How can things change — and still stay the same?

This was the question running through my head as I got off a conference call in preparation for the Adobe Digital Marketing Summit panel I’m joining in London next week. I will be discussing how the role of digital marketers is changing rapidly — and how to address this.

The digital landscape has changed the rules fundamentally, not just when it comes to how to influence publics, but how to re-organize corporations around a digital-first approach. You know this, I know this. We all know this.

However, when I advise businesses on digital PR and organizational change, I often find myself going back to basics. I return to the same old “old-school” PR theories.

Why is this?

Old-School PR: Same Same But Different

I used to binge-read everything by genius scholars such as Marshall McLuhan, James E. Grunig, John Fiske, Walter Lippmann, Ivy Lee, and Edward Bernays. But, I do come back to them quite regularly.

I find their usefulness in modern society to be interesting. Their fundamental communication concepts seem to be even more relevant today than they ever were before.

These days, I enjoy reading popular thinkers like Seth Godin, Gary Vaynerchuck, and Malcolm Gladwell just as much as the next guy. But to find good thinking, we can also choose to revisit the sources.

It can be about learning from the great masters of classical direct marketing for creating converting online copywriting or going back to the rhetorical analysis by the Ancient Greeks.

Or as in this case, revisiting classic PR theories:

The Voices of PR Students

So, with the annual Swedish PR conference Communicare 2014 coming up, I thought about making a little experiment:

Communicare is arranged by the Mid Sweden University and their Public Relation Program students. They are in many ways digital native communicators now studying classical communication theories.

Ergo: They must be in a very good position to speculate in what classical PR theories can teach us about today’s digital communication landscape, right?

So I asked a few of them to share their takes on a classical PR theory of their own choice.

And here’s what they came up with:

Linn LundbergLazarfeld’s Two-Step Flow of Communication (1944)

You can apply Lazarfeld’s two-step flow of communication on the world of social media. A click on the share button is as easy as talking to your best friend about things that interest you. Anybody can be the first one to share and who can say that they never wanted to be the first one with the latest news?

Nowadays it only takes a second or less before you can discuss the latest news, photo or article with the whole world. That is how the two-step flow of communication works today.

— Linn Lundberg, 24, PR Student

Untitled1Functions Inside a Message (1958)

Roman Jakobson’s theory still applies to this day, just look at the metalinguistic function, this function refers to the way the sender often creates a “code” for its message. These “codes” are things that our brains automatically seeks to recognize and relate to. Things like colors, music and settings, things that we can relate to a certain type of media or brand.

Take the car brand Volvo as an example; what do people think of when they see a Volvo? Expensive, Swedish, safety, mountains, forests … Zlatan Ibrahimovic?

— Thomas Jonasson, 23, PR Student

Sumenta Tran

The Four Models of Public Relations (1984)

Grunig and Hunt’s symmetrical two-way model have become the ideal for organizational communication around the world as they strive to achieve maximum efficiency. These days, media technologies and social media have made most PR efforts more global, strategic, interactive and symmetric, thus making the symmetrical two-way model a norm for sustainable long-term communication. The audience is seen as individuals with different needs, where each and every one of them has the capability to influence their peers.

This, in contrast to before, when the audience instead was seen as an anonymous and homogeneous group. One way to put it is that two different theories have changed places with each other over time, the traditional publicity model is out — while the two-way symmetrical model is in.

— Sumenta Tran, 21, PR Student

asdfInformation Processing Theory (the early 1950s)

Are you sure the receivers get the message if you only have 140-characters? In today’s society, as social media is just getting bigger and everything must happen so fast, one feeling, one radical moment can change everything.

So think twice before you write something online, someone might just misunderstand it.

— Emilie Lindqvist, 29, PR Student

sffgsfgLasswell’s Model Of Communication (1948)

How people interpret different messages is impossible for the transmitter to know. Like Volvo Cars’ recent commercial with Zlatan. The message “Made by Sweden” has both been criticised and loved, and it became the commercial on everyone’s lips. But is it how many people talking about the commercial, or what they really say about it that is crucial?

If a message isn’t clear enough, people will tend to interpret it in different ways. That’s why it’s so important that we always think through what we say or write in public. In the end, it’s the effect of the message that really matters.

Maria Rumm, 24, PR Student

And Here’s The Point: PR Still Rules!

So it seems like classical PR theory ages with elegance. Instead of going out-of-date, communication theories seems to be amplified the more we communicate with each other as a society.

Because there are a wealth of PR theories that shouldn’t be forgotten. Are YOU familiar with the Bandwagon Effect (1848)? Noelle-Neumann’s Spiral Of Silence (1974)? Card-stacking (1939)? Festinger’s theory of Cognitive Dissonance (1957)?

I could go on and on about various PR theories and their origins, but the point is this; if you aren’t familiar with classic PR theory, then you should assign yourself some homework.

Because they’re all powerful PR tools. And even if you aren’t planning on putting these theories to work for you or your brand — at least, you’ll know when someone is trying to influence you.


  1. I think the world renown theory by Shannon & Weaver is one of the better models out there. Because A: It was published in the late 1940s and was back then revolutionizing. And B: It’s still up-to-date these days. The fact that the model addresses noise, is probably why it has survived decades of digital revolution. Society is overflowing with various of noises, it’s therefore of uttermost importance to have that in mind while communicating 2014.

    • Hey Erik. Yeah, that’s a real classic. With social media, I’m fascinated by how one person’s perceived noise can be valuable information to someone else. It would be interesting to investigate Shannon & Weaver from a Big Data perspective.

      And wasn’t there a music band called Shannon & Weaver? Are they still around and what happened to them, I wonder.

