PR + social media. Is two way symmetrical communication a reality?

Our class debates usually get heated. It was no different when, as a recent assignment, I had to argue whether PR is about two-way symmetrical communication, or whether it is entirely about persuading people to do what you want them to. Although my argument statement was clearly arguing that PR can be seen as symmetrical, open discussion, in reality I think that the answer to this question is a little bit more complicated.

It’s obvious that PR is constantly evolving. With the current technological developments, the profession needs to adapt and adjust to growing audience and professional demands. That’s pretty much the only way forward. What first came to my mind when thinking – two way symmetrical communication (part of the Four Models of Communication by Grunig (1984)),  – was social media.

In the era of ever increasing transparency, social media play a very important role – enabling everyone to have a voice. In order to maintain legitimacy, PR needs to evolve from monologue to dialogue (Breakenridge, 2008). It’s a way to reach audiences and hear back from them. Those who don’t – regret it sooner or later (Breakenridge and Solis, 2009). Those who embrace two-way communications – are winners. Take a look at Coca-Cola’s great social media engagement, Target’s openness during its 2013 data breach crisis or Ikea’s social media openness as examples. As some scholars argue (Kietzmann,, 2011), persuasion and propaganda simply don’t work anymore as they used to. What’s more, social media support rational decision-making (rather than making decisions based on pure persuasion). Lastly, I think that it is impossible for modern communications to control social media (which would be required to perform successful persuasion – it requires information control).



image taken from HERE

However, is it debatable. My opponents argued that persuasion is still at the core of what PR does. Grunig’s two-way symmetrical communication, they argued, is only theory, and today’s communications have focused on two-way assymetrical communication. I need to agree with their statement that absolute transparency, which symmetrical open model requires, is pretty much unachievable (and that argument played out in favour of my opponents). Which company, after all, would willingly disclose all information at times of crisis, even the one that might destroy it? I suspect they’d choose to be rather selective…

I think that the truth lies somewhere in between. PR is shifting in the direction of openness, that’s for sure. Absolute? Definitely not. Social media really are a breakthrough medium which changed the rules of the game. How much? Not as much as some would wish, but not as little as some claim. Some people (like Craig Pearce) claim that social media (contrary to what I argued) really put death to conversation. Again, I think it’s more complicated than that.

My opinion of Grunig’s 4 models is that they accurately represent historical changes through what PR was mainly about. They are also really useful to properly understand all general aspects of communications. The profession went through Press Agentry Model, Public Information Model (Sledzik, B., 2008) to reach two way assymmetrical communication. Now, the ideal that some PR professionals strive for is the two way symmetrical communication with their audiences – unbiased, equal, open conversation and mutual understanding. I think that the fourth, most developed stage of Grunig’s model is the theoretical ideal which needs to guide the best practice. I think it could be highly beneficial to all communicators and goals they are trying to achieve. However, there is a long way to go for that yet.



Breakenridge, D. (2008), PR 2.0. New Media, New Tools, New Audiences. New Jersey: Pearson Education.

Grunig, J. E. & Hunt, T. T.  (1984) Managing Public Relations. Holt. (link)

Kietzmann, J. J. et al (2011). Social Media? Get Serious! Understanding the Functional Building Blocks of Social Media. Business Horizons, vol 53, pp. 241-251.

Pierce, C. (2014) Social Media is Death to Dialogue (and Public Relations). Available from:

Sledzik, B.  (2010) The 4 Models of Public Relations Practice: How far have you evolved? Available from:

Solis, B. and Breakenridge, D. (2009). Putting the Public Back into Public Relations. New Jersey: Pearson Education.

Header image: HERE


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