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...
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