Monday, June 25, 2012

Research Paper on Public Relations

Research Paper on Public Relations

Whether public relations is a force for good or evil is a subject of heated debates in most Western societies these days. PR practitioners claim that their profession serves the cause of strengthening understanding among different groups in society and reconciliation of conflicting interest.

Cutlip, Center and Broom (1985) believe that “[p]ublic relations helps our complex, pluralistic society to reach decisions and function more effectively by contributing to mutual understanding among groups and institutions. It serves to bring private and public policies into harmony” (p. 5).

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Detractors of PR argue that its techniques are in most cases employed to conceal truth from the general public. As Doorley and Garcia (2007) note, “[s]ome critics of professional communications assert that the very idea of public relations is itself unethical, and use words such as ‘propaganda’ and ‘spin’ to suggest that such activities are inherently misleading” (pp. 38-39). This essay will carefully examine the arguments of both sides in order to reach a conclusion whether PR improves the democratic process or, on the contrary, harms it.

First of all, it is necessary to provide a definition of PR, since there is little consensus about what PR actually entails and what its purpose and scope is (Leeper & Leeper 2001). As Freitag and Stokes (2009) inform, “[p]ublic relations scholar Rex Harlow once attempted to collect all published definitions of the term and found more than 500” (p. 4). Many definitions of PR are emotionally loaded and suggestive of a particular point of view on the discipline. For example, defining PR as “the manipulation of public behavior for the benefit of the manipulated publics as well as the sponsoring organizations” (Grunig 1989, p. 18-19) has negative connotations due to its emphasis on manipulation. Therefore, for the purposes of this paper, a more neutral definition shall be adopted. Public relations will be viewed as an attempt to engineer public support for an activity, cause, movement or institution by means of information, persuasion and adjustment (Bernays 1955).

As the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) (2007) informs, PR can be used by a variety of institutions, such as businesses, trade unions, government agencies, voluntary associations, foundations, hospitals, schools, colleges and religious institutions. It is important to note that some researchers believe that corporate public relations and government’s attempts to communicate with the public (sometimes referred to as public affairs) are two distinct fields. As Grunig and Jaatinen (1999) observe, “[p]ublic relations professionals frequently maintain that public relations is different in governmental organizations than in corporations, associations and not-for-profit organizations” (p. 218). While there are indeed significant differences in the ways private companies, government agencies, and not-for-profit organizations communicate with their audiences, PR techniques are used by all of them in a variety of contexts. At the same time, the field of political communications (such as campaign communications or election ads) should be seen as separate from public relations.

There is also a debate whether public relations should be construed narrowly as communication with general pubic or more broadly as communication with key audiences. PRSA (2007) states that PR implies developing relations with employees, customers, local community, shareholders, relevant institutions, and society at large. This essay will adopt this broad view of public relations.

Models of Public Relations
There is little doubt that PR occupies a prominent place in public communication and influences the formation of public opinion. Whether this influence helps or hinders the democratic process depends a lot on how organizations choose to use PR techniques. There is nothing inherent in the discipline that precludes it from being used for promoting worthy or unworthy causes. Yet the belief that each new technology is value free is inaccurate; each emerging discipline or technique is driven by certain needs and aims to achieve certain goals. Therefore, whether PR streamlines or obstructs the democratic process is a legitimate question to ask.

There are several models of PR proposed by Grunig (1989), and each of them suggests a particular evaluation of the usefulness of the discipline. Under the press agentry/publicity model, PR practitioners are viewed as propagandists aiming at maximizing media attention to their organization or cause in every way possible. This model implies one-way communication: an organization sends a message to select audiences though available channels and does not seek information in return through research or other means. For all these reasons, the press agentry/publicity model effectively equates PR with manipulation.

Another model of one-way communication is the public information model. As Sriramesh, Kim and Takasaki (1999) observe, this model implies “using persuasive one-way communication of truthful messages with altruistic motives (unlike the self-serving press agentry model)” (p. 277). They bring the example of public information campaigns building on factual information which is disseminated to change risky behaviors. However, while organizations usually provide accurate information under this model, they often prefer not to disclose negative information (Grunig 1989).

The two-way asymmetrical model relies on feedback from target audiences to design persuasive messages with a view to manipulating the behavior of message recipients. The model is called asymmetrical because information exchange is skewed in favor of the organization. Under this model, the organization does not have to change its behavior in response to public concerns but only to fine-tune the way in which it communicates with its audiences (Grunig 1989).

Finally, the two-way symmetrical model is when PR practitioners work towards a mutually acceptable resolution of problems or misunderstandings using two-way communication. In such a way, interests of both the organization and the public are advanced (Grunig 1989). Therefore, it is possible to conclude that if all organizations practiced the two-way symmetrical model of PR, the image of the discipline would have been much more favorable.

Within the aforementioned broad framework, the role of PR practitioner is conceptualized by Cutlip, Center and Broom (1985). A PR practitioner can be an expert-prescriber, someone who defines a problem and finds a solution to it. He or she can be a communications technician, a person in a non-managerial position whose job is to prepare communications. Also, such a practitioner can be a communications facilitator, a mediator responsible for smooth two-way communication. Finally, a PR person can be a problem-solving process facilitator, in case he or she collaborates with other managers in defining and solving problems.

A fact that is often overlooked is the extent to which the role of a PR person in an organization or even his or her personality influences approaches and techniques that are used. Ryan and Martinson (1984) have discovered that PR practitioners responded differently to same ethical situations, which means that subjectivism is the prevailing moral-ethical theory in public relations. Given the absence of specific guidelines about acceptable or unacceptable behaviors, it is of paramount importance for PR professionals to maintain a high level of personal integrity and exercise discretion.

