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.

Grunig

Porter

Bowen

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.

Sources:

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.

http://faculty.buffalostate.edu/smithrd/PR/pioneers.htm, retrieved October 8, 2012

http://pr.wikia.com/wiki/Ivy_Lee, retrieved October 8, 2012

http://pdnetworks.wordpress.com/2010/06/10/persuasion-rhetoric-ethics/, retrieved October 8, 2012

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