October 18, 2011 4 Comments
Ok, now that I have your attention, let me explain. If you are a PR student, it is likely that somewhere along the line you have been told about Grunig & Grunig’s Excellence Theory of PR, which suggests that PR practitioners should aspire to achieve “two-way symmetrical communication with stakeholders”. And, in its later iterations, the Excellence Theory suggests that if corporate communication is not symmetric, then it is by definition unethical. Symmetry, by the way, means “equally balanced”.
That idea has been bugging me for years -and now I’ve decided to call time on this idea. Practitioners have to make decisions, set priorities, work with limited budgets, and even more limited attention spans of senior management. Everyone KNOWS that you focus your efforts on those stakeholders that matter. And, that even within a single stakeholder group, you are not “evenly balanced” in your communication. Not all media within the media stakeholder group are treated the same. Not every employee is communicated with on an equal basis often for legal reasons, as well as practical ones.
The other thing wrong with the theory is that it implies that stakeholders are equally interested in communicating with the company as the company is interested in communicating with them. And that is just plain lunacy. Few stakeholders care equally about the companies with whom they interact. Even Greenpeace targets its efforts on chocolate production to those manufacturers with the biggest production and customer base. If you are small and niche, you are off their radar. So, not all stakeholders care as much about you as you do about them, if you are a corporate communicator. In fact, far from being symmetric, it’s sometimes hard to get them to pay attention at all.
In my view the symmetric communication idea is a complete fallacy. No two people, let along stakeholder groups, have an identical or equally balanced investment in the conversation, even when it is two-way. So, let’s put this lame duck theory to bed. What matters is not “symmetry”, but rather” effectiveness”. So, repeat after me- “ethical communication is NOT about symmetry”….