When David Phillips and I wrote Online Public Relations 2nd Ed (2009) we confidently claimed that the digital media revolution had changed PR forever, and that such changes meant that scholars needed to rethink the theoretical paradigms that have dominated academic conceptions of the discipline.
We still do.
We were therefore delighted to read that James Grunig, the driving force behind the hugely influential Excellence models and the general theory of PR which underpins these models, used our book as a prime focus for a significant PRism journal article, Paradigms of global public relations in an age of digitalisation.
Although beginning by appearing to lump in social media with other 'fads' that have momentarily distracted some from more fundamental matters, Grunig declares:
If the social media are used to their full potential, I believe they will inexorably make public relations practice more global, strategic, two-way and interactive, symmetrical or dialogical, and socially responsible.
Clearly, David and I agree. But for me, the interesting point is that the areas in which Grunig sees social media as having significant impact are framed within contexts drawn from Grunigian "general theory". These are the very assumptions from which we asked one of our key questions:
The issue now for those trying to understand the changes being brought about by the internet society is to determine whether the developments outlined in this book are sufficiently dramatic to challenge the Grunig model. Let’s try.
I have been arguing for several years that social media has flipped what I call the vector of communication through 90 degrees and that the significance of this change - or perhaps more accurately, this potential change - is a long way from being understood and embraced by PR theory.
So I am agreeing with Grunig that digital media makes no fundamental attack on many of the principles of his team's general theory, but I do maintain that the aggregation of individual opinions that is empowered by the searchable web is transforming conceptions of reputation. I am not convinced the general theory does or perhaps even can, accommodate this change.
Yes, we are in truth challenging what Grunig characterises one of his middle range theories, in particular the those elements which deal with conceptions of publics, persuasion, engagement and relevance.
But, for me, these are the most important aspects of public relations. I think writers like David and myself have only just begun to consider the implications of the changes we are trying to identify.
Meanwhile, thank you Professor Grunig for many valuable insights. Like the dutiful and dilligent students I try to nudge along at Sunderland, I will go away and spend the festive period in critical reflection.