The Value of Ethics, Symmetry and Persuasion… Can They Coexist Together?

As a preface to this post, I must state that I decided to publish it after it sat some time, and that it’s written with a focus on theoretical constructs and their relationship within a course I took at Kent State University. If you dare challenge yourself to read this post, you’ll certainly become inundated in some old and new theory. The theories I will review include: Grunig’s Symmetrical Model of mutually beneficial relationships and Excellence Theory, Porter’s argument for a Post-Symmetrical Model of persuasion and the concepts of values and ethical reasoning Shannon Bowen describes.

My research on Grunig’s Symmetrical Model and PR acting as a mutually beneficial discipline, helping shape both the organization and the public at large, is central to my own beliefs and arguments. The following post will touch on the history of PR and the resulting next generation of theorists and how they contributed to the profession. My goal is to then find similarities between the theories and how

A Historical Perspective

Public relations was conceived in the late nineteenth century with the “public be damned era,” working to generate publicity at any cost and without morals or ethical considerations. Edward Bernays and Ivy Lee were the founding fathers of what is now PR.

Ivy Lee

When they took the reigns they called their work propaganda and with Ivy Lee, the concept of ethics in PR arose with his “declaration of principles,” shifting the profession into a “public be informed era.” (Bowen, 2007)

John W. Hill was also a powerful proponent of PR ethics as it related to issues management  and “far-reaching effects of corporate policy.” He originated the idea that PR practitioners are the “corporate conscience” of an organization. (Hill, 1958)

Bowen sums up the vast historical account of PR in a great fashion when she states:

“Despite the strides made in modern public relations toward becoming ethical advisors in management, the field holds a ‘tarnished history’ in the words of one scholar (Parsons, 2004, p. 5)… the historical development of public relations shows a progression toward more self-aware and ethical models of communication… the historically negative reputation of public relations, as well as its potential for encouraging ethical communication, we can see the maturation of the profession from one engaged in simple dissemination of information to one involved in the creation of ethical communication.” (Bowen, 2007)

These originators of PR set the stage for the next generation of theorists. I will focus my research and analysis on three theorists who made a significant impact on the public relations profession, which include: Dr. James E. Grunig, Lance Porter and Shannon Bowen, Ph.D.

The Next Generation of PR

After the shift from propaganda to the roots of PR, which were still in its infancy, we come to a time when theory is largely shaping the dynamic of the public relations field. The following chart shows the concepts each theorist subscribes to and the criteria in which they support the respective theory. These theories have been contended, modified and change in some cases. But in this instance, to create a benchmark to begin our understanding of these theories, the power struggles between each, as well as the correlations, we will start with a holistic view.




Symmetrical Model Post-Symmetrical Model Systems Theory (Values and Ethics)
Mutually beneficial relationships (organization and publics) Persuasion through rhetoric, dialogue and advocacy of ideas PR practitioners are the “social conscience” of the organization
PR is a strategic management function (built on honest and transparency) Influencing attitudes and behaviors Social and ethical decisions are tied to communicating with management and c-suite
Ethics is central Ethics is central Ethics is central
Tied to Excellence Theory (Empowerment of PR through effectiveness and proper management to affect change for organization and public) Looks to philosophers like Plato and Aristotle for rhetorical reinforcement (participate in rhetoric to persuade, but also to be good citizens) Utilitarian philosophy (Looks to more recent theorists in social sciences like John Stuart Mill on outcomes of decisions and ethical decisions based on publics’ greater good)

After assembling this chart and reviewing the separate and somewhat disparate thought processes, there are commonalities throughout, including:

  • The centralization of ideas as tools to create change
  • Ethical PR is central, from rhetoric as the framework for PR to social and ethical decisions being a PR function
  • Utilizing PR as a tool to be a good citizen and make ethical decisions for the masses (Even though the Post-Symmetrical Model heavily seeks to persuade it is designed to be executed in an ethical fashion)
  • Language, symbols and dialogue (rhetoric) all play a part in each of the theorists’ principles
  • A common end-game is always at play (i.e. changing perceptions, increasing sales, maintaining ethics). The specific mode that is operationalized is all that changes, and it is only a modification of a prior theory.
  • Grunig relied on Systems Theory, discussed in-depth by Bowen to examine the “direction and flow – not the ethics of communication.” (Porter, 2010, p. 129)

