Nordic Symmetry — Corporate Affairs in Rocky Times

Kresten Schultz Jorgensen
11 min readAug 19

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Thomas Peham: Getting lost on the Infinite Bridge in Aarhus, Denmark.

Think of a bridge with arches connecting symmetrical parts.

Think of a butterfly. The symmetrical wings of a butterfly mirroring each other, creating a sense of balance and harmony.

Or a relationship between friends. Again, symmetry. In healthy relationships, there’s often a balance of give and take, similar to how symmetrical patterns balance elements on both sides.

When I think of communication between both people and organizations, essentially all communication can be described by different forms of symmetry. Often symmetry works best. Once a while, a one-way signals is required.

In the field of communications, symmetry can refer to the balance and harmony of messages, meanings, and interactions between communicators. Symmetry can also refer to the degree of control, influence, or power that communicators have in a relationship. Symmetry can affect how communicators perceive, interpret, and respond to each other’s messages. Symmetry can also influence the outcomes and satisfaction of communication. For example, symmetrical communication can foster mutual understanding, respect, and cooperation, while asymmetrical communication can create conflict, domination, and resistance.

Now, one would assume that maximum symmetry is always a good thing. But that´s not the case. Symmetry and lack of symmetry can have both positive and negative effects on people and organizations.

Symmetry can create good results when there is mutual respect, understanding, and agreement between the communicators. In other situations, somebody has to lead the pack, take a decision. In short: An understanding of symmetry is vital; the degree of symmetry is context-driven.

The Theoretical Framework: Degrees of Symmetry

Now, there’s a model for symmetry in communications. James E. Grunig and Todd Hunt are distinguished scholars whose collaboration led to the development of the influential Four Models of Public Relations. Grunig is known for his emphasis on two-way communication and symmetrical relationships between organizations and stakeholders. Todd Hunt co-authored pivotal works with Grunig, including the models’ conceptualization. Their collaboration culminated in the articulation of the Four Models in the late 20th century.

The models, encompassing Press Agentry/Publicity, Public Information, Two-Way Asymmetric, and Two-Way Symmetric, have become foundational frameworks in the field of strategic communication, guiding professionals and researchers in understanding diverse communication approaches and their implications for organizational success.

Fundamentally, the models imply that strategic communication between people and organizations can be carried out in one of four distinct ways, each offering a unique perspective on how organizations engage with their stakeholders. These models serve as guiding frameworks, representing different philosophies that shape communication strategies, from building attention-grabbing campaigns to fostering open dialogues with stakeholders.

Now, let’s delve deeper into each of the four models along with examples, cases, and further insights.

1. Press Agentry/Publicity Model.

In this model, communication is largely one-way, and the goal is to create attention and generate media coverage, often through exaggeration and sensationalism. The aim is to capture the public’s attention without necessarily providing accurate or complete information. Examples of this model can be found in celebrity endorsements, product launches, and entertainment events where the focus is on generating hype and visibility. For instance, a movie studio might release teaser trailers and posters that exaggerate the excitement of an upcoming film to attract audiences.

Further Thoughts: This model has its roots in historical practices, but in today’s information-rich environment, it can lead to reputational risks if the exaggerations or manipulations are exposed. Consumers are becoming more discerning and can quickly spot inauthentic communication, potentially damaging an organization’s credibility.

2. Public Information Model.

The public information model also involves one-way communication, but with a focus on distributing accurate and informative content to the public. Organizations aim to provide relevant and useful information, often in a straightforward manner. A government agency releasing safety guidelines, a company sharing factual product information, or a nonprofit organization providing educational materials are examples of this model.

Further Thoughts: While this model is rooted in transparency and accuracy, it may not encourage active engagement or dialogue with the audience. In today’s interactive digital landscape, audiences expect more engagement and opportunities for feedback.

3. Two-Way Asymmetric Model.

This model introduces two-way communication, but it’s primarily used for persuasion and manipulation. Organizations seek feedback from the audience, not necessarily to understand their perspectives, but to refine persuasive techniques. Market research that focuses solely on crafting more convincing advertising campaigns is an example of this model.

Further Thoughts: While this model acknowledges the importance of feedback, it falls short of fostering genuine dialogue and mutual understanding. It can lead to short-term gains in persuasion but may not build lasting relationships with stakeholders.

4. Two-Way Symmetric Model.

The two-way symmetric model is characterized by balanced and open communication. Organizations aim to achieve mutual understanding and collaboration with their publics. Feedback is actively sought and used to adjust organizational practices. Examples include companies that involve customers in product development through surveys and focus groups or organizations that engage in dialogue with stakeholders to address concerns and improve practices.

Further Thoughts: This model aligns well with modern concepts of transparency, authenticity, and building strong relationships with stakeholders. It focuses on dialogue as a means to adapt and evolve, ensuring that communication efforts meet the needs of both the organization and its publics.

