Symmetrical PR meets the ‘Cluetrain Manifesto’

Every serious student of social media must read the Cluetrain Manifesto. If you haven’t, it’s available free online. Many consider Cluetrain the seminal work about social media as they relate to business.

For a good many 30something PR and marketing bloggers, Cluetrain was the great “aha!” It described a new open system of communication that shifts the locus of commerce from persuasion and selling to relationships and conversations.

True believers in social media have worshiped at the Cluetrain altar for almost a decade now. Most books on SM marketing and PR that followed  took their direction from Cluetrain authors Weinberger, Searles, Locke and Levine. The book has stood the test of time, whether or not you agree with its premise.

Have social media altered the communication landscape? Of course. But while Cluetrain broke new ground in describing business-consumer relationships in a digital world, it wasn’t all that “new” — at least not for the more serious students of public relations. (I won’t speak for the marketing types, as PR and marketing are distinct disciplines.)

If you’ve kicked around the PR world as long as I have — as practitioner and educator — the central concepts of the Cluetrian Manifesto don’t surprise you. Fact is, PR began focusing on a “two-way symmetrical model” (2WS) more than 50 years ago — long before scholars Jim Grunig and Todd Hunt defined 2WS in 1983, and way, way before the Cluetrain arrived.

Nope. That’s not a typo. Fifty friggin’ years. It was Ed Bernays in 1955 who suggested, in The Engineering of Consent, that organizations use research to listen to their constituents, then adapt policies and operations to align them with public expectations. In other words, manage your organization to earn the “consent” of the public by operating in the public interest. Seems like more of a “duh” than an “aha,” doesn’t it?

A decade after Bernays, Albert Sullivan advanced the symmetrical idea (along with ethics) in his essay “Values of Public Relations,” published in the book, Information, Influence & Communication: A Reader in Public Relations. (Sorry, but these essays and old texts aren’t available on line. Try an academic library. Both books are on the shelves at Kent State in that big tall building with all those bound paper volumes.)

Some 28 years after Bernays’ promoted “adaptation,” Grunig and Hunt proposed their definitive model: 2WS.  It’s has been the reigning paradigm since. (For a more detailed description of Grunig and Hunt’s “4 Models,” see my essay of August 10, and be sure to read the comments, which include input from Dr. Grunig himself.)

As a headstrong practitioner back in ’83, I didn’t read many any textbooks or academic journals. Not until I met Pat Jackson, the guy who introduced me to 2WS. I read his weekly newsletter religiously, and I attended his seminars at every opportunity. Pat was the bridge between PR “academe” and PR “real world,” and not coincidentally, he was a friend of Jim Grunig’s. Pat died in 2001.

Pat presented theories and research developed by others and showed us how we could use that knowledge to become more effective and more ethical professionals. It was Pat who convinced me that “relationships,” not communication, are the core of PR practice. He stressed constant listening to understand the needs of publics, constant environmental monitoring to spot  trends and issues that might affect those publics. Pat insisted on including key publics in organizational decisions that would impact them. He insisted that organizations adapt to meet public needs.

Pat preached a good bit of the Cluetrain Manifesto 10 years before the World Wide Web and 20 years before Cluetrain became a best seller. We didn’t have the Web in the early 80s, let alone Web 2.0. But the philosophy of inclusion, listening and adaptation that Pat espoused was central to PR discussions of the times. It changed the way I practiced PR, and it made me more effective as a counselor and communicator.

Web 2.0 takes 2WS to a new level. It enables our publics — or anyone else for that matter — to participate in discussions with or without our involvement. In 1983, this participation was smart, cutting-edge public relations. Today it’s an imperative to business success, and the central point of the Cluetrain Manifesto.

To support my premise that 2WS rolled into the station long before the Cluetrain, let me compare 4 of the most critical statements from the Manifesto with the teachings of Pat Jackson (that were based on 2WS). I’m not quoting Pat directly, but paraphrasing his approach to 2WS as I came to understand it.

Maybe my argument will help you see why I get so impatient with certain 30something PR and marketing types who act as though they discovered “the conversation,” and who think we old farts just don’t get it. We do get it, and we have for a long time (he said defensively).

I first presented this lesson last March at the “You Too” social media conference at Kent State. The first slide reviews my summary of the concepts embodied in TWS.

The 4 slides that follow compare specific points of the Cluetrain Manifesto (taken word-for-word from the book) to the teachings of Pat Jackson that are embedded in my teaching and practice philosophies. (Sadly, there is no online repository of Pat’s writings and lectures.  Maybe someday.)