Breakdown of Each Theorist

The first theorist I will review is Grunig. He and his wife are quite possibly two of the most renowned PR theorists in existence. One of the many theories Grunig is most famous for is his Symmetrical Model of public relations, which is rooted in PR acting to create mutually beneficial relationships between its stakeholders/organization and the public as a whole. In the following video, Grunig discusses his Symmetrical Model in tandem with his Excellence Theory, which looks at:

“… the value of public relations to organizations and society based on the social responsibility of managerial decisions and the quality of relationships with stakeholder publics. For an organization to be effective, according to the theory, it must behave in ways that solve the problems and satisfy the goals of stakeholders as well as of management.” (Grunig, 2008)

Porter is the next theorist I will tackle. He is a more contemporary practitioner and theorist, with approaches I would call more aggressive than his counterparts.

The interplay between the three theorists, notwithstanding others such as Heath, Toth, Trapp et al, show how PR can have a diverse range of concepts to work from, but still draw from common themes.


Bowen, S.A. (2007) Ethics and Public Relations. Syracuse University.

Grunig, J. E. (2008). Excellence theory in public relations. In. W. Donsbach (Ed.), The International Encyclopedia of Communication, Volume 4 (pp. 1620-1622). Oxford, UK and Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell 2008., retrieved October 8, 2012, retrieved October 8, 2012, retrieved October 8, 2012

Winning in the competitive marketplace with video games… huh?

First off… my thoughts and prayers go out to those affected by the natural disaster in Oklahoma… help by donating to the Red Cross here: 

Who remembers to Atari 2600? If you do, then that shows your age! It also shows the first widely accepted gaming console for the home.

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted, but for good reason. I’ve been on the hunt to enhance the profession and my own professional capabilities. During that time, I’ve learned a great deal about some really killer topics, including one that I find to be extremely intriguing… Gamification.

Gamification as defined by

Gamification is a business strategy which applies game design techniques to non-game experiences to drive user behavior.

I recently did a session presentation for the Oklahoma City PRSA chapter on Gamification and had an amazing experience sharing my thoughts. This tactical tool is only about two years old, but we’ve been using it for decades without even knowing it. That’s the beauty about Gamification. It’s finally coming into its own and we as PR pros get to be on the front lines of this massively growing business strategy.

Gamification Badges

I can’t wait to see how the attendees take those nuggets of information I provided and apply them to their marketing, advertising and PR campaigns!

The following is my SlideShare presentation from my visit the big OKC. Feel free to download it, share it and please comment back to me on your thoughts and experiences using Gamification mechanics in your marketing communications campaigns.

Some cool sources for you:

Symmetrical Thinking, the Art of Storytelling

As a preface to this post, I must state that it’s written with a focus on theoretical constructs and their relationship to PR for my master’s theory course.

If you dare challenge yourself to read this post, you’ll certainly become inundated with some old and new theory. The thrust of this post will be how Grunig’s Symmetrical Model of mutually beneficial relationships and Excellence Theory and Thomas Mickey’s Sociodrama play in tandem with the art of storytelling in the PR profession. We are, at our roots, storytellers who craft narrative in all shapes and forms.

This post is designed to reveal my thoughts on how several theories of communication can both diminish and enlighten the PR practitioner’s ability to weave compelling stories.

Some Earlier Thoughts

Several important pieces of commentary arose from prior class posts that I believe need to be shared again to set the context for this discussion. I wrote about how the brand persona has long been a powerful force in sales because it focuses on “creating a powerful brand narrative… the articulated form of the brand’s character and personality.” More recently, practitioners have realized the value of extracting this brand persona within storytelling to “drive the continuity for the overall brand message” and drive target publics to a specific action. (Crystal and Herskovitz, 2010)

As an advocate for the Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC) model, I work to weave IMC into my client’s messaging and stories. Malcolm, McDaniel and Langett describe IMC as connecting a brand directly with the customer. They say that “IMC is a story or narrative that encourages action on the part of those within and outside the organization.”

