Critiquing the Notion of Symmetry

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Following James Grunig and Todd Hunt’s development of the four model approach to public relations in 1984, there has been much discussion about the validity of one of the models, symmetrical communication, and the role it plays in the working life of public relations practitioners.

This essay will demonstrate an understanding of the history and development of the concept of symmetrical communication and conclude with a critique of the relevance of the approach in public relations theory and practice today.

The term symmetrical communication evolved from seminal research undertaken by Grunig and Hunt. They stated that the evolution of public relations practice could be divided into four “developmental stages” or models (Grunig and Grunig, 1992, p.290). The four models were described as press agentry, public information, two-way asymmetrical, and symmetrical communication.

Grunig (1995) argued that the four models were representatives of the values, goals and behaviours held or used by organisations when they practice public relations.

The essence of the symmetrical communication approach is based around an organisation and its public having a genuine two-way relationship. Grunig and his colleagues believed that by applying a symmetrical model of public relations “organisations get more of what they want, when they give up something they want” (Grunig, White,1992, p.39).

Fundamental to the model of symmetrical communication is the intent to change what Grunig refers to as the “dominant worldview of communications – asymmetrical communication” (Grunig, White, 1992, p. 40). He described this as “...the use of communication to manipulate publics for the benefit of organisations” (Grunig, White, 1992, p. 40). He advocated that asymmetrical communication steered public relations practitioners towards actions that were “unethical, socially irresponsible, and ineffective” (Grunig, White, 1992, p. 40). For Grunig (1995) the two-way symmetrical approach to communication represented a break from this dominant worldview.

Grunig also argued that “in spite of good intentions of practitioners –it is difficult, if not impossible to practice public relations in a way that is ethical and socially responsible using an asymmetric model” (Grunig, White, 1992, p. 42).

There has been endorsement and criticism of Grunig and Hunt’s model and both responses will be addressed in this essay.

Grunig (1992) states that other research has provided evidence that a two-way symmetrical approach to public relations makes organisations more effective. He cites the work of David Dozier (1989) who argued that the symmetrical model of public relations is the only model “inherently consistent with the concept of social responsibility” (as cited in Grunig, Grunig 1992, p. 308). William Ehling’s (1984) theory of public relations around conflict management stated that, “in essence, only symmetrical communication management can be considered to be public relations” (as cited in Grunig, Grunig 1992, p.310).

Grunig also cites work undertaken by J.V. Pavlik who concluded organisations get the greatest pay off from symmetrical communication when opposing publics have power equal to that of the organisation (as cited in Grunig and Grunig, 1992, p.318).

As previously stated, while there has been support for Grunig’s concept of symmetrical communication there has also been lively criticism. Critics such as Jacquie L’Etang and Magda Pieczka suggested the model was too idealistic and unrealistic (as cited in Heath, 2002, p.17).

Steve Mackey a lecturer from Deakin University, in Victoria, Australia writing in changing vistas in public relations theory in 2003, argues that organisations hire public relations people as advocates to advance their interests and not as “do-gooders” who “give in” to outsiders with an agenda different from that of the organisation. Mackey says, “Grunig’s critics believe that organisations would not hire a public...
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