Category Archives: PR Ethics

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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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.

Bibliography:

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.

Three steps to creating mutual expectations

I thought you said you said you were going to do more today! What's the deal?

Part two of a two-part series on setting expectations in your personal and professional life (Read first part)

Us PR folks all try and “get er done” at our jobs, but sometimes we go a little overboard. We take on so much that we begin to drown in a sea of self-imposed work. To better manage your workload and the expectations surrounding each project, consider these three simple rules of setting and managing expectations. You might just find that taking on that project isn’t the best use of time and resources for both you and your organization. Try and:

  1. Know your limitations and stay within them – We’re constantly put in positions to “learn on the job.” That happens, but be realistic. Can you do the project you’re attempting? Do you need more professional development? It’s better to admit your limitations than to fail because of pride.
  2. Be honest with yourself and your clients/bosses – We have a tendency to be “yes” people to everyone because we love to be the clutch player. That’s how we’re built. Know how much work you can handle to be successful and stay within those boundaries.
  3. Have a plan that’s realistic and routine – We’re planners and strategists, right?  So why shouldn’t our expectations be rooted in the same thought process? Well, they should. Think about your strengths and weaknesses and work to enhance your strengths and turn your weaknesses into strengths. Routine and constant learning do this. Know how much time and energy you can dedicate to each area and stick within those boundaries.

In the end, the insane world of PR can, to a certain degree, be managed. It takes setting realistic and mutual expectations, knowing  your limitations, having a routine and being honest with yourself, your bosses and clients.

Here’s a few other recent posts discussing PR as one of the top-ten most stressful jobs:


ad:tech ruffles PR’s ethical feathers

Last month was PR Ethics Month, when we remind ourselves about the host of ethical dilemmas we, as PR practitioners, face. It’s also a time to reflect on our commitment to a stringent code of ethics placed at the highest point of our personal and professional standards. Each year, the world’s largest professional association for public relations practitioners, PRSA, makes it a point to highlight new changes to its ethical code, as well as promote various issues facing PR ethics and how to approach them.

Industry publications like PRSA Tactics, PRWeek and others regard ethics to reside at the core of public relations practice. Recently, leadership at ad:tech, an annual gathering of online marketers, offered free or discounted access to the conference for endorsed tweets, Facebook and blog posts from prominent bloggers. We in PR call this Pay-for-Play or Pay-to-Play. The definition was recently updated by the Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS) with PSA-9.

The request for coverage from ad:tech was exposed by bloggers and PR people within the industry. In a blog post by Jason Chupick from PRNewser on Oct. 17 detailed the news of what ad:tech had done, including the full letter of apology. Chupick said:

My co-editor confirmed by phone yesterday that the person who sent the emails neither works internally at ad:tech, or at their PR firm Edelman.

What the organization did
With the negative responses and comments swirling and growing stronger, Event Director, Mike Flynn, from ad:tech immediately posted a full apology for its inappropriate actions. This was the right move, and helped mitigate any further negative brand perception, but may have done some damage.

Regardless of who sent the emails to the bloggers and journalists, ad:tech management should have made sure they knew what was going on. Their PR firm – the world’s largest independently owned agency, Edelman – should have been a part of this since they were the agency of record and PR counsel to the organization. My question is, who sent out the emails then? And how are they being dealt with? This person/s should be held accountable in some way and exposed for what they did.

How ethical are PR people?
We keep saying we follow an ethical guiding light that points us in the right direction, but we hear too many stories similar to this one. That prompts me to wonder if we just think we’re ethical or if we truly understand ethical standards but turn a blind eye when we feel we can personally gain. Interestingly enough, a survey was done by Carol Orsborn, Ph.D., and Judith Rogala, for their book “Trust Inc,” revealing that less than 10 percent of PR practitioners ever received any training on how to make ethical decisions.

Ann Subervi, president and CEO of Utopia Communications, Inc. in Red Bank, N.J., made some comments that are a fitting end to this post and ones that we should try to employ.

Most of us struggle with what action to take when faced with an ethical dilemma. While awareness of ethics is great, the ability to act ethically is even better. Ethics cannot be a once-a-year focus. Rather, it needs to be an ongoing focus.


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