Key point on 2WS and Cluetrain: Participation, not persuasion is what builds relationships. I’ve argued this with learned friends who insist the essence of PR is presentation. While presentation of the message is important, it is also asymmetrical (i.e, “Here’s my position and why you should agree with it.”  One-way communication at its finest!). I moved on from that view 25 years ago, and thanks to Web 2.0, we all will.

To sum it up:

If you prefer a more intellectual discussion on PR practice models, read Heather Yaxley’s outstanding essay at PR Conversations and the discussion that follows it. I should have jumped in on that thread, but I was paddling a kayak in Maine at the time and my social connection was limited to my wife, a few harbor seals and this loon.

Slides from the plenary session at Kent State’s “You Too” social media conference are available here on SlideShare. For the record, I shared that presentation with Kent State’s Michele Ewing and Vincena’s Dino Baskovic (the man most responsible for making me a Web 2.0 loon).

17 Responses to Symmetrical PR meets the ‘Cluetrain Manifesto’

  1. Bill,
    thank you. this is truly a great, great post.
    I entirely agree with all that you so clearly express except for one (minor) point when you describe the scientific persuasion approach of Ed Bernays…. but if I am wrong in this I would really like to be like to know from you as you have clearly done much more homework than I.
    My interpretation of Bernays is that he, truly the inventor as well as professional advocate and practitioner of the concept of marketing, argued that publics should be listened to in order to embed their expectations in the persuasive communication of the organization.
    This differs from the successive 2WS argument that the listening is not only aimed at improving the communication with publics, but that it is more importantly aimed at changing the organization.
    As much as one may argue that if organizational communication in itself changes, in effect this produces some change in the organization, it is my understanding that the change which Grunign refers to has to do with policies, governances, strategies and structure, well beyond just communication.
    Would you please be so kind as to clarify this for me?
    thank you

  2. Helena Makhotlova says:

    Thank you for interesting post. But I thought it was Scott M. Cutlip who in 1952 for the first time pleaded that Public Relations be practised in a symmetrical, two-way communicative mode?
    – Helena

  3. Bill Sledzik says:

    Thanks for stopping in, Toni. I have always viewed Bernays as the champion of “scientific persuasion,” which is model number 3 in Grunig and Hunt’s “4 Models” discussion (the 2-way asymmetrical model). Without question, Ed used his acumen as a social scientist, dare I say, propagandist, to further his client’s objectives. He was a master promoter and a client advocate, and a highly effective one. I did a post last year that might be worthy of reference. At the same time, I can’t lay claim to any in-depth knowledge of PR history, as it’s never been a specialty of mine.

    That said, in “The Engineering of Consent,” Bernays posited (I can’t believe I used that word!) the idea that organizations must adapt to their publics in order to earn the public trust. This isn’t to say he proposed a “symmetrical” model, but he clearly saw the need to go beyond simple persuasion to earn public consent — the need to adapt. I don’t have Bernays’ book in front of me as reference, so I can’t quote it precisely. Perhaps one of our learned PR historians will chime in.

    Bernays is considered somewhat of a sorcerer when it comes to mass persuasion and is the target of many critics of public relations.

    Helena, you also are correct, at least in part. Cutlip and co-author Allen Center put “two-way communication” into their definition of public relations very early on. But that definition also identifies public relations as advocacy, calling it “a planned effort to influence opinion.” That definition, in my mind, does not point to symmetry. Their later definition — in 1994 — certainly does:

    Public relations is a management function that seeks to identify, build, and maintain mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and all of the publics on whom its success or failure depends.

    I wrote a post on definitions back in July. And yeah, I’m aware of how often I’ve linked to myself in this post and subsequent comments. Hell, what’s the point of having a blog if you can’t play Mr. Know-It-All?

  4. […] the discussion on PR Conversations, Bill Sledzik made an intriguing reflection in his post “Symmetrical PR meets the Cluetrain Manifesto”. There he compares the Cluetrain Manifesto postulate with concepts of two-way symmetrical […]

  5. Thanks for the link, but also for an interesting post. One other great online resource that includes both Bernays and Pat Jackson is the first episode of the BBC documentary, Century of the Self. It can be found via Google video:

    It does present Bernays very much as manipulative and there’s a quote from his daughter’s quote that he saw the public and employees as “stupid”.

    From Bernays himself, especially his early work, there seemed to be a definite view that PR practitioners were part of a necessary elite required in society and that the masses couldn’t be trusted to think for themselves. Very Lippman and early public opinion research, I believe.

    Of course, this is all very much a US-historical perspective on PR and doesn’t necessarily apply elsewhere. Fascinating stuff nevertheless.

  6. The nature of symmetrical relationship management is, historically, political and shaped by economic drivers.

    John Locke laid down the rules in the 17th century (after many freedoms from serfdom had been achieved – such that Locke could even publish). His idea was as follows: “The liberty of man in society is to be under no other legislative power but that established by consent in the commonwealth, nor under the domination of any will, or restraint of any law, but what that legislative shall enact according to the trust put in it.”

