse of the last several years. After all, the financial instruments and practices were so complicated that even the financial experts didn’t understand them completely. The public relations people aren’t the financial experts. I think, however, that they need to develop a sense of risk—of when decisions carry excessive risk for publics or for the organizations. I believe that the control of risk is at the center of the concepts of social responsibility and sustainability. Making decisions that carry too much risk is irresponsible and unsustainable. Thus, I think PR professionals need to sense when risk is high and ask questions of the experts, and lay experts, at that time to reduce the chance that they might engage in  risky, irresponsible, and unsustainable organizational behaviours.

Back to the roots of our profession and considering that chronology isn't the only basis for determining paternity and judging fatherhood of a profession in the broader context of establishing theoretical, practical and ethical guidelines for later generations, who has for you a compelling claim to the title "father of public relations"?

I prefer to look at the history of public relations from the perspective of intellectual history—that is, the history of ideas. There are a lot of good ideas in the history of the discipline that can be traced to particular fathers or mothers. For example, Ivy Lee probably introduced the idea that organizations could hire their own journalists and that these journalists could write their own articles (press releases) to hand out to newspapers. Edward Bernays had the idea that social science theory and research methods should provide a basis for public relations practice. He probably introduced the idea of calling the discipline public relations in its current sense, although others had used the term before. Scott Cutlip probably introduced the idea that public relations is a management discipline, although Arthur Page of AT&T practiced public relations as a management function years before Cutlip wrote his first textbook.

I originally thought that I introduced the idea that public relations should practice a symmetrical model—that is, a profession that promotes the interests of both organizations and publics. However, when I look at the history of public relations I find that the practitioners have expressed the symmetrical idea, in different terms, for at least 100 years, although not everyone who espoused the idea actually put in into practice. Two U.S. PR professionals, however, provide excellent examples of the symmetrical model in practice: Arthur Page of AT&T and Earl Newsom, a public relations consultant, who practiced from the 1930s to the 1950s.

There also have been a lot of bad ideas introduced into public relations. An example would be propaganda, and I won’t speculate here where that idea originated. Members of the U.S. Institute for Public Relations Measurement Commission recently debated who originated the idea of using advertising value equivalencies (AVEs) to measure the value of public relations. No one could decide to whom that dubious honour should be awarded. In addition, I have only mentioned Americans to this point. I know that German professionals and scholars have introduced similar or better ideas to public relations since at least 1850. Five years ago, during a conference in Tehran, I learned that an Iranian professional, Hamid Notghi, introduced similar ideas there from the 1950s to the 1970s while working for oil companies.

So, you see, there seem to be parents of public relations ideas everywhere. What the discipline needs more than parents, however, is consolidators of ideas—scholars who bring good ideas together into a cohesive theoretical framework—a framework that also excludes bad ideas. I hope that has been my contribution, but I realize there are a number of excellent German scholars and scholars from many other countries who have done the same thing.

You once said that publics create themselves and control the messages to which they are exposed. You mentioned in addition that publics form their own cognitive representations and choose their own behaviours. Is this a kind of scepticism with regard to the changes in public relations brought about by the social media revolution?

Actually, I think the idea that publics control their own communication behaviours helps us to make sense of the new media. Recently, I wrote an article published online in Australia in which I discussed how digital media have affected the behaviour of publics. I began that article by saying that public relations practitioners long have had the illusion that they could control the messages going to their publics and the effect of those messages on publics. In contrast, I said that publics have always created themselves (they are not „targets” created by public relations people), that they control their sources of information, and that they control the way they think. Publics, however, with traditional media often have been constrained by the information that organizations and the media chose to make available to them.

The new digital media have removed that constraint. Members of publics now can search for information, and usually find it, from throughout the world and from many sources. They also can initiate conversations with other members of the same publics and with organizations that affect them. The new media, therefore, have placed control of communication into the hands of publics and have made communication inherently interactive and symmetrical. As a result, I believe that public relations people have little choice other than to communicate symmetrically with their publics. In addition, the digital media provide public relations people with a superb tool for listening to publics, for gathering information relevant to management decision-making, and generally for giving publics a voice in management.

What big challenges do you expect for the PR profession in the near future?

I think the biggest challenge is coming from those who believe public relations is a marketing discipline. If public relations is collapsed into marketing, I believe it will do little more than provide messaging support for marketing objectives. Thus, a huge challenge is to define and explain public relations as a unique management discipline. I believe that public relations must be understood as a strategic management function whose role is to help management make better decisions and build relationships with publics affected by management decisions. It must build relationships with the stakeholder publics relevant to all management functions (not just customers). It must engage in continual research, measurement, and evaluation, which is a challenge that public relations people must embrace.  Finally, I think public relations should embrace the sustainability movement, because the ultimate objective of public relations is to make organizations more sustainable. Convincing management that sustainability is the purpose of public relations will be another huge challenge.

Anything else you would like to add for the young generation of practitioners Smile?

I have always seen public relations as a profession where I could apply values that are important to me. To do that, we must resist the temptation to be no more than promoters or apologists for organizations. Public relations is a profession in which we can improve relationships throughout society and the world. But knowledge, research, and theory are critical. One cannot simply declare himself or herself to be a public relations professional and begin practicing the discipline. You must study, and continue to study, the body of knowledge in public relations to be able to practice it effectively.


James E. Grunig (Ph.D. University of Wisconsin, 1968), Professor Emeritus, is the coauthor of Managing Public Relations, Public Relations Techniques, Manager's Guide to Excellence in Public Relations and Communication Management, and Excellent Public Relations and Effective Organizations: A Study of Communication Management in Three Countries. He was editor of Excellence in Public Relations and Communication Management. He has published 250 articles, books, chapters, papers, and reports. Grunig was named the first winner of the Pathfinder Award for excellence in academic research on public relations by the Institute for Public Relations Research and Education in 1984. In 1989, he received the Outstanding Educator Award of the Public Relations Society of America. In 1992, the PRSA Foundation awarded him the Jackson, Jackson & Wagner award for outstanding behavioral science research. He won the most prestigious lifetime award of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) in 2000, the Paul J. Deutschmann Award for Excellence in Research. In 2002, he was awarded the James W. Schwartz Award for Distinguished Service to Journalism and Communication by an alumnus of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication, Iowa State University. In 2005, he received the highest award of the Institute for Public Relations, the Alexander Hamilton Medal for Lifetime Contributions to Professional Public Relations, and the Dr. Hamid Notghi Prize for Career Achievement in Public Relations from the Kargozar Public Relations Institute, Tehran, Iran. In 2006, he delivered the annual distinguished lecture of the Institute for Public Relations and was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Universidad San Martin de Porres of Lima, Peru. He directed the $400,000 research project for the IABC Research Foundation on excellence in public relations and communication management. Selected Publications: Grunig, J. E. (2006). Furnishing the edifice: Ongoing research on public relations as a strategic management function. Journal of Public Relations Research, 18, 151-176. Yang, S. U., & Grunig, J.E. (2005). Decomposing organizational reputation: The effects of organization-public relationship outcomes on cognitive representations of organizations and evaluations of organizational performance. Journal of Communication Management, 9, 305-325.


Interview by Dana Oancea, Forum for International Communications
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