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It’s a long time since I graduated from university but there is one lecture in particular that still sticks out in my mind as being one of the most valuable lectures of the entire three years. A Wednesday afternoon lecture on public relations theory sparked something inside that has since become a vital component in all of the jobs I’ve had since, and even more so now I run my own business.

Stay with me here, I know PR theory isn’t the most exciting subject, but Grunig and Hunt’s four models of PR are like business gold in helping you understand the rhyme and reason behind how to build a remarkable business.

We’re also going to have mini history lesson, and look at how the way businesses communicated in the past teaches us what not to do now.

So, Grunig and Hunt, in 1984, believed there to be four models of PR. I actually think these models apply to wider communication (or that PR and communication are actually exactly the same thing, but that’s a conversation for another day)

1. The press agentry or propaganda model

Travelling salesmen, like PT Barnum, in the mid-19th century were considered to be the first professional PR practitioners. Peddling their wares with exaggerated claims or even outright lies. Companies followed suit telling unwitting consumers anything they liked in order to get them to buy their products.

2. The public information model

At the start of the 20th century, people were getting wise to the lies, and big companies were being bashed by journalists for their unethical approaches. The humble press release was born, and companies hired people to tell the world their stories, with in-house journalists diligently distributing the news to media around the world. This model is basically a slightly more organised version of standing atop your offices with a loudhailer shouting about the latest product or the company reports.

3. The two-way asymmetrical model

Around the time of World War One, in order to be more effective, some public relations practitioners began to use social science and psychology to inform their campaigns. As use of this approach grew, the communication industries focussed on manipulating the masses for commercial gain, aiming for short-term opinion change and making people come around to their way of thinking. Don Draper of Mad Men puts it best at the end of this clip… “People want to be told what to do so badly, that they’ll listen to anyone”

This approach is largely where companies have stayed since then.

4. The two-way symmetrical model

Moving toward a more mutually beneficial way of communicating, this method focuses on understanding and communication, as opposed to the persuasion or manipulation of the asymmetrical model. It involves telling the truth, and holistically considering all your publics, whether that’s customers, shareholders, employees or the media. Organisations work towards compromise and consider the ethical implications of decisions. These organisations work to build trust and respect and as a result often have a dedicated tribe of followers.

 

At the time, I wondered why everyone wasn’t aiming for the two-way symmetrical model.

Of course even fifteen-ish years ago, sticking to a truly symmetrical model would have been difficult and hugely expensive – how could you possibly have had open communication channels with all of your customers?

Even then though, it made sense to me that you would at least try to build a company based on what people want.

Rather than making assumptions, why wouldn’t you just ask them? And if there was a problem, why not find out exactly what’s wrong and try to solve it? It seemed crazy that you would simply ignore even a few unhappy customers because you were still making money and your shareholders were pleased.

I soon came to realise that , before social networks, media was controlled by a small number of gatekeepers and it was hard for people with little money or credibility to get airtime or print space. This meant companies and organisations could pretty much ignore the minions and continue to do as they pleased.

Fast forward to 2018…

With social media now an intrinsic part of everyday life, it’s hard to ignore the masses – Anyone can have their five minutes of fame, and communicating with top executives and journalists can be done at the click of a mouse or a swipe of the phone.

But even with this much freer access to feedback and dialogue, I am amazed that more companies aren’t embracing modern communication in order to achieve the holy grail of mutual understanding.

It continues to astound me that many companies are still firmly stuck in an asymmetrical model. (And I think this is why I never felt 100% comfortable working for a traditional PR agency). They are just using traditional asymmetrical methods on a digital platform. Endlessly putting out stories and content designed to persuade people to come around to their way of thinking. But because they’re “doing social media” they think they’ve got the “listening to our customers” box ticked.

The internet is awash with stories of negative comments being deleted from company facebook accounts, and all too often it feels as though their responses are simply lip service. They seem so un-interested that it makes you wonder whether they’ve even progressed past the Propaganda stage of Grunig’s theory. Even worse are the public relations professionals and trainers who continue to pursue an asymmetrical model, and encourage others to do the same.

So, how can these models help you in your business?

The aim of today’s rant post was to get you thinking about the best way to approach communication with your audiences. And to demonstrate that many traditional marketers are missing the point, particularly with social media.

Aiming for a symmetrical model of communication will make your business remarkable because so many others don’t really listen or seem to care about their customers.

Listening to your audiences is so important. And responding and reacting to your audiences in a genuine and honest way is vital.

Some people may argue that truly 2-way symmetrical communication is not possible, but there are already plenty of businesses out there doing it and doing great things as a result.

It might not be the easiest way, but it is certainly the most accountable and, in my opinion, the only way to build a remarkable business with your community or tribe at the heart of everything you do.

Dive deeper

If you want to read more about Grunig’s theory of PR and how the digital age has changed the game, you can read his 2009 essay – Paradigms of global public relations in an age of digitalisation.

And if it all gets a bit much, you can get the gist from reading the abstract, intro and conclusion along with the fantastic graphic on page 8.

To read more about the benefits of using the symmetrical method I can thoroughly recommend reading Seth Godin’s book, Tribes.