    The idea of established consent requires that the ‘commons’ should be both listrened to and involved in a form of ‘conversation’ and that the consent should be based on trust.

    Two way symmetrical and more important, self balancing, relationships could ten be the outcome.

    The nature of two way and, notably listening, relationship management is much older.

    The concept of representatives of foreign nations acting as intermediaries in listening, conversation and relationship building diplomacy in the courts of Egypt, Greece, Rome and the Khans is well known. Diplomacy as a branch of Public Relations is even more ancient. There are early documents about how this activity should be conducted – a pre-cursor to the books about practice PR people put on their shelves today.

    Other old PR practices include events organisation (party planning) on a grand scale. We have records that go back thousands of years and some pretty elaborate ceremonies have evolved into pageants of State. Our State Opening of Parliament, is one such event and is pure PR.

    It can be said that the ideas behind Cluetrain are closer to Locke and Tylor than PR only in so far as it takes PR a long time to systematise that reality.

  7. Tom Murphy says:


    Thanks for another insightful post.

    Like many things online, we often seem to forget that change typically happens through evolution rather than revolution.

    I am tired of reading people who think the idea of listening to people, or talking to people directly, or understanding how an audience finds information is somehow radical, new wave thinking.

    It’s not. It’s just the basics are often forgotten. Online or offline

    Thanks again

  8. Bill Sledzik says:

    Thanks, Tom. That’s exactly why I said that Cluetrain — at least to seasoned PR types — was more the great “duh” than the great “aha.” Opening up the system of communication to include our key publics, than adapting to their needs, has been a part of PR for a very long time. Nothing at all radical here — though I applaud the authors of Cluetrain for enlightening thousands of marketing and business managers to Web 2.0. It was an important book.

    Still, too many of our top managers continue to operate in command-and-control mode, relying on presentation and positioning to guide their communication. As we all know that doesn’t work so well anymore.

  9. Bill Huey says:

    As you know, I have certain reservations about the 2-way symmetrical model. I will try to summarize them briefly:

    1–It is a tactical process model, not a strategic model. What is the goal of a public relations campaign? Pat Jackson seemed to believe it was participation, not persuasion. But the ultimate goal is to get someone– or a group of someones– to think, believe, or act in a certain manner, because they are convinced that doing so will be beneficial. In the Grunig model, strategy formation is just part of a four-step process–not a means of setting, modifying or (most importantly) achieving objectives.

    2–It isn’t really a model at all, but a prescription. A true communications model describes how communications work—all of the time. No exceptions. But there are numerous exceptions to the 2-way symmetrical model. Bernays’ “Engineering of Consent” was basically a 2-way asymmetrical model. The current government bailout plan started as a 1-way asymmetrical model, and is evolving by fits and starts into a 2-way asymmetrical model. Why? Because people absolutely detest the underlying premise of the plan, which is to throw good money after bad in an attempt to re-capitalize the financial system. Therefore, any attempt to modify this flawed plan based on feedback will result in failure. All the business geniuses and government economists in the world saying that this is a great dog food won’t get the dogs to eat it.

  10. Bill Sledzik says:

    As always, Bill, I appreciate your insights, and I learn from them.

    You call out one aspect of Pat Jackson’s approach that conflicts with another. While Pat embraced the concept of giving voice to key publics (especially those on the fringes), he also was the creator of the “behavioral model.” Pat consistently told his readers and his seminar audiences that CEOs measure PR effectiveness by is its ability to change behavior, since behavior (not awareness or brand preference) ultimately drives the bottom line. His planning process posed the question: What do we want them to do, not do, or let us do?

    On the surface, behavioral public relations is the same model embraced by Bernays: the two-way asymmetrical approach in which the result we seek is behavior triggered by carefully constructed persuasion. That said, Jackson and Bernays also emphasize the importance of aligning the organization with the public interest to earn their acceptance and trust. So both men, Jackson in particular, had at least one foot in the symmetrical world.

    I will agree that the “bailout” failed partly because its promoters did a bad job on the propaganda. It was a one-way sell job, and many folks weren’t buying it. Part of it I would attribute to the ram-it-through, high-pressure sales approach. (Jackson: People want to be served, not sold.) But also at work here is the problem of “source credibility.” Congress and President W want us to spend $700 billion to save the world economy. It’s a message coming from 436 people that very few of would trust with our lunch money. When the sender of the message commands no respect from the receiver, we in PR might as well pack it in and go fishing.