Real-World IMC and Collegiate Experience

I previously discussed how my work with GE Lighting provided me with the perfect outlet to live the brand’s powerful persona and allowed me to craft compelling stories with human interest elements and depth. I mentioned how having all the functions, from product development to marketing communications, involved and working together, could ensure that the brand’s message conveyed its persona.

Persona-based storytelling, tied to the brand and executed within the IMC model, is a powerful set of tools to launch a successful brand. When Malcolm and Langett stated that IMC is dependent upon an “enlarged mentality” they were not kidding. IMC is one of the most challenging models to successfully achieve in any organization, because it requires c-suite and staff buy-in, support, imagination, and an attitude – as Malcolm and Langett would mention – that is similar to a “self-conscious pariah.” (Benhabib, 2000, p. 29)

Within the art of storytelling and IMC lies the discussion of Sociodrama, as discussed by Thomas Mickey. This theory is tied to Symbolic Interactionism by Mead and Cooley, and how people interpret and react to objects and symbols. This interpretation is based on sociology and how we are all “social participants in society… making meaning,” through language-based approaches. (Horn, Neff, 2008, p. 122)

I end my thoughts on persona-based storytelling and Sociodrama by saying that:

From feature stories to newsletter articles to social media posts, the art of storytelling is directly paralleled to Sociodrama and the sociology of the human race and condition. As long as we, as PR professionals, remember we hold the keys to reaching people and compelling them to act through words and visual imagery, we will have a special type of power that we must respect and take great care in using.

What are your thoughts on storytelling from this theoretical perspective? Can it legitimately be applied? If you’re not sure quite yet, read on and see what others and I think about the topic.

The Art of Storytelling from a Kent State University Professor

My Perspective on Storytelling

Crafting a powerful, compelling and memorable story is easier said than done. Only the best writers can compose a story that elicits strong emotions, while allowing the reader relate directly to the piece.

Using Grunig’s Symmetrical Model, which focuses on creating and maintaining mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and its publics, I find that it allows me to be able to flesh out more effective message strategy. When I am thinking about how the brand message and tone affect the internal and external audiences, I am much more effective in creating content and messaging that ethically resonates with both. The following is a video from Dr. James Grunig himself talking about the Symmetrical Model tied to PR.

‘‘ A brand narrative without a well-defined, recognizable, memorable, and compelling persona can become a series of disconnected adventures.’’ (Crystal and Herskovitz, 2010)

I have found that, when used together, Symmetrical thinking can open many new doors of thinking, such as brand tonality, voice, character, traits and personality. When I prepare messaging platforms I look to find the various perspectives Mickey discusses, including: interactional, interpretive and cultural perspectives. (Hanson-Horn, Neff, 2008, p.122)

It’s hard to ignore that Mead and Cooley’s theory of Symbolic Interactionism when I prepare messaging as well. Symbolic Interactionism “explores how people create meaning for themselves and the broader society… people actively create meanings of themselves and society through dealings with others.” (Horn, Neff, 2008) Mead and Cooley also suggested that “social research should take a humanist form and explore world views, cultures, and life experiences of different groups.” (Smith, 2001)

A Varied Approach to Message Development

When I develop messaging, I don’t just think of how the target publics would be affected by it, I look at how the brand – if it were a person – would interact with the publics. The brand persona, through symbols, personal traits and character are what connect people to brands. It’s akin to people relating to like people; but the other person is the brand in this case.

I work from this perspective when I develop messaging platforms. My content is driven by the creation of the truest brand persona, always acting the part. The key here is that the brand goes beyond the message. The employees, executives and closest constituents need to act the part as well. This is where Mickey’s Sociodrama comes into play. We are all “actors” in the literal and figurative sense, and must embody the brand. Whether it’s a customer service representative answering the phone or the CEO presenting in front of shareholders, the message and persona must be accurately portrayed. This is true IMC at its best with the core of Excellence Theory infused. I seek to find how we can use best practices for the good of the organization to bolster messaging that can live across the organization and compel my target publics to act.

This is how I ensure that the brand persona, character, and traits connect with the business objectives, goals and messaging. Get in the mind of the brand; live it, breathe it, and it will become part of people’s lives. The best brands, like Coca-Cola®, Hershey’s® and Jet Blue® do it extremely well; and that’s why they are worldwide business leaders.


