Evolve CommunicationsSocial Media & Public Relations Theories


Social Media & Public Relations Theories

Anyone who has spent some time studying the underlying theories of public relations has heard of Dr. James Grunig and his contributions to the practice. Long before the term “social media” was coined, Dr. Grunig advocated a methodology of public relations that puts communicating with “publics” first, above the tactics of  media relations. Until the rise of social media, the practice of public relations was too often characterized as media relations, and anyone who has worked in the field knows that it’s a common misperception that PR = media relations.

In this paper from 2009 (hat tip to The Measurement Standard), Grunig argues that social media has the potential to make the practice of PR a more “global, strategic, two-way and interactive, symmetrical or dialogical, and socially responsible,” while still calling social media a “fad.” Yes, all in the same breath.

Specifically, Grunig has offered two major contributions to public relations practice which inform social media strategy and execution. The first is his Four Models of Public Relations, which describes four different approaches to the practice. They are:

  • Press Agency/Publicity: Uses persuasion and manipulation to influence audiences to behave as the organization desires.
  • Public Information Model: Uses press releases and other one-way communication techniques to distribute organizational information. The Public Relations practitioner is often referred to as the in-house journalist.
  • Two-way Asymmetrical Model: Uses persuasion and manipulation to influence audiences to behave as the organization desires. Does not use research to find out how stakeholders feel about the organization.
  • Two-way Symmetrical Model: Uses communication to negotiate with the public, resolve conflict and promote mutual understanding and respect between the organization and its stakeholders.

It’s this last bullet point that most resembles what people working in social media attempt to do every day. All the social media catch phrases you’ve heard before (“Join the conversation,” “Engage your audience,” “Participate,” etc.) all refer to the two-way symmetrical model. People who work in social media often like to think this stuff is new. And to many marketers who have spent careers broadcasting messages, it IS new. But to people who have been practicing public relations, engaging publics (not audiences) in conversation has been a common approach for quite some time now. Despite the common misconception that PR is simply media relations.

The second theory that has been a big influence on social media practice is Grunig’s Situational Theory of Publics. At its core, this theory postulates that people organize and communicate about issues more frequently based on their awareness of the issue, its level of impact on their lives and their perceived ability to do something about it. The theory is more detailed than that (you can read a more detailed overview of the theory here), but this is its basic premise.

Using this theory, we can segment groups based on their interests, their concerns, their level of awareness and their activities, instead of the traditional marketing demographics like gender, age, income, etc. And that’s where the power of social media comes in: people use social media to organize themselves along these lines. A smart marketer knows how to find this information and will use it to inform their communications strategy, identify publics (and not audiences), and prioritize spokes of their communications strategy.

That last point is essential to the success of any communications initiative. In today’s always-on world, communications professionals need to be able to maximize their resources so that programs work efficiently as well as effectively. After all, if you’re marketing a B2B company that sells to technology officers, are you going to be communicating with, say, film makers on Twitter? Hopefully not. But you may find tech blogs, Listorious lists and other tools useful for identifying potential customers.


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[…] social media prove to be connected with public relations theories and practices. In the article “Social Media and Public Relations Theories,” the influential ideas of Dr. James Grunig are compared to modern social media use. One theory […]