The ‘4 Models’ of public relations practice: How far have you evolved?

mprWhile preparing to teach my first PR class back in ’85, I happened upon “Managing Public Relations,” by Jim Grunig and Todd Hunt. Though I lost track of my copy long ago (never loan textbooks to students — never), one element of that book influenced how I taught and practiced PR for the past 23 years.

Grunig & Hunt’s “4 Models” of public relations practice went on to became the most talked-about theory in the discipline. The “4 Models” describe distinct approaches to public relations in the context of a 130-year timeline that shows how public relations has evolved. In the process, Grunig & Hunt identify an “ideal” approach to public relations — something they call the 2-way symmetrical model — and place it at the top of the evolutionary pyramid.

For me, the 4 Models became more than a teaching tool. When Grunig & Hunt published their theory, I was a full-time PR practitioner working for marketers who saw PR as promotion and publicity, period, and with no ethics component. The 4 Models helped me see the potential of public relations and, in part, inspired me to open my own shop so I could get beyond marketing and do some serious PR.

Here’s a summary of the models. If you’re like most of us, you’ve spent a little time in each of them.

The Press Agentry Model. With roots in the 19th century, press agents worked to influence public opinion by creating news. P. T. Barnum was a master of the art form, weaving fantasy and half-truths into his messages. Press agents were liars — at least some of the time — but it got their clients into the headlines, and that’s what mattered. Press agentry is alive and well in the entertainment business to this day. I mean, how else do you explain Paris Hilton?

The press agent invests no time in research and even less in the discussion of ethics. The aim is behavior manipulation.

It’s curious, though not surprising, that Seth Godin used a form of press agentry to position his book, “All Marketers are Liars,” At least he admits it from Chapter One, so don’t be too hard on the guy. You probably bought his book. I did.

The Public Information Model. Somewhere in the early 20th century enlightened PR types shifted toward truth and accuracy in communication, but they did little more than distribute information. Acting in the role of “journalist in residence,” a PR person under the public information model used no formal research to guide his work. But the move away from pseudo events and half-truths was a significant shift toward more ethical practices.

One-way communication is the focus of the public information model. Press releases, brochures, even static Web content, are tools used by these information dispensers. They tell the story and hope someone is paying attention. I see a lot of this model in higher education, including at my own university. Government PR folks also do a lot of one-way storytelling to “get the word out.”

The 2-way asymmetrical model. The post World War II rise in consumer products created a need for targeted, scientific marketing. PR played a role. Under the 2-way asymmetrical model, practitioners used research to get inside the heads of consumers and to help fashion the sell messages. Grunig and Hunt called it “scientific persuasion,” and it remains the stock-in-trade of advertisers everywhere.

While asymmetrical communication is two way, the goal is anything but balanced. It’s all about persuasion to trigger a transaction, thus its popularity with marketers.

The 2-way symmetrical model. A handy website at the U of Florida describes it this way:

Uses communication to negotiate with publics, resolve conflict, and promote mutual understanding and respect between the organization and its public(s).

The 2-way symmetrical model casts public relations in the role of mediator versus persuader. Under that model, PR pros listen to the concerns of both clients and key publics and help them adapt to one another. A utopian model? It seems so, since the PR professional must represent the interests of ALL parties while being paid by only one. It works well with enlightened management who take a long-term view, but they’re rare birds these days.

Can we realistically serve multiple stakeholders whose needs conflict? For example, can we represent the interests of loyal employee groups while our shareholders demand layoffs in favor of low-cost offshore suppliers?

If you view yourself as a client advocate, the 2-way symmetrical model may seem nonsensical, and that’s too bad. To be successful in business — one of my old bosses used to say — ALL parties must benefit — not just customers and investors.

I’m old enough to remember when the C-suite mantra was something other than “maximize shareholder value.” Not that long ago, business leaders actually worried about the long-term impact of their decisions. They planned for sustainability before it became a buzz word for the green movement. Some even showed a sense of ethics and social responsibility — a desire to act in the public interest although it cut into dividends or executive bonuses.

What happened?

Today’s amoral, profit-lusting business environment doesn’t leave much room for the 2-way symmetrical model, which, by definition, may not be self-centered. Makes it hard to justify shareholder greed and 7-figure bonuses when you have to worry about fairness, balance and the whole “relationship” thing.

Can public relations move American business toward a more balanced business model and a more ethical one? Maybe not. But someone has to try.


