Symmetrical communications model: time to say good bye?

Following the discussion on PR Conversations, Bill Sledzik made an intriguing reflection in his post “Symmetrical PR meets the Cluetrain Manifesto”. There he compares the Cluetrain Manifesto postulate with concepts of two-way symmetrical communication model.

I’m a big fan of the Cluetrain Manifesto, but I have to admit I do not look at it from the 2WS-perspective. Don’t get me wrong: I passionately believe that having ongoing conversations with publics is the ultimate way for businesses to succeed in the future. But I just don’t believe in their symmetry. Moreover, I don’t think it’s healthy to focus on it, rather than focus on the very relationships. Relationships are rarely, if never, equal, or symmetrical. People are not masses, they are individuals with different social, economic and symbolic powers. Still we perfectly and, not the least, mutually beneficially, exist together in the complicated web of social relationships, be it with our parents, peers, governments or businesses.

In case of big corporations with multiple stakeholders, sometimes millions of them, symmetry is further not possible due to the human attention span limits, so well defined by Clay Shirky in “Here comes everybody”. As I wrote in my previous posts, no matter how open and democratic the digital social sphere si, it is not possible to listen, not even mentioning respond, to every voice out there.

It’s time to acknowledge that as great as it sounds, symmetrical communications is not a realistic implementation, for better or worse. However, getting to know our publics, and by that, forming relations with them based on mutual understanding and good will, now that is not only possible, but also necessary for success. Internet and social media tools present an unique opportunity for businesses, and public relations industry in particular, to focus on buiding these precious relationships with our audiences.

In fact, maybe for the first time in history, we should become their audience. After all, it’s us who depend on them, not the way around.

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4 Responses to “Symmetrical communications model: time to say good bye?”


  1. 1 Bill Sledzik September 26, 2008 at 1:18 am

    You make some great points here, Helena. Of course, no relationship is symmetrical, and it’s unrealistic to even hope for it. But public relations must strive to balance the relationships between organizations and key publics — the boundary spanning role with which we’re all familiar.

    I don’t take the label “symmetrical communications” so literally. To me, symmetrical communication that is open for all parties to participate in, though not all of them will. It is reciprocal, and the parties involved are tolerant of diverse viewpoints. Symmetrical communication creates an environment for understanding, one that fosters trust.

    No, it is not possible to listen to every voice. We really don’t have to do that. Every organization must determine — as part of its planning process — their priority constituencies. That list will change over time and according to issues at hand, which is why we monitor the communication channels constantly.

    I don’t know if that clarifies my point or complicates it. But I believe the values embodied in the Grunig and Hunt model will serve an organization and its publics well — at least until we find a more compelling paradigm.

  2. 2 Bruno Amaral September 26, 2008 at 4:15 pm

    I don’t think it’s time to say goodbye, at all.

    It is difficult to establish a 100% symmetrical dialogue, where both parties hold information. But that does not mean we shouldn’t aim for it. And Human attention span is not the real obstacle.

    A corporation needs to establish and manage channels of communication that allow for transparency and porosity, and yet keep part of it’s information private. Either to maintain a competitive advantage or to prepare it’s message before making it public. Thus trying to avoid misunderstandings and other pitfalls.

    And yes, for major organizations it sounds hard to have a one to one dialogue. But that does not mean we need to aim for that goal. We can simply maintain communication channels that allow for stakeholders to gather the information they want and require.

    Doing that and providing ways to contact the corporation can mean over 100 calls a day, but that is possible to manage. And it will result in a greater flexibility to handle a crisis situation.

    In some contexts the two-way symmetrical model faces a different set of challenges. Look at lobbying for example. Even if both parties involved in the dialogue have the same information available to them, they will rarely be at the same hierarchical level. So it’s not just about symmetry of information, it is also about symmetry of power and influence.

  3. 3 Heather Yaxley September 29, 2008 at 9:12 am

    I think there is another dimension here – one where at the very least organisations ought to recognise their “stakeholders” as individuals and secondly, be prepared to listen to them on an equal basis.

    Arguably in many relationships the power lies outside the organisation. As customers, employees, politicians, local communities, etc we really can affect an organisation’s abilities to achieve its aims and/or have a say in how they impact on us.

    I believe it is about time more organisations recognised this – and their PR advisors should be at the forefront of this message.

    But, we don’t just exist as groups, segments, or stereotypes, but as individuals. Some of the needs, expectations, etc may be common, but yes, there may be hundreds of differences and organisations aren’t being realistic if they don’t acknowledge and take this into account.

    Indeed, with modern technology, it is easier to communicate with us as individuals and I don’t mean just for pseudo-personalised junk mailings.

    The technology also makes it easier for organisations to listen and adapt. Although again, too few seem to be doing this. At a basic level we have customer relations functions which are able to communicate with us as individuals. They should consider customers as an equal in a transactional or exchange relationship – especially where ongoing business is involved.

    But so few organisations seem to treat us as individuals or value our custom. We are cited systems and procedures, our valuable feedback is often ignored and we are viewed as a nuisance and dispensable.

    In the purest form, two way symmetrical communications may be idealistic, but as PR advisors, we can be championing the benefits of engaging in genuine dialogue with our publics, recognising them as individuals, with power in the relationships and as people with something we should be hearing.

  4. 4 Helena Makhotlova September 29, 2008 at 1:26 pm

    Thank you all for comments. You have all made very good points about why we should keep the model, and strive at the best of our ability to live up to it.

    Bill, maybe I do take the model too literary, as you say. Maybe, the theory doesn’t indeed imply that communications must occur in perfectly symmetrical manner, but rather open, democratic and transparent one. But then why don’t we just say it so? I found it frustrating to use Grunig’s framework while writing up my thesis, and had to give it up altogether. My conviction is that theories exist to simplify complex things and processes, not to do the opposite.

    Bruno, I completely agree with you, you just prove my point by saying that it is not only about symmetry of information, but also power and influence. That’s my main argument for why we should replace the utopian concept of ‘symmetry’ with something more appropriate for the context of corporate (or any other) communications.

    Heather, it’s true, there is still a long way to go before organisations on the global scale will finally start treating their publics as individuals, and start listening to what we have to say. However, this process has already begun, and it is irreversible and unstoppable. And it’s happening not because it is academically correct to do it (the model is over 20 years old), it is happening because organisations are faced with no other choice.

    Although I do not believe that it is possible for an organization to equally satisfy all its constituents, I believe it’s crucial to always be honest and open about decisions and choices. Because we are all humans, we will understand and accept an organisation that is not perfect, but is willing to displace its flaws for everyone to see.


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