Stakeholder Analysis
A technique that might be the most appropriate for determining whether PR is a force for good or evil is stakeholder analysis. If PR serves the interests of all parties concerned in a reasonable way, then it should be considered a positive and useful phenomenon.

Business Context
Since PR is most frequently mentioned in the corporate context, the analysis will start with looking at whether PR serves the interests of businesses. As PRSA (2007) observes in its official statement on public relations, one of the functions of PR lies in “[a]nticipating, analyzing and interpreting public opinion, attitudes, and issues that might impact, for good or ill, the operations and plans of the organization” (p. 1). There were many cases when public indignation has brought operation of a company to a complete halt. In most cases, there have been legitimate reasons for such indignation, yet some situations have been the result of a mere lack of communication. PR allows business owners and managers to conduct analysis of possible reactions a new policy or development might cause in their community. On the basis of such knowledge, they can alter or even cancel policies which could have had unfavorable consequences for their company.

Another aspect of corporate PR is the relations between businesses and government. Detractors of PR equate it with lobbying and decry the amount of power industries have over decision-making processes. It is true that organizations exert efforts to influence or change public policy (PRSA 2007). However, it is not necessarily a negative phenomenon. Public policy should be propitious to economic growth, and if a government fails to take into account interests and needs of businesses, economic development is hindered, government’s legitimacy is undermined, and businesses have to look for other, more clandestine, ways of influencing government, such as through personal connections. Thus, open and honest communication between businesses and government is a pre-requisite to economic growth and corruption-free society.

Thus, there are many ways in which PR protects business interests and enables companies to function more efficiently, with the support of general public and in favorable legislative environment. Since the development of private enterprise contributes to the general wellbeing of a society, PR should be seen as a positive phenomenon from this perspective.

Moreover, PR enables companies to publicize their social responsibility initiatives. It is perhaps true that the rationale behind corporate social responsibility is, in most cases, profit maximization through enhanced reputation. Yet if companies opt in favor of “doing well by doing good”, it should only be applauded; in the absence of PR, enterprises would have had much weaker incentives to engage in corporate social responsibility.

Yet another aspect of corporate PR is internal branding. It refers to the steps companies take to communicate effectively with their workforces and market the company’s brand to their employees. As Aurand, Gorchels and Bishop (2005) observe, “[e]mployees who are in consensus with an organization's brand are more likely to act consistently in ways supporting how the organization hopes that external constituencies perceive it and its products/services” (p. 163). Effective internal branding contributes to higher employee morale and job satisfaction, since they believe they are part of a worthy and deserving organization producing quality products or delivering good services.

On the other hand, some commentators lament that PR does not serve the aim of reconciling private and public interests anymore. Increased competition among businesses has led to a situation when PR practitioners form a “part of a company’s sales arm and their job is to get impressions and awareness in traditional and online media. There is utility in this role of PR, but it hardly contributes to mutual understanding among groups and institutions” (Horton 2007, p. 3).

Government Context
Another concerned stakeholder in the discussion of the merits of PR is government. While there has always been an understanding that political parties and leaders should be visible in the media, trying to influence public opinion, the idea that all government agencies, big or small, have to communicate with citizens is relatively new. However, for the past two decades, many e-government initiatives have proven to be an overwhelming success, contributing to greater responsiveness and transparency of governmental agencies. Another interesting aspect that is often overlooked is the use of PR methods in public diplomacy: as the Corporate Watch UK (2003) informs, “hiring of PR agencies to promote a country's image abroad is becoming an indispensable part of modern diplomacy” (“International Public Affairs”, para. 1). Public diplomacy efforts contribute to betterment of relations among peoples of the world and lead to enhanced awareness of different cultures.

Yet as Horton (2007) notes, “with transparency comes criticism that [government] agencies are not moving fast enough, are not equitable in how they operate, are not focused on the problems of constituencies” (p. 3). This might have a bearing on the effectiveness of public institutions that suddenly have to care more about their image than the job they are supposed to be doing. As for its international dimension, public diplomacy, there are worries that flooding markets of developing countries with foreign cultural products might be detrimental to local cultures or that cultural imperialism can disguise itself as public diplomacy.

Thirdly, not-for-profit organizations have to be considered in this context. In order to get their message across and recruit supporters for their cause, they need to communicate with a variety of audiences and institutions. On the other hand, NGOs are “are fighting to be heard against millions of other web sites and causes” (Horton 2007, p. 3). If the media landscape is full of messages from various not-for-profits organizations, each promoting their cause, a phenomenon called “compassion fatigue” (Moeller 1999) can develop. The term has been first applied to the viewership of news reports and media images of disasters, wars and hunger in distant lands. However, it can be expanded to include possible audiences’ reaction to a landscape that is too saturated with competing PR messages from NGOs. The reaction might be total indifference.

General Public Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the question whether PR serves the needs and interests of the general public has to be looked into. On the one hand, PR informs the public about what is going on in the government, enterprises and NGOs. Yet there are commentators who are rather concerned that PR diverts attention of media consumers from issues of public importance to causes corporations or other institutions are trying to promote. These concerns are in line with the agenda-setting theory that holds that media “may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about” (Cohen 1963, p. 13).

Overall, it is possible to conclude that there are good reasons to believe that PR a practice that advances societal interests, regardless of whether it is used by private enterprises, governments, or not-for-profit organizations. However, there are legitimate concerns, too. Most of these concerns are associated with instances when PR is misused to mislead public opinion or when increased transparency puts excessive pressure on stakeholders (e.g. cognitive pressure in the context of media consumers or pressure on public organizations diverting their effort from other important tasks).
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