Special thanks to Judy Gombita for linking me to Henry Mintzberg’s paper, Beyond Selfishness.” It reminded me why the 2-way symmetrical model should be more than a theoretical ideal. It should be standard business practice.

31 thoughts on “The ‘4 Models’ of public relations practice: How far have you evolved?

  1. Well done Bill. Calling out the charlatans is good. Calling out the practitioners who are not able to manage the C suite is also good. If practitioners are not prepared to manage corporate managers then what are they there for? Perhaps to preside over the demise of the organisation including shareholder value.

    The Credit Crunch is as much a PR failure as anything. Selling iffy products is bad for PR. Lying about them can create recession and will hurt the rich and the poor.

    For many practitioners who find themselves subservient to marketing is silly, and they have to get out from under. Just because its in ‘marketing’ does not mean the PR manager should not manage the marketing department as much as the other parts of organisations.

    After all, Marketing throughout the 20th century was a monumental failure. It needs to be made accountable too. What sort of profession is marketing when, unlike PR, it could not establish a bridgehead to most consumers world wide (most consumers live on less than $5 per day – which is an opportunity market segment).

    So marketing PR needs calling out too.

    What of CSR? If an organisation is not socially responsible, all the evidence (bar none) shows, its ROI (that means income for distribution to shareholders) is less than for those organisations which manage relationships with ALL stakeholders transparently and with mutual understanding. Every undergraduate PR course, provides this evidence – doesn’t it – and the practical ethical training to make it stick.

    What of shareholder relations. Where trust, and long term shareholder commitment come through trusted transparent communication. This is not a C suit issue its proper PR management.

    I can go on (and on and on), but effective organisations have, by default, a broad view of relationship management designed to accommodate long term mutually advantageous interaction is good PR and the PR person whose has any other job, is playing at the fringes.

    Grunig’s views were interesting but of his time but are technical. The principles behind PR go beyond communication which is the most used tool of practitioners in the psychology model of practice perhaps we should also add the philosophy model too.

  2. When people ask me the three most important things a PR person must bring to the table, I generally say 1) good writing, 2) critical thinking and 3) courage. Too often, we are lacking in that third category. I don’t blame this on marketing, but on the “greed machine” that is driving today’s businesses.

  3. At least you acknowledge the “utopian” characteristics of 2-way symmetrical model, because SOMEBODY is always paying. In fact, I would say that almost all formal, sponsored communications are asymetrical and cannot be otherwise, since the communicator almost always brings more resources to bear than those being communicated with.

  4. I really can’t disagree with you, Bill. The person paying the tab is owed our loyalty. What I’m asking is this: Is there a way to reconcile loyalty to client and loyalty to other stakeholders with the goal of creating mutual satisfaction?

    I don’t know how we get past the conflict of interests unless we all agree to share the benefits that derive from productive business transactions. Man, I’m starting to sound like Karl Marx, huh — or better yet, a union council rep (which I am).

    A symmetrical approach requires an entirely new business ethic, one that I’m not convinced the folks in the C-suites want anything to do with. It’ll screw with their bonuses.

  5. A person who would try to move American business down an enlightened route would have an uphill battle every step of the way. At times, it just blows my mind how greedy business execs can be, but at the same time, it doesn’t faze me. It’s weird how the dichotomy exists within the human brain.

    I can see that different components of all four models are implemented in everyday PR practice. I assume that this is the best we can hope for in a greedy corporate society. Cynical news bombards the American people’s brains everyday, and it’s no wonder that PR has a shady reputation. We always end up back to PR’s identity crisis.

  6. I love your site. It is educational and there is too little education in the blog-o-sphere. It seems to be your site and Arthur Page Society.

    Please keep up this food-for-thought blogging. You’re reaching out to more than communications students.

  7. As a student, I spent some time with the 2-way model and, as a practitioner now, I do believe in it. Organizations would be wrong to think that there is no profit in the model. After all, social media IS the 2 way model put into practice. I read an article this morning that said that despite the major Olympic sponsors spending more than $6 billion on advertising in China alone, the most effective ones (in terms of customer response) seem to be those that employed social media.
    And yes, I agree with you Bill, agentry is alive and thriving. Case in point: tabloids.

  8. Thanks, Brandon. You make a point I may have overlooked. The 2-way model can be very profitable, as it leads to a level of trust and satisfaction that can’t be achieved with asymmetrical practice. It helps us better connect to those who, in the end, make us successful.