Current Changes: Rocky Times & New Stakeholder Expectations.

The Four Models of Public Relations developed by Grunig and Hunt are not strictly chronological in terms of their historical development. They are conceptual frameworks that represent different approaches to communication and public relations practice. While they are often discussed in historical context, it’s important to note that these models are not necessarily tied to specific time periods or linear progression. Instead, they represent different philosophies that have coexisted and evolved alongside one another in the field of communication.

However, the models are often situated in historical context. The Press Agentry/Publicity Model can be traced back to the early days of public relations and even earlier forms of promotional activities. It emphasizes generating attention and media coverage through tactics that may involve exaggeration, sensationalism, and one-way communication. This approach predates the development of more sophisticated communication strategies. Likewise, the Public Information Model: The Public Information Model emerged as a response to concerns about the ethical implications of exaggeration and manipulation in communication. It is rooted in the idea of providing accurate and informative communication to the public. This approach gained prominence as organizations recognized the need for more responsible and credible communication.

Now, in these years the two-way models are gaining importance representing more evolved and ethical approaches to corporate affairs. Particularly the symmetrical two-model emphasizes mutual understanding, collaboration, and open dialogue between organizations and their publics. This approach aims to achieve a balanced exchange of information, where both parties are willing to adapt and adjust their positions based on meaningful interaction.

While you can discuss how the evolution of communication practices and societal expectations influenced the development of these models, they are not necessarily confined to specific time periods. Rather, they serve as enduring frameworks that can help professionals understand different approaches to communication and how they align with ethical and strategic considerations.

The two-way symmetric model aligns well with current developments and trends in communication, especially in the context of rising stakeholder expectations, critical media, and the prevalence of the internet and social media. Here’s how the two-way symmetric model is particularly relevant in today’s communication landscape:

  1. Rising Stakeholder Expectations: Stakeholders, including customers, employees, investors, and the general public, now have higher expectations for transparency, authenticity, and meaningful engagement from organizations. The two-way symmetric model’s emphasis on mutual understanding and collaboration resonates with these expectations. Organizations that actively listen to their stakeholders and engage in open dialogue are better equipped to address concerns and build trust.
  2. Critical Media and Public Scrutiny: With the advent of digital media and social platforms, news and information spread quickly, and scrutiny of organizational practices is more intense than ever. The two-way symmetric model’s focus on balanced communication and mutual understanding can help organizations navigate critical media coverage by providing accurate information, addressing concerns, and actively participating in conversations.
  3. Social Media and Dialogue: Social media platforms offer opportunities for direct engagement and dialogue with stakeholders. Organizations that embrace the two-way symmetric approach can use social media as a tool for meaningful conversations, responding to feedback, and co-creating content with their audiences. This approach enables organizations to build stronger relationships and gather insights for improved decision-making.
  4. Crisis Communication and Reputation Management: During crises, organizations that adopt a two-way symmetric approach are more likely to maintain their reputation and credibility. By actively engaging with stakeholders, addressing concerns, and sharing timely and accurate information, organizations can demonstrate their commitment to transparency and accountability, which are crucial in managing crises effectively.
  5. Ethical and Sustainable Practices: As ethical and sustainable practices become central to organizational strategies, the two-way symmetric model supports organizations in engaging stakeholders to co-create and communicate their sustainability initiatives. This approach ensures that organizations align their actions with stakeholder values and involve them in decisions that impact the environment, society, and governance.

Overall, the two-way symmetric model reflects the shift from one-way communication strategies to interactive and participatory approaches that value stakeholder input and collaboration. As organizations strive to build lasting relationships, maintain trust, and navigate the complexities of the digital age, the principles of the two-way symmetric model remain highly relevant and effective in addressing the challenges and opportunities of contemporary communication.

The Nordic Symmetry.

In many ways the changes but Scandinavian organizations center stage. They are used to collaborative processes, integration between private and public sector and business models which require several bottomlines — profit, people, planet. In short, the Scandinavian companies are often seen as having organizational cultures that align well with the principles of the two-way symmetric model due to several factors associated with their societies and values.