Web –

Print –

  • Hanson-Horn, Tricia and Neff, Bonita. Public Relations: From theory to practice. Boston: Pearson Education. 2008. Print.
  • Herskovitz, S. and Crystal, M. “The essential brand persona: storytelling and branding.”  Journal of Business Strategy, (2010): 31, 3.
  • Mickey, Thomas. Sociodrama: An Interpretive Theory for the Practice of Public Relations. University Press of America. 1995. Print.
  • Smith, Philip. Cultural Theory: An Introduction. Malden, Mass. Blackwell, 2003. Print.

What’s Trending is this Year’s Political Race?

Obama Poster during political PR seasonIt’s political season yet again, and this year’s presidential election won’t disappoint. Since David Axelrod, senior advisor for President Obama’s 2008 election campaign, and his team ripped the metaphorical fabric of social media use in a political campaign in half, everyone’s been trying to follow suite.

Political contenders across the country have been heavily using social media networks for awareness, message framing and fundraising purposes. This quote by Axelrod in a USA Today online article from 2011 certainly reveals how important social media is and will be to the 2012 campaign:

“Part of our mission is to really understand where all of this is going and to make sure that we’re reaching people where they are… that’s even more important for us, perhaps, than for others, because so much of our support came from younger, more wired people.”

Obama’s camp used every facet of social media to reach his constituencies, including: FacebookMySpaceYouTubeFlickrand Twitter. He also connected to various ethnic and LGBT groups through niche social outlets like BlackPlanetMiGente, and Glee, among others. These “wired” people became the backbone of his campaign, providing millions of dollars in micro-donations, viral support of his message and a groundswell of word-of-mouth – all while developing messages that correlated to his target audience.

The State of Social Media In the 2012 Election
We’re fast approaching Election Day and President Obama’s camp is already leading the social media race over Governor Romney. The Obama campaign is posting four times as much content on its website and social media properties than Romney according to the Pew Research Center.

Romney, however, has been focusing more on talking about Obama via his social networks than the opposition according to Political Hotsheet on CBS News website. This is probably due to the fact that campaigns have increasingly become finger-pointing competitions. But in the social world, using your opponent’s name/s will only bolster their SEO scores and help their campaign get indexed and more easily found.

The State of Your Social Media Campaign
This macro-level view of how social media can profoundly impact the vote reinforces the need for all of us to understand how these tools can be used in synchronicity to achieve our key objectives and goals.

Whether you’re a political candidate, staffer, corporate entity, nonprofit organization or municipality, social media is a game changer that needs to be carefully thought out when developing your strategic plan. You also need to keep in mind how social media affects many other aspects of the marketing mix, including: SEO scores and rankings, SEM campaign success and a variety of other digital PR and interactive disciplines.

I’m a man on Pinterest! Don’t judge me…

I recently spoke on the topic of “Selling with Social Media” at the University of Akron’s Taylor Institute for Direct Marketing. I went through the standard protocol of what social media is, why use it and how to strategically use it, as well as the top social media networks out there. This year, I spoke about Pinterest and its value.

When I got to that social network, I made a mention that I enjoy using it. But before I could get into why and how I – as a male user – use Pinterest, I received the stereotypical laughter and giggles from the audience that I was in the minority. Was I using it to plan my dream wedding? Was I using it to post pictures of cupcakes? How about my favorite flower bouquet?

My Pinterest Page

It was none of them! As the smiles faded a bit, I quickly told them about how I like to use this female-dominated social outlet. And in retrospect, I think they were laughing with me, not at me! Regardless, I told them of how I can, as a guy, pin photos and videos of the things that reflect my personality. These things include photos of my motorcycle and cool accessories I want, social media infographics to share with others, really sweet products I like, have or want, and more.

I immediately showed how brands like World Market and the NBA and C&A Harley Davidson in Columbus, Ohio (about 2 hours away from where I live) use their pages to reach all types of demographics, including men. An image is certainly worth a thousand words, and remember those words aren’t always directed at a female audience on Pinterest!

