Are You a Bridge or a Buffer?

Dr. James E. Grunig, University of Maryland professor emeritus, keynoted the 50th anniversary celebration of the Institute for Public Relations this month. His speech, “After 50 Years: The Value and Values of Public Relations,” is available on the Institute’s website.

Grunig takes issue with those who say that PR tacticians operate without a general theory compared to the elite counselors of our profession. “I believe there have been, and still are, two major competing theories of public relations both in practice and in the academic world,” says Grunig. “I call these approaches the symbolic, interpretive paradigm and the strategic management, behavioral paradigm.

“Scholars and practitioners following the symbolic paradigm generally assume that public relations strives to influence how publics interpret the organization. These cognitive interpretations are embodied in such concepts as image, reputation, brand, impressions, and identity… Communication tactics, this theory maintains, create an impression in the minds of publics that allow the organization to buffer itself from its environment.

“In contrast, the behavioral, strategic management paradigm focuses on the participation of public relations executives in strategic decision-making to help manage the behavior of organizations. In the words of organizational theorists, public relations is a bridging, rather than a buffering, function. It is designed to build relationships with stakeholders, rather than a set of messaging activities designed to buffer the organization from them. The paradigm emphasizes two-way and symmetrical communication of many kinds to provide publics a voice in management decisions and to facilitate dialogue between management and publics both before and after decisions are made.”

What do you think?

Frank Ovaitt

President and CEO

Institute for Public Relations

Posted in [Blog] and tagged .

10 Comments

  1. Thanks for all of the enlightened discussion of my IPR lecture. Please allow me the opportunity to respond to several of the comments.

    First, it is not true that academic scholars live only in the lecture hall and are not familiar with the brutal reality of the real world, as Don Radoli suggested. As a scholar, I spend more of my time doing research than lecturing. Research often provides a broader perspective on the real world than do the daily activities of practitioners. A wise professor of mine once warned us never to generalize from a sample of one–i.e., one’s own experience. In the IABC Excellence Study, we studied more than 300 organizations in three countries. Through questionnaires and qualitative interviews, we listened to practitioners and thought theoretically about their experiences.  In 40 years of research, I have studied and learned from the experiences of hundreds, if not thousands, of practitioners throughout the world. I think that research provides a thorough knowledge of the “brutal reality of the real world.”

    Research also has taught us a lot about the behavior of activist groups. Lauri Grunig and I have conducted research on hundreds of activist groups. Students in my graduate seminar in Public Relations Publics have each studied an activist group as a research assignment for years.  Dons first comment suggested that most activist groups would never collaborate with organizations that attempt to engage with them. There are some unethical and some intransigent activist groups, but most of them work diligently to support the interests of publics they represent. What would have happened to the environment, consumer interests, communities, human rights, animal rights, and on and on if there were no activist groups. Activist groups also have their own public relations departments. Again, research in the Excellence study showed that organizations faced with pressure from activists are more likely to have excellent public relations departments. Finally, symmetrical communication is by far the most effective way to cultivate relationships with activists. Much research in the “real world” confirms this. Activists simply do not react well to attempts to persuade them or defeat them. They do respond well to a strategy of helping to solve the problems with which they are concerned.

    Don Radoli and several other contributors to this discussion also suggested that the buffering and bridging approaches should be used together or that each should be used for different stakeholders. I once believed the same thing, calling for a contingency approach. I since have realized that the bridging approach, also known as the symmetrical model, almost always works better. Many people confuse buffering with the use of communication methods, such as media relations, message dissemination, public communication campaigns, educational programs, and the like. The bridging paradigm does not exclude these traditional communication activities. It puts them into a broader context, as Ward White pointed out so eloquently.

    Traditional communication activities can still be used in a bridging program, but they are put into a context based on research, listening, dialogue, and collaboration. Information is given to publics because it helps them to solve problems, make decisions, and form relationships with organizations. In this broader context, messages from the organization are always part of two-way communication because research and other listening activities brought information into the organization first. In the buffering approach, research is seldom used except to identify messages that are most likely to make the organization look good or tells the public what it wants to hearsuch as repeated calls for tax cuts during elections. Those messages do not tell the public everything about the organization that is relevant. In the buffering approach, evaluation research typically is done only to determine if the public responded in the way the organization wanted and not to determine if communications from the organization met the information needs of publics.

    Although traditional communication activities are still used in the bridging paradigm, that paradigm opens our minds to many more activitiesespecially interpersonal communication, advisory panels, liaisons to community organizations and activist groups, blogs, dialogue-oriented web sites, interactions with reporters not directly connected to media pitches, and qualitative research methods such as focus groups and interviews of opinion leaders that are a form of communication themselves. In summary, the bridging and buffering paradigms are, for the most part, mutually exclusive because their purposes are so different.