Of course, it’s important to note that organizations within any region can vary in their practices and approaches. Additionally, the evolution of communication strategies is influenced by factors beyond culture, such as technological advancements and global trends. So, while it’s important to avoid overgeneralization, there are indeed aspects of Scandinavian culture and societal norms that can contribute to a more balanced and dialogue-oriented approach to communication. Some key characteristics:

  • Social Equality and Inclusivity: Scandinavian countries are known for their strong commitment to social equality and inclusivity. These values can translate into organizational cultures that emphasize open communication and collaboration among all stakeholders, regardless of their roles or positions.
  • Transparency and Trust: Scandinavian societies tend to value transparency and trust in both social and business interactions. This cultural emphasis on trust can lead to organizations adopting communication strategies that prioritize honest and open dialogue to maintain credibility and relationships.
  • Consensus Building: Scandinavian cultures often value consensus building and decision-making through dialogue. This approach can be reflected in organizational practices, where companies seek input from various stakeholders to make informed decisions that reflect a broader consensus.
  • Work-Life Balance: Scandinavian countries are known for their strong focus on work-life balance and employee well-being. Organizations that prioritize employee well-being are more likely to engage in meaningful dialogue with their employees to address their needs and concerns.
  • Collaborative Societies: Scandinavian societies tend to have a strong tradition of collaboration and community involvement. This collaborative mindset can extend to business practices, where organizations engage with various stakeholders to achieve shared goals and create positive societal impact.
  • Civic Participation: Scandinavian countries often have high levels of civic participation and active engagement in social and political issues. This engagement-oriented culture can influence how organizations approach communication by seeking input from their stakeholders and addressing their concerns.

Cases.

There are several companies and organizations that are known for their effective application of the principles outlined in the two-way symmetric model of communication. While no organization is perfect, these examples demonstrate efforts to engage in meaningful dialogue, transparency, and collaboration with stakeholders:

  1. Patagonia: Patagonia, a well-known outdoor clothing and gear company, is widely recognized for its commitment to environmental sustainability and ethical practices. The company engages in two-way communication by openly sharing information about its supply chain, environmental initiatives, and social impact. Patagonia involves customers in its campaigns and initiatives, encouraging them to take action and provide feedback on sustainability efforts.
  2. LEGO (Denmark: LEGO actively engages with its customer community to co-create products and experiences. The company encourages customers to submit their own design ideas, and it involves them in the decision-making process. LEGO’s online platform, LEGO Ideas, allows fans to propose new sets, and if a proposal gains enough support, it has the chance to become an official LEGO product.
  3. Starbucks: Starbucks has utilized social media as a platform for engagement and dialogue with its customers. The company encourages customers to share their ideas and feedback through its online channels. Starbucks has even implemented customer-suggested changes, such as modifying its reward program based on feedback received.
  4. IKEA (Sweden): IKEA’s “Democratic Design” philosophy emphasizes affordability, quality, and sustainability. The company’s transparent approach to showcasing product sourcing and environmental efforts aligns with the principles of the two-way symmetric model, fostering trust and open dialogue with customers.
  5. Nokia (Finland): Nokia’s strategic communication during its transformation from a mobile phone manufacturer to a technology company is a compelling case. The company engaged in transparent communication with stakeholders about its shift in focus, showing adaptability and responsiveness.
  6. Novo Nordisk (Denmark): Novo Nordisk’s commitment to corporate social responsibility and sustainability exemplifies engagement with stakeholders. The company’s triple bottom line approach (social, environmental, and economic impact) aligns with the principles of ethical communication and the two-way symmetric model.
  7. KONE (Finland): KONE’s innovative “People Flow” approach to elevators and escalators is communicated as a solution for urbanization challenges. The company’s communication strategy focuses on addressing urbanization-related concerns and building relationships with stakeholders.

These cases showcase how Nordic companies prioritize open dialogue, stakeholder engagement, transparency, and ethical communication in their strategies. Their approaches resonate with the principles of the two-way symmetric model and reflect the cultural values of collaboration and sustainability often associated with Nordic countries.

These examples demonstrate how organizations can leverage technology, social media, and genuine interactions to engage stakeholders, address concerns, and involve their audiences in decision-making processes. While each organization may have its unique approach, the underlying principle of open, honest, and collaborative communication aligns with the tenets of the two-way symmetric model.

Takeaways.

  • Transparency and symmetry are important concepts that relate to the balance and harmony of information, participation, and accountability between an organization and its stakeholders.
  • One would assume that maximum symmetry is always a good thing. But that´s not the case. Symmetry and lack of symmetry can have both positive and negative effects on people and organizations.
  • Stakeholders these days expect more transparency and symmetry from corporations, especially in the field of corporate affairs and strategic communication. Transparency and symmetry can help build trust, credibility, and reputation for an organization, as well as foster positive relationships, engagement, and collaboration with its stakeholders.
  • Scandinavian societies are known for their progressive and democratic traditions, as well as their high levels of social equality, welfare, and human development.
  • Transparency and symmetry are not always easy to achieve or maintain in practice. There are many challenges and barriers that can hinder or prevent an organization from being transparent and symmetrical in its communication. Some of these challenges include: legal and ethical issues, organizational culture and structure, stakeholder diversity and expectations, communication channels and technologies, crisis situations and risks, and competitive pressures and market dynamics.
  • An organization needs to carefully assess its situation and context, and adopt appropriate strategies and tactics to communicate transparently and symmetrically with its stakeholders.

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