Desperately seeking symmetry

22 May

Every student of public relations learns about the 'two-way symmetrical model', considered to be the only excellent approach to public discourse by organisations. Though published 25 years ago (by US academics James Grunig and Todd Hunt) this model stands up remarkably well in an internet and social media age that prizes conversations and transparency.

I've just read a batch of essays stating that blogging exemplifies the two-way symmetrical model. Let's agree that blogging is (or should be) a two-way process. Readers can comment, they can continue the discussions on their own blogs through trackbacks and hyperlinks. But how is this symmetrical? A blog post always has more prominence than the comments; comments (particularly on corporate blogs) can be moderated and deleted. This is no more symmetrical than a newspaper that has a page for readers' letters and which prints occasional corrections (though rarely with the prominence of the original story).

If not blogging, then are there better examples of two-way symmetrical forms of social media? Conceptually, wikis are the most democratic form – since anyone (or any member of the community) can have equal rights to create and correct content. In reality, though, this is idealistic. Wikipedia (the most celebrated wiki of them all) has increasingly strong editorial controls and an army of volunteers policing changes and new content. So there's asymmetry here too. Besides, participation inequality (the 90-9-1 rule in Groundswell) suggests that very few members of any community are willing to do more than passively lurk – so we're back to one-way communications. Forget the conversations.

As for podcasts and videos, it's hard to argue that they're even two-way channels since they are products of editorial control (though the ease of creation and the way they are shared makes them a form of social media).

What about twitter? This is close to the ideal of unmediated voices in the public sphere (within the contstraints of 140 characters). Conversations can be joined and followed and there's apparent equality of voices because of the lack of editorial control. Clutter means we need filters, though, so Shirky's power laws still apply. Those with more followers have unequal conversational power.

Where are the social media examples of two-way symmetrical communications?

7 Responses to “Desperately seeking symmetry”

  1. Karen Russell 24/05/2009 at 1:33 am #

    You’re absolutely right. The perception, or even the potential, for symmetrical communication (or Habermas’s ideal speech situation) is not the reality of it.

  2. Bob Batchelor 26/05/2009 at 7:05 pm #

    Hello Richard, you might be interested in a long discussion that touched on many of these points that ran on PR Conversations: awhile back. Grunig participated in the discussion and a follow-up that examined social media too.
    From my perspective, I think you’ve shown that two-way symmetrical communications is a myth that Grunig dropped on the profession and subsequently weighted the field down like an anchor for the last 25 years.
    Blogging is hardly two-way symmetrical, as you point out. There is someone/something at the point of publication acting as a decision-maker re whether responses are posted, comments posted, etc. Wow, imagine, just like a newspaper or other media. Second, what about those who don’t have access to technology or the skill to respond? That number might be few, but in the case of some companies, almost automatically prevents two-way symm. from taking place.
    Grunig and the Excellence mafia that runs the academic side of the field certainly has a stake in keeping two-way symmetrical as the dominant mode of thinking. Grunig himself thinks Excellence and social media go hand in hand. I don’t buy it, but let’s see what others think.

  3. Richard Bailey 27/05/2009 at 10:45 am #

    Thanks for the comments. I am aware of the very interesting PR Conversations discussion last year. My point was less about critiquing the excellence theory (there’s a lot of ink devoted to that) than dampening down some of the over-inflated expectations surrounding social media – and public relations.
    Bob’s point about lack of access is an important one, but even among those who are online, participation beyond lurking can be low. People don’t always want conversations – sometimes information, entertainment or a transaction are enough.

  4. Charli Magson 28/05/2009 at 7:29 pm #

    I agree that perfect symmetry is hard (impossible?) to achieve. I referred to this in my blog ( and those commenting agree. There is always a reason for a campaign (for example, the schools closures I refer to). How can consultation really expect to get a result that is acceptable for all in this instance as the deliverables from both sides of the campaign are too different.
    Two-way communications are great in theory but is any ground being given or gained. It may be good to talk but is anyone listening and acting on the dialogue?
    The only way to really achieve results is to consult and for both sides to be prepared to negotiate and give up some of their demands. In some of the most entrenched campaigns or disputes, that will never happen.

  5. David Phillips 31/05/2009 at 3:36 pm #

    Just round the corner are developments that will move the needle. It is worth watching the Google Wave video (
    Then imagine how a Wave Newspaper would work with a PR person and a journalist developing a story in public or a lecturer developing course work with students or corporate re-structuring … you get the idea.
    Why would people get involved in symmetrical idea development – because it will be shareable, engaging, participative and, mostly, fun.

  6. global villager 31/05/2009 at 8:05 pm #

    Isn’t it worth wondering why PR practitioners are still debating the symmetrical model? If it is so off beam why hasn’t an alternative blown it away? It is idealistic but that may be its strongest attraction. It provides a standard for all in PR to aim at. Sure, it is hard to imagine a situation where all voices in a debate have a perfectly balanced contribution. But ignoring this ideal would give cover to those looking to present excessive power as a perfectly normal state. That route leads to a definition of PR as merely an instrument of domination.
    Social media lowers the entry barrier to conversation. That has to be good for PR, forcing it to engage better and to focus on ‘relations.’
    I e-mailed Clay Shirky about this debate and he was kind enough to reply. I have posted the exchange on my blog

  7. Richard Bailey 01/06/2009 at 8:04 am #

    Thanks, David. I’ll take a look at Google Wave.
    And Global Villager, many thanks for soliciting Clay Shirky’s views on this discussion. Though he’d not heard of ‘two-way symmetrical’ he immediately realised that the issue is one of power. ‘I’d characterize the situation for group interaction as: Large. Symmetrical. Engaged. Pick two.’ Good stuff.

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