Your Blog is Dead… So Give Up

Benson J. Lossing, The Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1851)I:101
I thought my blog was dead and that I should give up until I read a blog post by Bill Sledzik today called “The death of blogging? Kill me now!” I have to admit that’s a pretty killer title for a post. But this guy’s a self-proclaimed storyteller for God’s sake! So his title had better be. All joking aside; he’s a legitimately excellent and qualified storyteller, and he makes a great point in his post.

Bill said (while paraphrasing) that according to a USA Today article, brands are…

“bailing out of their blogs in favor of social channels that are less labor intensive and more connected to their audiences…”

What a terrible excuse! This is true laziness on the part of corporate America. PR pros and marketers alike need to use the mediums that effectively reach their target publics to reach their objectives. Just because you can pop out a 140-character post in less than three minutes doesn’t mean you should discount the power of a blog. Companies are killing their own blogs by drowning their readers in self-promotion and ego-centric posts. It’s no wonder they’re not getting any ROI from their blogs.

A blog needs to be strategic like any other communication vehicle we use. Why would it be any different? Because we’re lazy? Well, the answer is YES. I’ll be the first to take the blame. It’s a pain in the ass to keep up with a blog. But if it’s done with a central strategy in mind, carefully planned and well-written with rich content it may just work!

It’s always been about content. If you’re a technical company, it may take 1,500 words with technical diagrams to effectively reach and engage your audience. If you’re a consumer-driven company selling candy, quick 100-200 word snippets with several fun photos may be the solution.

In either case, if a blog is identified as a tool that will help reach your business objectives, use it if you can. Sometimes the easier and faster solution isn’t the best one.

Thanks to Bill Sledzik, my former prof from Kent State University and beer drinking pal, for inspiring me to write this post. Check out his blog ToughSledding.

SOPA and PIPA kill Freedom of Speech

Google's homepage during the 24-hour black out

We’ve been inundated in the media with the proposed legislation of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA) acts, which were written by lawmakers to stop online piracy.

But as a PR professional, I find it ridiculous that the core thrust of this legislation arose from intensive lobbying efforts by Hollywood movie and music industry conglomerates.

Having worked in industries that heavily lobby and done a bit of lobbying myself for causes, I know how it works. To discuss important issues with our legislative delegates is important and needed, but to use the influence and funding this industry has for specific and self-serving purposes really ticks me off.

Hey, I love movies and music as much as the next person, but to black out sites because they just “might” be breaking this law is heinous. That’s why we created the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, according to Julianne Pepitone in a recent article from CNN Money. More importantly, websites that provide information and provide products and services among many others, would have no right to due process or to appeal.

A Potentially Illegal Video

*If I shared this video as an example, the Attorney General would have the power to shut this blog down even though I am attributing it to Editor-in Chief, Evan Hansen, from!

Can you imagine YouTube just shutting down the moment this bill was passed? Businesses link to millions of their videos hosted on YouTube; bloggers use YouTube to upload and embed videos on their blogs; and let’s not forget that YouTube is the world’s second largest search engine! That’ll impact Web searching, as well as possibly end social search, or at least be a huge detractor.

Think about the sheer amount of invaluable information that would be reduced to rubble and how we, as a society, would react. We rely on the Internet like we rely on breathing. Well, stop breathing people if this bill is passed.

And the whole concept of content marketing, creation, distribution and aggregation would be almost impossible to achieve. Our country is founded on the First Amendment and freedom of speech; and we as PR pros and communicators base our existence on this as a guiding light to promote our messages, changes perceptions and educate the communities we serve.

A Final Thought
My final thought on this subject for the moment before Federal officials take down my blog (insert frown emoticon) is that we better fight this. If we don’t, we’ll be at the mercy of relentless Federal legislation restricting our use of content, in every form. PR pros, agencies and organizations like Shel HoltzOgilvy Public Relations Worldwide and the Public Relations Society of America as a united organization have opposed these bills. Follow their lead!

A News Flash
The only positive news recently released today was that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid indefinitely postponed the Congressional Hearing this coming Tuesday (Jan. 24).

Find your local representative and contact them

A Voice that Counts
There’s still time to voice your opinion though and join forces on opposing SOPA and PIPA before we join the company of China, Iran and other superpowers that have censored the Web to no end. Take action! Check out Wikipedia’s page to look up your local public officials and sign the petition.


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