The Two-Way Symmetrical Model of Public Relations



In the early 1980s, James E. Grunig , a noted public relations theorist, developed the four models of public relations: press agentry, public information, two-way asymmetrical, and two-way symmetrical.[i]

Grunig first introduced these models as a way to understand and explain the behavior of public relations practitioners.[ii] Grunig conceptualized the press agentry and public information models as forms of one-way communication. He also noted that not all forms of two-way communication are the same; some are asymmetrical – “Public relations people did research and listened to publics in an effort to determine how best to change their behavior to benefit the organization”[iii] and some are symmetrical – by “serving as the organizational function that attempts to balance the interests of organizations with those of their publics.”[iv].

These models, especially the two-way symmetrical model, have been debated components of the Excellence theory (which considers managerial, strategic, symmetrical, diverse and ethical values and tactics in decision making)[v].


Arguments for the Two-Way Symmetrical Model of Public Relations
  • J. Grunig and L. Grunig (1996) claim that use of the two-way symmertrical model allows public relations practitioners to “play key roles in adjusting or adapting behaviors of [institutional] dominant coalitions, thus bringing publics and dominant coalitions closer together.”[vi] They argued that “this ‘win-win’ approach provides an ethical basis for public relations because it ‘provides a coherent framework for socially responsible practices.”[vii]
  • The two-way symmetrical model “emphasizes communication exchange, reciprocity, and mutual understanding” thereby allowing an organization to adjust and adapt to each other until consensus is reached.[viii]
  • The two-way symmetrical model attempts to ethically balance the interests of the organization and its publics and uses research and communication to manage conflicts – as a result, this model produces more long-term relationships than do the other three models.[ix]

Arguments against the Two-Way Symmetrical Model of Public Relations
  • The symmetrical approach to public relations does not guarantee that all involved will benefit equally. For “true symmetry to result, both sides must consider and weigh the effects of institutional decisions and actions and have the power to affect a particular outcome.”[x]
  • How far should public relations practitioners go to ensure that mutual benefit is gained? Do their responsibilities lay heavier with defending the interests of their employers? Or are they to ensure that no harm results from an anticipated action or decision?[xi]
  • The institution that sets the “rules” could raise concerns around the ethics of this process as it could allow the power of the operating principles and development of the outcome of the decisions made to remain in the hands of one party.[xii]


Grunig and Grunig (1996, p.6) contend that the Two-Way Symmetrical model defines ethics as a process of public relations rather than an outcome[xiii] through dialogue and mutual understanding because communication leads to understanding. According to Marsh (2001), Two-Way communication seeks to build consensus and holds that an organization itself, and not an opposing public, sometimes may need to change to build a productive relationship.”[xiv]





[i] Grunig, L.A., Grunig, J.E., & Dozier, D.M. (2002)Excellent public relations and effective organizations: A study of communication management in three countries. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
[ii] Botan, C.H. & Iazelton, V. (Eds.). (2006). Public relations theory 2. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
[iii] Ibid
[iv] Ibid
[v] Grunig, L.A., Grunig, J.E., & Dozier, D.M. (2002)Excellent public relations and effective organizations: A study of communication management in three countries. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
[vi] Fitzpatrick, K. & Gauthier, C. (2001). Toward a professional responsibility theory of public relations ethics. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 16(2/3), 193-212
[vii] Ibid
[viii] Ibid
[ix] Botan, C.H. & Iazelton, V. (Eds.). (2006). Public relations theory 2. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
[x] Fitzpatrick, K. & Gauthier, C. (2001). Toward a professional responsibility theory of public relations ethics. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 16(2/3), 193-212
[xi] Ibid
[xii] Ibid
[xiii] Leeper, K. (1996). Public relations ethics and communitarianism: A preliminary investigation. Public Relations Review 22(2), 163-179.
[xiv]Marsh Jr., C. (2001). Public Relations Ethics: Contracting models from the rhetorics of Plato, Aristotle, and Isocrates. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 16(2/3), 78-98.