All Corporate communication is unethical

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”….


About catherinesweet
Academic, professional, communicator, stakeholder in a dozen different disguises

4 Responses to All Corporate communication is unethical

  1. Admin says:

    I always struggled with that theory too – it always seemed rather impossible! You can be be ethical in your communications whilst simulataneously tipping the balance, in my opinion. However I’m sure you’ll agree that whether in equal measure or not, two-way communication is important, effective and achievable!! I’ve recently discovered that a large proportion of my customer base (working in-house currently) is on Linkedin, and most of them spend a lot of time in relevant Linkedin groups sharing information and helping each other professionally. I quickly realised that I knew a lot of the answers to their questions so I joined in and gave them advice. I have managed to build up strong relationships with these customers and have now created my own group! I communicate with them about our products and answer their questions, and they discuss what their needs are and provide me with feedback. Win win! 🙂

  2. In my mind symmetric communications is not about «equal time»; it is about keeping an open mind to the other party’s opinion and making sure that communications channels are open if required. Of course different parties will have different levels of interest in the communication – as well as different means. Having worked for major organizations in both the public and private sectors for many decades, I found it always very important to keep my ear to the ground all the time in order to be available when stakeholders, often with much lesser means, wanted to discuss issues.
    Remember what differentiates Grunig’s third and fourth models of PR. The third model is «asymmetrical» in that the objective of the two-way communication is not to reach a mutually profitable agreement but to find ways to impose your objectives to the stakeholder. The fourth model is said «symmetrical» in that the objective of the two-way communication really is to reach a mutually profitable agreement. Of course, this is not always possible; nonetheless, I firmly beleive it is imperative for PRs in Public Affairs to strive to reach this goal as much as possible.
    I discuss this very topic on my blog, referenced here:

  3. E Freeman - Drury University says:

    I think that was an interesting perspective on Grunig & Grunig’s Excellence Theory of PR. I do agree with a couple of your points. First off, there is never going to be true equality in communication. No two people are ever going to agree on the intent, commitment, or importance of the piece that is trying to be communicated. Stakeholders only want to hear what they want to hear. They want the abridged version of the situation. Rarely are they interested in the backstory that goes along with the report. Of course, from the PR presenters perspective, those things are all important. I know that is stereotyping stakeholders but from all my experience, that is the truth. In a society where “time is money”, people only have time to take in the least amount of information possible for them to make a decision. I think the key is for everyone to communicate as ethically as possible. Even if they can’t agree on what is important and what isn’t, they surely can all agree that the communication needs to be ethical. In the book Ethics in Human Communication, Johannesen, Valde, Whedbee state, “An implied covenant exists between givers, takers, orchestrators, and stakeholders in an information society. Givers should provide valid information, orchestrators should handle it with fidelity, and takers should use it only for the purpose agreed on for its collection. All should conduct their activities in a way that helps rather than harms stakeholders.” (Johannesen, Valde, & Whedbee, 2008) I think that if everyone does this, regardless of the equity in the communication, they will all achieve their goals…ethically.
    Works Cited
    Johannesen, R. L., Valde, K. S., & Whedbee, K. E. (2008). Ethics in Human Communication. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, Inc.

  4. Thanks for your comments. I am intrigued by the notion that “even if they can’t agree on what is important and what isn’t, they surely can all agree that the communication needs to be ethical”. Since first writing this post, I have been teaching quite a few Masters students, and we’ve rolled up our sleeves to address what is the cultural content of the concept of ethics. What you might think is “ethical” might not be so to someone from India or China. And that is an issue, too. Grunig assumes that symmetry isn’t “equal time” (I agree with Guy Versailles), but he does assume that behaviour is adjusted because of the fact that the organisation’s behaviour changes to benefit the stakeholder. I’m not sure I’d buy the notion that this leads to “mutually profitable” being the definition of symmetry, as he suggests. Your line (if I understand it correctly) is that the goal should be to “help” stakeholders rahter than “harm” them. I think I am more of a cynic about this. Stakeholder salience (Agle and Cornelissen) suggest that effective organisations adjust their stakeholder relations to categorise and prioritise. Quite simply, one needs to “listen” more and take on board the views of dangerous/dominant/definititve stakeholders. With dependent/discretionary/dormant stakeholders, one doesn’t need to bother. Wow- is that asymmetric or what! Yet, surprisingly it can be ethical to spend your organisation’s resources to benefit some stakeholders more than others.

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