  2. One of my favourite theories are “Old truths which still are to go for”. Some things just always remains. For example, the formulation of goals should still be preferably measurable, like how many people who has observed a message in an article or if and how much a message in a blog post has changed people’s attitude and behavior. Eye to eye contact is also something that still remains as a strong way of communication. It’s much more likely that you listen and trust a person in front of you, than from someone in some social media who sends the message to everyone.

    • Thanks, Kristin. That was a new theory for me. Since I’m passionated by influencer marketing, I’ve always thought a lot about the concept of trust. We do seem to trust our friends and peers — especially if we can talk to them face-to-face. But we also seem to trust authority quite a lot. If a leading expert says one thing and a close friend says the opposite, who do we trust? Of course, context matters, but who do we really listen to? There’s a wonderful book with a title that’s something like “One American In Ten Tells The Other Nine How To Vote, Where To Eat And …” or something like that. I need to read that one again! :)

  3. My personal favourite is Grunig’s model of publicity.

    As a young adult in todays society, I’ve got some experiences in trying to pick up women. According to the model of publicity, the sender of the message is “allowed” to try to manipulate their target, in order to please the messenger. There are plenty of guys who are creating these “alter egos”, in order to seduce women. Because there is nothing interesting about what one ordinary man does in his everyday living, therefor the alter ego, who’s life is the most interesting life there is. Anything is possible, according to the model of publicity.

    • Picking up women, huh? That’s an essential communication skill, for sure. It makes me think about a couple of not-so-academic-but still interesting “theories” from that controversial and highly popular book The Game. I remember reading about the importance of “peacocking”. From Grunig’s perspective, that might not really count as symmetrical communication due to the somewhat inaccurate pretences.

      It also makes me think about a recent article stating that females tend to be attracted to beards, but now that beards been trendy for a while, many instead develop a preference for men without beards. (Maybe someone has a link to that article and can post here?)

      Maybe the advice is that you should be a rare bird, but good rare and not weird rare, peacock your finest feathers and if you’re in for the long-term, try to be the man you aspire to be.

      Thanks for an interesting take, Linus. It sounds like you have the situation under control. And I would love to get a female perspective on the pickup scene. Any takers?

  4. What’s my favourite advertising theory? It’s the Communication Planning. Does this theory still apply to this date? Yes, very much so.
    If there is something we’ve learned the last couple of years it’s that with a great slogan you can pretty much sell anything. Simplicity is the key to great advertisement. Don’t think too hard – Just Do It!

    • I like the idea of simplicity and clarity. But as far as advertising goes, how’s this for a slogan:

      Advertising is the tax you pay for not being awesome at PR.

  5. The bandwagon effect from 1848(!) is still an interesting theory. This theory based on analyzing the social context is still applied on today’s behaviors. Why do we buy the stuff we buy? Why is there successful fashion blogs? We need to stop for a second and reflect on our behavior.

    • Yeah, I see the Bandwagon Effect at work all the time. Especially online. I think Social Proof is a related theory that is used very much today to explain everything from conversion to momentum.

  6. Interesting post Jerry!
    I would say learning that advertising and PR is not the same thing. Advertising being paid presentation and with companies today paying huge sums to advertise thru for example TV-commercials to increase sales. PR is building relations with publics. It is not a coincidence that David Beckham played for PSG for only one season, donating every euro of his salary to children’s charity. At the same time as making him the saint of PSG, the club increased their shirt and ticket sales. Tremendously.

    • Oh, don’t get me started, Eric. One could think that the difference ought to be clear to everyone by now, but it sure isn’t. But as you say, people still have a hard time understanding the difference.

      Sure, the media landscape is very complex and in a philosophical perspective, everything is paid for, in some form or another. But the difference is still quite clear, even online. We’ll just have to keep educating people about the difference and the value of each.

  7. The Westley-MacLean Model (1976)
    Beacuse they realized that the communication process can be started by an event as well as by an individual and that we are influenced by our physical surroundings and not only the by the written and spoken word. It demonstrate the power of the traditional gate keeper when it comes to influencing news. This applies perfect to the succesful blogger in relation to PR-consultants and traditional news media. A new kind of gate keeper in some ways. And also someone who has the power to both influence in direct dialogue whith their followers/readers and as a modern gate keeper between the organisation and the traditional media.

    • Great input, Ann. I often need to remind myself that everything communicates. I think lots of brands are doing the mistake of communicating one thing deliberately, while communicating opposite messages in everything else they do.

      I thought a lot about gatekeepers the other day during a demo of the new version of the Traackr dashboard, in which you can see visually not only who the online influencers are in regards to a particular subject, but you can also see who influences them! Pretty cool.

      Often times, I noticed, these individuals-who-influence-influencers often don’t have big audiences and can therefore be difficult to detect from a Big Data approach. But as we get better at online influencer segmentation, I think PR as a whole will make great strides. The theories exist, we just need to figure out how to apply them.

  8. Great post Jerry!
    My favourite theory is a model describing strategic communication.
    Public relations, marketing and organisational communication all have a common ground and that is effective strategic communication. The collaboration between the three branches is more important than ever in todays service oriented society. Now days our lives are in full gear and we give and receive information constantly therefore the message must be effective, consistent and credible.

    • I agree, Caroline. Lots of practitioners are complaining and states that everything is “melting” together, making it difficult to distinguish what types of approaches to apply to specific challenges. But as you say, what we need is better collaborations and a common baseline. With a clear strategic direction, things get less complicated and much clearer, not the other way around.

  9. Thank you for a great blog post which is very inspiring and rewarding. I am happy to be a part of this. Keep up the good job, you´re a true model. /S

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