PR is relationship builder, not buffer

Much research shows that organizations that interact responsibly with their publics are also the most successful - based on financial and non-financial criteria.

Much research shows that organizations that interact responsibly with their publics are also the most successful - based on financial and non-financial criteria.

Symmetrical PR helps society at large by improving relationships while strengthening the industry's claim that it's a profession - which, by definition, is concerned with the greater good as much or more than self-interest.

I've been asked, "Does anyone really practice PR this way?" Clearly, many giants of this field have thought so. Ivy Lee told the Rockefellers to tell the truth "because sooner or later the public will find it out anyway." Edward Bernays wrote that PR counsel "helps to mould the action of his client, as well as to mould public opinion."

John Hill wrote, "It is just as important for management to understand the problems and view- points of its employees, neighbors, and others as it is for these groups to understand the problems and viewpoints of management."

Arthur Page said: "No corporate strategy should be implemented without first considering [its] impact on external and internal publics. The corporate communication professional is a policymaker, not a publicist nor solely a writer of annual reports."

I take issue with those who say elite pros have a theory of PR and its value and values, whereas the mass of technicians fly by the seat of their pants or just do what they are told. I believe two major competing theories of PR exist both in practice and in the academic world: the symbolic, interpretive paradigm and the strategic management, behavioral paradigm.

The symbolic paradigm theory assumes that PR strives to influence how publics interpret the organization. These cognitive interpretations are embodied in such concepts as image, reputation, brand, impressions, and identity. Communications are aimed at publics so that the organization can buffer itself from its environment and behave as it wants.

In contrast, the behavioral paradigm theory focuses on the participation of publics in the organization's strategic decision-making and behavior. PR is a bridging, rather than a buffering function. It is designed to build relationships with stakeholders, rather than a set of messaging activities designed to buffer the organization from them.

If we truly want metrics that show PR has value to an organization, the measurements required are deceptively simple. We should measure the nature and quality of relationships. We should evaluate PR strategies and tactics to determine which are most effective in cultivating relationships.

Although the idea that PR should be a strategic management function was already in place 50 years ago, academic scholars have accomplished a great deal since then to develop the body of knowledge necessary to truly put that paradigm into practice.

In their 1958 edition of Effective Public Relations, Scott Cutlip and Allen Center quoted Earl Newsom, who said: "We need to remind ourselves continually that it is not our job to tell managements what they may or may not do, but to develop a science that will guide them in their judgments."

Since then, I believe we have built such a science.

Dr. James Grunig delivered this lecture at the Institute for Public Relations' 50th anniversary celebration. He is professor emeritus of the Department of Communication, University of Maryland.

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