Oral Histories

James Grunig

Full Interview

James Grunig Biography


INTERVIEWER: You’ve talked a little bit about looking forward, I’m going to ask you to look back just a little bit and talk about maybe one or two—I’m going to call ‘pioneering practitioners’—who you admire. Because they practice in a way that you think is really a model for public relations or they espouse certain ideas that you really think are important for practitioners today.

GRUNIG: When I wrote Managing Public Relations—it doesn’t seem like too long ago, I wrote it mostly in 1980-82, something like that. Thirty years ago, forty years ago? I wrote a chapter on history, at least that’s how I came up with the four models of public relations and finding typical examples of who had practiced those models. Ivy Lee, I think, was a forerunner of the public information model. I think there are problems with that model, although what Ivy Lee did at the time was very important. I think Edward Bernays was very important for introducing social science into public relations. I think he is essentially a practitioner of the two-way asymmetrical model which I don’t admire that much. But I did think social responsibility was important to him and social science was important to him and research was important to him so that was extremely important. You’re representing the Page Center so Arthur Page has to be, I think, one of the most, if not the most important practitioners of public relations. If you look at the Page principles, if you look at what he did at AT&T, they’re really the embodiment of the theories that I’ve taught and developed: from social responsibility to symmetrical communication. I think often people think of me mostly in terms of symmetrical communication, but I think my most important public relations theory is the strategic management role of public relations. Public relations is involved in decision making and consults management before decisions are made, and I think Arthur Page did that to a great deal. Then there’s another practitioner that I’m not sure gets the recognition he deserves, that I didn’t discover actually until after I had written Managing Public Relations. I rewrote the history chapter for Managing Public Relations, although I never finished writing a second edition. But this was Earl Newsom who was practicing in the 1950s. I believe he worked for Ford Motor Company, among others. He always saw his role as a counselor, as a public relations firm that puts itself out of business. That is, he would help consult public relations practitioners in a corporation on how to do public relations so that they wouldn’t need him to do it for them. There are some famous examples of his counseling. I believe it was Ford that he counseled that they should provide medical benefits to employees at a time when all of the other companies were fighting the idea because they didn’t want to pay for it. So the labor relations were much improved as a result of that. Then when it comes to public relations education I think Scott Cutlip is the father of public relations education. Scott was my teacher. When I went to the University of Wisconsin I had been an undergraduate student at Iowa State University. Actually, I had never taken a public relations course but in my PhD program I sat in on Scott’s introductory public relations theory course. At the time I was studying agricultural economics. I had studied agricultural journalism as an undergraduate, and I had wanted to work in the agricultural industry until the Vietnam War came about and I decided a PhD program was more in my interest than visiting Vietnam at that time—that’s another story. Scott always referred to me as that kid from ag journalism who took my course. But when Scott won the Deutschman research award from AJMC, we did a program for him and I went back and read the first edition of his textbook and I could find every concept basically in there that I’ve used from environmental scanning to public relations as a management function, and so on. It was not as well developed theoretically, but I think Scott set the stage for public relations education. And he fought all the early battles with journalism deans and educators over whether public relations was just applied journalism or whether it had a theoretical basis of its own. Persons who were very influential for me were Jim Tyrone of AT&T and Ed Block at AT&T. Ed Block was vice-president of AT&T at that point and he asked Jim Tyrone who was a researcher to set up an evaluation research program for AT&T. This was in the 1970s. I worked with Jim for about a five-year period, and he really instilled in me the idea that theories had to be practical. I learned how to do evaluation research working with him. He didn’t come in with the ideas. He didn’t really know how to do evaluation research. And I didn’t really know—I knew how to do research but not necessarily evaluation research—so the two of us working together, until he died of a heart attack I think in about 1979 or something like that—we made a good deal of progress. I admire him a great deal. He’s someone that most people won’t mention. But if you mention him to Marilyn Laurie at AT&T for example, she will understand him or Ed Block, and so on. Harold Burson I admire a great deal. I think that what he talks about now are very similar concepts. He used to say, “people ask me what should I say, I could be called in by management and asked, ‘what should I say’ and now they’re called in and say, ‘what should I do.’” I think that’s an important change. I think Johnson & Johnson, Larry Foster and Bill Nielsen who you’re going to interview also, they set an excellent example. And then there are many colleagues who were in public relations education at the same time I was, Glenn Broom and David Dozier at San Diego State University. My wife, Lauri Grunig, who worked with me for years and years on the Excellence Project. Jon White from the U.K.; Fred Repper who was our practitioner member, all of these. And then Bill Ehling at Syracuse University who was a very important part of the Excellence team. Elizabeth Toth who was at Syracuse and now is at the University of Maryland, and so on. So those are some of my contemporaries. There was this first wave of Scott Cutlip and others like him who basically inaugurated public relations education. And there was a second wave of us who are now about my age and they’re out of business. There’s a whole new generation who are doing their thing. Sometimes I like it and sometimes I don’t.

INTERVIEWER: You’ve talked a little bit about this but I want to give you the chance to expand on what you’ve said already if you want to and that is—you’ve talked about the strategic management role that public relations should be part of and the role of public relations practitioner as management counselor. Is that growing in importance or diminishing in your mind?