    Alan Kelly made a common error in discussing the bridging paradigm. It has nothing to do with appeasement.  He advocates advocacy. So do I. However, there are two kinds of advocacy: collaborative advocacy and blind advocacy. Collaborative advocacy is a term coined by Christopher Spicer, now a dean at Towson University. Blind advocacy is not an effective way to promote the competitive interests of organizations. Advocating organizational interests while also advocating the interests of publics (collaborative advocacy) ultimately is the best way to increase the effectiveness of an organization. Most blind advocacy (the belief that your organization is always right) leads to failure. Far too many public relations activities, which as based on the buffering approach, are done as blind advocacy.

    In addition, as Ward White responded to Alan, most organizations really are not in competition with each other. Michael Porter, the strategic management expert at the Harvard Business School, has pointed out that organizations that successfully develop relationships with their stakeholders really have no competition because other organizations would not have the same set of relationships that they do.

    Alan also questions whether buffering and bridging are useful practical as well as theoretical terms.  I think they are straightforward terms that are easy to understand. The terms were first used by the organizational sociologist W. R. Scott. Two Dutch communication scholars, Frans van den Bosch and Cees van Riel used the terms in an article published in the journal, Business Strategy and the Environment, in 1998. They used the terms to describe the change in Shell managements attitude toward public relations after the Brett Spar case. I learned about them from a former Ph.D. student, Hyuk Yi, who wrote an M.A. paper on the institutionalization of public relations, that is, how managements, journalists, public relations people, and people in general come to understand public relations as either bridging or buffering, mostly as buffering. Bridging and buffering are terms that complement and expand my symmetrical and asymmetrical models by elaborating the thinking that underlies these two models. Is the purpose of public relations to try to protect the organization from the environment by putting up a smoke screen around the organization (buffering), or is its purpose to engage with the environment and actively build ongoing relationships with it (bridging)? Our research shows that buffering, although it sounds great to management, doesn’t work. Bridging does.

  2. Alan Kelly, as usual, makes a valid, and valuable, point.  Plainer, blunter terms would help.  Buffering and Bridging are, I believe, honest terms—but blunter, clearer terms would work better.  Suggestions welcomed.

    On the question of what makes the public relations valuable, however, I disagree with Alan.  The essence of the PR function is not its ability to advance the competitive position of an organization.  PR’s role (and value) is rather to advance the position of the organization.  Sometimes that will be done competitively, often not. 

    First of all, competition is not of the essence of an organization.  The American Heart Association is not directly competitive with the American Cancer Society. Yes, they may compete for funds, but competition is not the heart of either—the prevention and cure of specific health problems are at their essence. 

    So also in the education field—Baylor and Marquette are not directly competitive.  Competition is not their essence.  The higher education of youth and the advancement of knowledge are their essence.  Yes, they may compete for athletes or for funds, but competition is not the raison d’etre of an institution of higher learning. 

    So also for governmental organizations.  Their may be compeitive aspects to their existence (e.g., they compete for funding during the buget process), but competition is not why they exist.  It is not their mission in life.  So also for trade associations and many other types of organizations in our society, or in any society.

    Even for the modern corporation, competition is not its mission in life.  Its mission is first to survive and, second, to thrive.  It exists to benefit its stakeholders, starting with those constituencies most vital to its existence and success.  Sometimes that means competition, other times it doesn’t.  Many aspects of the PR function and much of its value within the corporation have little and often nothing to do with competition.  The function of employee engagement—a major role of corporate public relations—is not a competitive role.  It is a bridging role (to stay with current terminology, until successor terminology is in place).  The same holds true for community relations, executive communications and many other aspects of the corporate PR function.

    Life is not a zero-sum game.  There are zero-sum games within life, and within those games competition is vital—but life itself is not a zero-sum game.  Competition is not the essential purpose of an organization, as such.  It is not the essential purpose of a corporation, as such.  “In a democratic society, a company exists with public approval,” said Arthur Page.  Effective public relationships are essential to both the existence and the success of an organization.  That’s why effective public relationships, and the bridging function, are of the essence of public relations. Life is not a zero-sum game.

  3. The symbolic, interpretive paradigm purports that communications tactics “create an impression in the minds of publics that allow the organization to buffer itself from its environment.” I would argue that while some tactics are designed to buffer, some tactics are designed to bridge, thereby presenting the dialogue that the behavioral, strategic management paradigm facilitates.