    Social media promoters on the marketing side largely understand this — the idea of building the relationship to create a better business environment. What’s amusing is that so many feel they invented the concept. My next post will bring it all together, I hope, when I show how 2-way symmetrical practice and the Cluetrain Manifesto are pretty much one in the same.

  9. I think what you and others overlook when you call the two-way symmetrical model “utopian” is that it is in the self interest of organizations to use the model and that it is not in their self interest to follow an asymmetrical model. In recent writings about the symmetrical model, I have used Christopher Spicer’s term “collaborative advocacy” to describe this model. That is, you can best advocate for the organization that pays your salary or fees by advising it when it is in its best interest to collaborate with a public. It is not in the organization’s self interest to push ahead with plans that will lead to public opposition and eventually the costs of irresponsible or unethical decisions: litigation, regulation, legislation, fines, negative publicity, and the like. I think you can think of numerous examples of decisions and asymmetrical communication support for them that have had such costly consequences for organizations.

  10. Well said, Jim. And while I don’t know that yours will be the final words on this post, they should be. That said, I think your sentiments are similar to Brandon’s, who I am sure studied your “4 Models” in the college classroom not long ago. Your comments also go back to a theme I introduced in one of the earlier posts: “To be successful, all parties must benefit.” Nothing “utopian” about that, but I find that most marketers in this world still see your symmetrical model as ” nice in theory.”

    This leads us to the Web 2.0 mantra of “relinquishing control of the message” and to some degree the governance of organizations. Message control in a digital world is gone, thus the need to focus on symmetry has never been greater.

    I’ll get into this in my next post as I compare symmetrical PR to the promise of Web 2.0 as outlined in the Cluetrain Manifesto. I spoke on this topic back in March. You can see the slides here,specifically slides 5 through 19.

    Is is disarmingly simple. But as I said in the post that follows this one, it may take me a couple of weeks to get the next one published.

  11. Pingback: Symmetrical PR meets the ‘Cluetrain Manifesto’ « ToughSledding

  12. Pingback: PR Conversations » Engaging (and grilling) the social side of James Grunig

  13. Thank you very much!!!
    I loved the approach, very academic sarcasm that I love so much.
    Very informative and helpful.

  14. Pingback: It’s time to turn the page « ToughSledding

  15. Pingback: More Than Prayer « a D.C. tech blog

  16. i just started on this topic of the four models at school and i must say,this is a cool website, i get all the information i need.thank you guys, if need help, i’ll know where to go.

  17. Pingback: Meet our new colleague at Kent State « ToughSledding

  18. Pingback: Reflecting on an Excellent Adventure @ PRSA09 « ToughSledding

    • No problem bill, credit where credit is due.

      I am currently completing 4 final assignments in CSR, PR Campaign, and Journo Writing plus Project Management and then exams!!!
      The pressure is on.

      Keep up the good work, Have a good weekend from ireland

  19. Bill, I just discovered this post via your tweet about it. Good info!

    My field has been higher education PR (and marketing), and I completely agree that the Public Information Model is seen a lot in higher education. It just seems to me that higher education PR pros miss the boat with practicing it exclusively, but it’s relatively easy. However, fewer are reading their news these days. So, where does it go from there? Well, if you see yourself and your PR program as just media relations, you bring less value to the university in this new environment.

    I’ve been writing on my blog about how a higher education PR program should be coordinating the decentralized PR activities that occur on a university campus. Educating community managers about the potential role of social media in PR and monitoring their use of it would take PR beyond just posting press releases, and would acknowledge the reality that community managers across the campus have PR roles for the university. It would certainly have the potential to put into practice the 2-way symmetrical model. So much of what I’ve done in the past in higher education leadership has been to negotiate the needs and expectations of alumni, faculty, community leaders, etc. with the institution. PR programs should do that and be more than just media relations, as some programs are still named.

    Thanks for your sharing your thought provoking post and blog.

  20. Pingback: 4 models of PR, bad PR, CEO blogs, future PR skills, PR history and Twitter…

  21. Pingback: Engaging (and grilling) the social side of James Grunig : PR CONVERSATIONS

  22. Pingback: Theoretical Contexts of Public Relations | Tysonscott's Blog

  23. Pingback: WEEK 3 « C3045378tracyleung's Blog

  24. Pingback: PR and the Great Fracking Debate |

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *