The two-way symmetrical communication model of public relations is a fundamental cause of my passion for working as a public relations professional. It provides a model that works on both a practical and aspirational level (its many characteristics provide a value set that informs my approach to work and, I believe, as a member of society): I apply it whenever it is feasible to do so.

Organisations that apply the notion of two-way symmetrical communication will, I believe:

  • enjoy more mutually beneficial , sustainable and, where relevant, commercially satisfying relationships with their stakeholders
  • make a more significant and worthwhile contribution to society
  • have more committed employees who are stronger organisational advocates.

Because of my high regard for the two-way symmetrical model, I am revisiting, “the most comprehensive information ever collected on the [four] models of public relations,” as described by the model’s leading architect, James E. Grunig, Professor Emeritus from the University of Maryland.

Grunig is referring to a chapter he wrote for a book titled Excellent Public Relations and Effective Organizations, which was published in 2002. Why go back seven years to discuss a chapter? Because Professor Grunig himself believes that the chapter is “the most recent and most complete” discussion of the two-way symmetrical model. Due to the validity and the incredible importance of the theory, I wanted:

  • to give my own paltry recognition to it (I do not for one second think that I possess the intelligence to give the chapter its due)
  • increase awareness of both the model and its chief author amongst my peers. (Bearing in mind, that during the formulation of the original concept in the 70s and its refinement over the years, Grunig has collaborated with many academics to instigate, develop and debate the model).

The four models? Well, to refresh your memory:

  • press agentry (one way communication; often media relations and sometimes of the spin/propaganda variety; non-consultative)
  • public information (one way communication; generally pretty ethical but normally from the perspective of the organisation only, so it can be one-dimensional; non-consultative)
  • two-way asymmetrical (stakeholder views are sought; communication is adapted to potentially change stakeholder behaviours; the organisation does not change its views or behaviour; very much in the mould of modern marketing)
  • two-way symmetrical (as per one-way symmetrical, except the organisation does change its views and/or behaviour to meet its stakeholders ‘half-way’ [or thereabouts, at least]; characterised by negotiation and compromise, education).

Despite a number of critics doubting the validity of all four models and the practicality of the symmetrical model in particular, Grunig says, “Practitioners and CEOs do think about public relations in these ways, and the four models do describe the way communication programs are conducted for different types of publics.” (‘Publics’ being a synonym for ‘stakeholders’.) There is, however, a blurring of the lines between symmetrical and asymmetrical models.

In fact, Grunig surmises that excellent public relations can be better described in terms of the following underlying themes:

  • It is research-based (i.e. not reliant on gut feel or non-tangible means)
  • Symmetry (which ultimately means both organisations and their stakeholders evolve their behaviours)
  • Whether the communication itself is either mediated (e.g. media, aspects of social media, expert 3rd party analysis/advocacy) or interpersonal (e.g. discrete meetings, community forums, speaking at events etc)
  • Its degree of ethics.

The basis of many of the assertions in this chapter come from research amongst senior public relations practitioners and CEOs in what was called the Excellence Study. Interestingly, and most practically, it was found that organisations can apply different models concurrently – symmetrical, asymmetrical and public information – whilst still holding a “symmetrical worldview”.

It is somewhat ironic that Grunig says, “organizations typically turn to a symmetrical approach when activist pressure or a crisis makes an asymmetrical approach too costly”. Well, perhaps if the organisation had been talking to their stakeholders and had adapted their organisational processes, products or services to meet their stakeholders’ needs (i.e. being symmetrical), the crisis would never have occurred!

Two critical points that Grunig makes are that, “By and large, organizations practice symmetrical public relations when the CEO understands its value and demands it and the senior communicator and his or her communication staff have the knowledge to supply it.”

In the first case, I would think that whilst CEOs would rarely think in terms of ‘symmetrical’ or ‘asymmetrical’, those leaders that do subscribe to the essential characteristics of symmetrical communication will be ones who:

  • are socially conscious
  • are aware of their organisation’s reliance of the permission of their stakeholders to exist
  • see beyond the immediate future.

In regard to the knowledge that communication staff have of symmetrical communication, this underlines the responsibilities that senior, team-leading public relations professionals have. This knowledge, if my experience is anything to go by, will come most effectively by undertaking a masters in the field (though a self-education program that incorporates the reading of texts like the one under discussion wouldn’t hurt!). True communication leaders will educate and inspire by setting a positive example, both in the context of their teams and the organisation they work for as a whole.

Symmetrical communication presents a very positive, ‘can do’ approach to public relations. Other than those elements that I have already mentioned, it is also characterised by:

  • Dialogue – at the very heart of effective public relations (i.e. not simply ‘broadcast’. Implied in the notion of dialogue is that an organisation is actually hearing what its stakeholders are saying and, hence, showing the first signs of respecting them)
  • Negotiation (i.e. to bring about a win-win scenario)
  • Its embracing of a plurality of perspectives (i.e. diversity – this being wonderfully analogous to multiculturalism which is such a critical issue for many western democracies).
  • Implied through incorporating a plurality of perspectives is tolerance, as well, something we could all do with a bit more of, not to mention organisations themselves, which so often suffer from an alienating hubris
  • Collaborative (working together with stakeholders to generate fresh perspectives, new ideas and resolutions to issues)
  • ‘Accommodation’ (.i.e. the organisation and its stakeholders being willing to accommodate the interests of each other)
  • In-house activism: the strategic public relations professional will often prompt an organisation to evolve
  • Empowering the marginalised; giving voice to the voiceless (thus helping develop social equity; one of the most meaningful and rewarding dimensions of being a public relations professional).

As with any quality discussion of an issue, Grunig is not afraid to refer to viewpoints different to his own. Miller, for instance, believes public relations is by nature asymmetrical. Van der Meiden says that it is unrealistic for an organisation to abandon self-interest, which is what he (mistakenly, I believe) thinks occurs with the application of two-way symmetrical. To some critics, as Grunig says, “the symmetrical model represents a utopian attempt to make an inherently evil practice look good.”

It is certainly true that each communication situation is different. In reality, it may not be possible to apply all characteristics of two-way symmetrical to all situations (e.g. negotiation). An example of this is in areas where human values are at play. Grunig cites abortion as a topic where it is difficult to reconcile opposing perspectives.

“Symmetry in public relations is really about balancing the interests of organizations and publics,” says Grunig, “Of balancing advocacy and accommodation.” Notably, for potential critics, Grunig says symmetrical communication, “does not reject the notion of persuasion”, as long as it is applied symmetrically. One dimension of this is for practitioners to, “consistently remind themselves and management that they may not be right and, indeed, that their organization may be better off if it listens to others.”

The application of two-way symmetrical communication is, to my mind, the best way to build and sustain long-lasting, mutually beneficial relationships between an organisation and its stakeholders. It will also make a meaningful contribution to society by increasing understanding of various factors by often disparate groups of people. Finally, and most importantly, as organisations change to meet their stakeholders’ needs, society will become more satisfying and more equitable to greater numbers of people.

[I would very much enjoy hearing your thoughts on this topic. For instance, there is a particular challenge in applying the two-way symmetrical communication model within a consultancy environment. I haven’t seen where this topic has been addressed, so any thoughts on this would be good to hear.]

Excellent Public Relations and Effective Organizations (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002). Lawrence Erlbaum is now owned by Routledge.

NB. This is not an academic analysis so I have taken the liberty of not footnoting as per academic protocol. All quotes are taken from the chapter in the book referred to. If a reference is not the thought of Professor Grunig himself, then I have noted who the reference comes from.