    The interpretive paradigm and the behavioral paradigm are only separate approaches if we assume that the communications tactics are solely designed to buffer and not to bridge. I do not see these approaches as mutually exclusive; image, reputation, brand, impressions and identity can be used to bring publics closer to the organization and its management.

  4. It wasn’t my intention to discard Prof. Grunig’s well-researched symmetrical approach

    as may have been perceived by Ward White above. My intention was to focus on the futility of attempting to bridge an unbridgeable situation. My double buffer proposition was meant to apply only to situations where an activist stakeholder chooses disagreement at all costs.

    Whether an organization chooses “bridging” or “buffering” will depend on what type of stakeholder one is dealing with. A point made by Don Bates above.

    There are analytical tools for stakeholder analysis that aim to discern the salient attributes of relevant stakeholders before the PR strategist determines the best way of communicating with them. The World Bank for example stresses diverse stakeholders’ position on the issue pertinent to the organization, the level of influence (power) they hold, the level of interest they have in a specific issue. Furthermore the organization should consider the impact of the group or coalition they can muster to support their position.

    This of course assumes that the stakeholders have the resources to articulate their interests. There are however cases where legitimate stakeholders (e.g peasant farmers in area to be flooded as a result of a dam construction project) that may not have the resources to articulate their case. In such a case, the organization has a moral obligation to listen/explain and in the final analysis compensate these stakeholders for their losses.

    To sum up it is position and nature of the individual stakeholder vis a vis the organization that dictates whether the PR strategist “buffers” or “bridges.”

  5. About a year ago, I had a chit-chat with my management colleague in Business school. He teaches strategic management and entrepreneurship. He had an ongoing project with another management professor about the effect of media publicity on reputation and corporate profitability. His research team had tried many different analyses and hypotheses testing to find the significant effect of image management to corporate performance (e.g., profitability) but they failed to find support.

    With frustration, he asked my advice for a better statistical analysis strategy to test their beloved hypothesis: the effect of symbolic management approach to corporate performance.

    I first examined their data code book and dataset. There seems no data or no methodological issue. They are well-trained management researchers. As a logical consequence, I suggested that Its neither your data problem, nor the issue of your statistical analysis. It seems the problem of your hypothesis.

    So, I recommended an alternative model I think more interesting: testing the relative effects of symbolic management approach vs. behavioral management approach on corporate performance. (Sounds quite familiar with what Dr. Grunig said in his speech : )

    Because their data set was very comprehensive (e.g., many variables and time-series), I could draw a testing model for the relative effects of symbolic and behavioral management approaches.

    Sadly for my management colleagues, I found that the image management did not contribute to the corporate bottom line. Specifically, symbolic management approach can enhance positive media coverage. But, positive media reputation cannot contribute to corporate performance in turn. In contrast, we found behavioral management approach (e.g., corporate efforts to reduce environmental hazards) increases performance reputation and that in turn contributes to corporate performance significantly.

    My sharp business-management colleagues were surprised. They asked how I could bring such an alternative model immediately. I smiled and answered, well, I have a good teacher.

    Our analysis was based on high emission industries, so, we need to be careful in generalizing the finding too extensively. Yet, our finding suggests that symbolic approach is less effective than behavioral management approach.

    We later found there are some management scholars echoes with Jim Grunigs thinking (Ashforth & Gibbs, 1990; Pfeffer, 1981). A reviewer from management discipline told us what our finding is not so surprising. For example, Ashforth and Gibbs (1990) pointed out that protesting too much via symbolic management can cause reactance among organizational constituents.

    Well, research evidence tells us Jims ideas are getting more supports. And, our colleagues in management seem to think similarly.

    (By the way, my business management colleagues now believe that strategic public relations should be a behavioral management.)

    *

    I think, symbolic approach-only is bad, behavioral management approach-only may be good. But behavioral management aligning with symbolic approach must be better.

    Yesterday, I talked Jims symbolic vs. behavioral paradigms to my students.

    And I concluded class, Do good thing is better than say good thing. But, do good thing as well as say good thing is even better.

    Most of my young students were nodding. So, I guess what Jim said was making sense to them as well.

  6. Buffering and Bridging don’t cut it.  We need better and more honest terms for what we really do.  In truth, what makes the public relations function of value in any marketplace is its ability to advance the competitive position of an organization.  Its ability to advocate is what’s politely sidestepped in our current theories.  Buffering positions the PR function as prophylactic.  Bridging propagates the image of appeasement.  If we believe PR to be a management function, we need to scrap these euphemistic terms.  The PR function is too effective and too decisively valuable for such tip-toeing.