  11. Hi Bill, welcome back. Over the past week or so I had a series of “discussions” with Dr. Grunig and Grunig supporters at PR Conversations (, sparked by a fine essay by Heather Yaxley about potential alternatives to the Excellence/Symmetrical paradigm.

    The heart of the contention — can you imagine that, me contentious? — from my perspective is that symmetrical seems so utopian. Dr. Grunig also advocates that communicators act as advocates for the “publics,” what I liken as a kind of internal ombudsman.

    I just argued that communicators (see how I’m purposely not using “PR” here?), can survey the landscape, tell management about potential outcomes, act completely ethically, etc., but at the end of the day, they are advocates for the organization’s viewpoint. To ask anything more of communicators, in my opinion, is to simply ask too much, particularly since there is no set of rules or guidelines for how communicators should act, outside of ethics and the law. And, even then, we’ve seen how the former falls to the wayside.

    I think there is also a question of whether or not symmetrical communications can ever really be, by definition, symmetrical. There are hegemonic/power issues at play, in my opinion, that make this difficult. Though, obviously, I do believe that communicators should listen/talk to the public and build relationships. I just don’t see PR or any other form of communicators occupying some role above that as a part of the organization’s team.

    My secondary concern is that the continued reliance on Excellence, which I think if one has studied it and spent some time in the profession, is shown to be a paradigm built on a sand foundation, is great for making careers and getting tenure, but not doing the profession much good. I mean look at the academic journals in which we still must define PR in the first 300 words, or any PR text that sets out to do the same within the first couple chapters.

    Of course, I write all this because I feel like I’m wondering around in a dark forest here. What is the purpose of PR research if it isn’t to provide professionals with some wider understanding? Instead, it feels like we’re paying homage to Excellence and talking to one another.

    I respect and admire your analysis, which is why I ask for guidance. I know that you’re going to lay it out straight.

  12. Bill Sledzik says:

    Not sure I have any qualms with what you’ve laid out, Bob. Besides, it’s impolite to argue with a Steelers fan (though you are probably more sober than most).

    In PR, we are advocates and we’re beholden to those who sign the paychecks. To believe otherwise — well that’s utopian. But we also must act in the boundary-spanning role to help our clients and employers understand and better align with the needs of our key publics. We must be their advocates, too. I’m convinced, based on experience, that no one else at the table is gonna do this — most particularly the marketers.

    I don’t have any problem reconciling advocacy and boundary spanning, and always tried to play that dual role in my career. I recall many a day at the “table” when I was the lone voice shouting “no.” I was seen as “not team player.”

    “Why are you so negative all the time?” one boss used to ask me. I managed to resist the obvious: “Because I’m surrounded by morons with tunnel vision and no morals.” (Hey, I worked in advertising agencies too long. What can I say?) To be honest, the lack of moral fiber in business is the primary reason I had to leave the business. I no longer had the courage to fight that battle, and I saw what was coming — a shift from responsible business practices to practices based solely on maximizing shareholder value, aka, greed, greed, greed.

    But I agree that the 2-way symmetrical model is utopian in may ways. And that’s precisely why I admire it. It gives us a beacon, and it helps to remind us that the goals of the organization must align with the public interest or we’re all in deep, deep shit. The events unfolding this week in Washington are a grim reminder that the business world, and those who regulate it, have lost their moral way. A little symmetry would do us a lot of good.

    As for the Excellence studies, I’m not gonna say too much there. While I don’t embrace all of the conclusions, I do admire the values that come out of the work. It’s been a long time since I read them, so I don’t want to misstep.

    I’m sorry I didn’t jump in on the PR Conversations thread about all this, but I’m keeping a low profile during the sabbatical and spending a lot less time online. Besides, I don’t look nearly as smart when I’m with the PRC gang. A very intelligent bunch over there.

    Be well, friend. And thanks for dropping in.

  13. Judy Gombita says:

    Hey Bill, congrats on this post being published in another country/language on the national PR association website of ferpi. I bet you sound really smart in Italian!

  14. […] the practice of PR. For 2.5 of those 5 years, I’ve been arguing they do not (most notably in this post). Have social media tools like blogs, social networks, bookmarking, etc., altered how we practice […]

  15. […] the practice of PR. For 2.5 of those 5 years, I’ve been arguing they are not (most notably in this post). Have social media tools like blogs, social networks, bookmarking, etc., altered how we practice […]

  16. […] PPBPR ignores most of the PR literature and fails to acknowledge PR innovators. The idea that “PR is about relationships” didn’t originate in social media circles or with this Social Media Manifesto. PR scholars like Jim & Larissa Grunig, Otto Lerbinger, Albert Sullivan and practitioner-lecturers like the late Pat Jackson began the relationship discussion in the late 1970s and they wrote about it extensively for 25 years. More of my thoughts here. […]

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