GRUNIG: I think if you look at major corporations and—I’m a member of the Arthur Page Society and to be in the Arthur Page Society you have to be the senior-most person in a corporation or a public relations firm—I believe in major corporations it’s essentially universal at this point. I think they’re all doing that kind of role. Government agencies, I’m not so sure. Other organizations that still see public relations more as a publicity or a journalistic role and they may still be doing that. That’s still part of corporate public relations but I think the idea that the senior public relations person is a counsel to management, I think that’s essentially universal. I shouldn’t say just the senior public relations person because, what I discovered in the last year working on a project with my former student Jeong-Nam Kim looking at how public relations is practiced in Korean organizations, we did some case studies of U.S. corporations. And the question was, how did you get this role? How did you get this strategic management role, what did you have to do to do it? The answer that keeps coming up was, ‘develop the expertise to be able to do it, to really understand business.’ To not just communicate in the sense of giving out messages but how to communicate in the sense of doing research; because research is a form of communication. But also having expertise on decisions that are made. If you’re in the financial industry you have to be able to understand how different forms of mortgages, for example, are going to affect people who take out those mortgages. What are going to be the impacts on them? And the expertise isn’t just in the senior-most person. We sort of have this image that there’s a senior person who does all the management consulting and then all the other people in the department are technicians who do communication. But, increasingly I think that there may be expertise in employee communication or in financial communication or in community relations or in particular products or activities that is throughout the organization, throughout the public relations department. So it’s not just one person who has all of the expertise but everybody. And you get that expertise from education but also from constant listening. Listening not just to publics but also reading about financial information, about new products, environmental policies, government policies and so on. You don’t learn it just by studying how to pitch a news story to the media. You have to really be a policy expert and have policy expertise. Not everyone can have expertise in everything so you have to delegate that throughout the public relations department. Now, when it comes to public relations firms I think you have two types of activities. One is those firms or those parts of firms whose job is mainly delivering messages and they’re not often involved in strategic decision making. But then there are other parts of firms who are strategic counselors. And there are lots of smaller firms—one person, two person, three person firms who are primarily in business to consult management. For example, a friend, Fraser Likely who is a practitioner in Canada in Ottawa, he doesn’t necessarily call himself a public relations person; he’s a management consultant. So I think there’s a great deal of that kind of expertise. But there’s still a huge amount of activity primarily in the marketing communication area where you’re just trying to create buzz and get messages out; most of which, in my opinion, has no affect but there’s still a huge amount of that kind of activity going on.

INTERVIEWER: I want to switch gears just a little bit and ask you to talk about ethical mission statements or credos. I want to find out from you—my bottom line question—is it important for a corporation to have an ethical mission statement or credo? What does it do?

GRUNIG: You’re going to be interviewing the representative from Johnson & Johnson which is very famous for its credo and that has often been attributed…when Johnson & Johnson made the Tylenol decision it was equated to its credo. There’s also a great deal of discussion right now going on in the Arthur Page Society about character and corporate character and how the role of public relations in the organization should be to help define corporate character. And I get somewhat worried about that. I think credos and statements of character or lists of ‘these are our values’ and much of this takes place in a committee getting together or somebody writing down what our values are. I think that this can be taken over by a symbolic, interpretive approach. That is, we write down all of these values and we say this is what we stand for, or this is our credo, but that doesn’t show up in the behavior of the organization. I fundamentally believe that our values are exhibited through our behavior. So if indeed the credo or the corporate value statements are reflected in behavior or they are derived from behavior, these are our values because here’s what we’ve done before. They shouldn’t just be symbols that are put up there to make us look good that we don’t actually follow. There is much discussion in the symbolic interpretive approach of what I call a cognitive representation. That is, what people think about something. And it has gotten many names—images, reputations, brand, impressions—I don’t care what you call it; they’re basically all the same thing. That is, what members of a public think about an organization. And branding for example, the idea is more proactive in a sense. A brand is what we want people to identify with our organization, where reputation is more what people think after the fact. I tend to believe a brand is our behavior; that our behavior, the organization’s behavior, brands it. So when we say, if you damaged our brand by doing something unethical, that’s indeed the case. But somehow thinking up a brand and saying this is the Republican brand, for example; political parties now have brands: the Republican brand and the Democratic brand and so on. To me the brand is more of a marketing than a public relations concept and rarely, if ever, useful because I think it’s a symbolic, interpretive concept that is used to try to create some kind of meaning for people that doesn’t always exist. This is a long answer to your question. Although I think those things are important, they’re less important than day-to-day involvement in decision making. If we really want public relations to influence the character or the ethics of an organization, it does this not by writing statements but by advising and participating in decision making and communicating with publics. And then our brand emerges or reputation emerges because a reputation is what people remember that the organization did. It’s not something we create through publicity.   It’s what people recall. What is your reputation? It’s what people remember that an organization did. That takes you back to the strategic management approach and I think what’s important is to have some sort of statement or some sort of set of principles that say, this is the role of the public relations function and this is what we are trying to do. We want to influence character, we want to influence ethics but public relations has to be a part of decision making or strategic management if it’s going to do that.