  7. Like Don Radoli, above, I too live in the world of diverse stakeholders, and have done so for the decades since I also moved from academia to the pragmatic world. Unlike Don, my conclusion is that Grunig’s 2-way or bridging model is not only possible but is essential to the optimal practice of the public relations craft and to the future of the profession.

    And like Kathi Wallace, above, I am intrigued by the bridging and buffer models. Unlike Kathi, I think the productive course is not to use half of each, as though they were equals. My own conclusion is that the best PR practice is to use the bridging model strategically as the “master model,” while the buffer model is employed on occasion and tactically in a subservient and subordinate role. In practice, and varying with the quality and circumstances of the organization, the buffering tactic need be brought into play with relative infrequency and by way of exception.

    To Don’s point, yes, there is indeed evil in the world. Yes, there are enemies, folks who would do one grievous and even fatal damage. With them, conversation may be not only futile but actually dangerous and self-harming. And Don’s proposed double-buffer recommendation may well be the right one for a particular situation—tactically, in this specific instance. In the best practice, however, this selective, by-exception buffering is an ad hoc expedient—even while the bridging model serves as the overarching, determinative strategy by which the communications head leads and operates his function or department within the organization.

    Especially in marketing communications, in the competitive fray of gaining an edge to benefit one’s organization and its stakeholders, one-way communications is often the order of the day. Advertising, as an example, is primarily a one-way medium. So also, product publicity and product promotion. One-way communications is the world where many practitioners do battle daily, especially those in the agency and marketing arenas. And they do so honorably and ethically, holding their heads high, rightfully proud of their role in the marketplace. One-way communications, for them, is not the exception but their daily bread. That said, however, at the broadest and most fundamental level of their organizations or corporations, even these practitioners best carry out their one-way communications within the context of the bridging model as the foundation of sound relationships and effective relational communications.

    Is the communications leader to develop her or his people to be fighters first or listeners first? It makes a difference. Jim Grunig, as is his wont, raises and makes a point crucial not just for the future of the profession, but for the future of a civil society. Without the primacy of the bridging model, without a commitment to civil two-way discourse, both the republic and the profession fall into peril.

    I contend, therefore, that at its heart and in its essence, ours is and must be a bridging profession. At the most foundational level of an organization’s existence, its public relations is about … its public relationships. And relationships are intrinsically two-way, built upon and requiring two-way communications. In this 50th anniversary year of The Institute, Jim Grunig does us all good service, I believe, in calling us to this higher standard.

  8. Jim Grunig is a BIG THINKER AND BIG-TIME PUBLIC RELATIONS THEORIST so it’s hard to disagree with most of what he says about relationship building.  He wants us to ponder his ideas about what he thinks or finds true from his research with the goal of having more of us arrive at some generally accepted commonality of purpose and practice.  But after more than 30 years in the business I think the word “depends” should be applied to his ideas and to most discussions of PR theory and practice.  Like it or not, public relations plays different roles in different organizations DEPENDING on the organizations’ goals, budgets, objectives, politics, business model, etc.  There is no one template I know of that works for all.  For some organizations, bridge building is the key.  For others, buffering.  And for all organizations, at any given time, some of both.  But what a jewel we have in Jim Grunig regardless of your take on what he has deduced from his incredible research.  Has anyone done more than he has to take PR thought and theory to a higher plain?  Would that we could clone a small army of Jims to continue his work in earnest for generations to come.  Kudos to the Institute for supporting him over the years and for helping to spread his views throughout the profession.

  9. Having moved from academia to the pragmatic world of day to day relationships with

    diverse stakeholders, I have concluded that Prof. Grunigs 2-way symmetrical model is too idealistic and optimistic. In the real world there are activist stakeholders whose

    very existence is predicated on disagreement. Without this disagreement they would

    lose public funding and support. They only don’t want bridges but wish to blow up

    any bridges that may exist. In such situation the only course of action is to agree to disagree—two buffers. Sorry this may sound negative but that is the brutal reality out there away from lecture halls.

  10. I find this comparison very intriguing. I feel that I definitely lean toward the “buffer” description, but the daily work reality requires playing on both levels. I wonder if there is not a middle ground that uses branding/messaging as 1/2 of the 2-way communication model and simultaneous listening/research as the other 1/2. So even though I’m a strong advocate of the “outside-in” to complement the “inside-out” information flow, I’m not sure the two components are really mutually exclusive. Maybe branding and message architecture are still vital, but only if they are merged with the other half of the communication equation.

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