Communicating with publics, Public Economics

When Neff says that "the very essence of public relations is grounded in communication" (2010 p.373) she goes on to point to two features of communication that should aid us in analysing theories about public relations:  interactivity, and the process of communication. How (and whether) these features are discussed or addressed differs markedly across the literature on public relations. Many would claim that for public relations the notion of dialogue encapsulates an interactive process of communication.

Grunig says that symmetrical communication is dialogic communication and best creates "excellent" and ethical practice (1992, 1996, 2001, 2006): it is proposed as a normative model for practice.  However, critics say that it does not adequately address differences in culture, power and resources, and disparate goals of the partners in the communication process.

Discuss this debate in light of Neff's points above, and in relation to alternatives to Grunig's symmetrical communication model. In this discussion, include consideration of the place of persuasion in dialogue.

Culture, power, resources, goals and values of groups fundamentally affect the communication processes undertaken by organisations in public relations. Grunig and Neff identify open dialogue and interactivity as essential to excellence and ethical practice. However both theorists do not consider the aforementioned concepts of culture, power, resources and goals in the communication process. Literature suggests that the communication process is dependent on the environment in which the organisation operates. While open dialogue may appear to facilitate the exchange of ideas between the organisation and publics (L'etang 2008), it also has the potential to disguise and conceal agendas (Heath, Pearce, Shotter, Kersten, Zorn, Roper, Motion 2006).

Organisations who use a symmetrical model of communication aim to create a shared understanding as a primary goal (Deatherage and Hazelton 1998). Organisations may find it difficult to engage in dialogue in the symmetrical model as they often want a favourable outcome for themselves. This results in persuasion taking the place of mutual understanding (Heath et al 2006).

Persuasion is also found in literature in relation to the use of rhetoric in public communication. Markova (2008) indicates that rhetoric and persuasion are form of communication that aim to influence the public to gain favourable outcomes for the organisation in question. This is often achieved through symbolism in language (Browning and Hartelius 2008).

The effectiveness of the use of rhetoric can be observed in the Earth Hour Golden Target Award for 2007, where symbolic and strategic language was used in dialogue. Rhetoric is the process of adjusting ideas to people and likewise and this campaign is representative of this concept. The key message communicated centred around why lights were being left on when a dwelling was unoccupied. The entire act of Earth Hour was symbolic of the then current energy consumption of Sydney and the difference that could be made through switching off lights for an hour. Communicators encouraged the involvement of government and business in an attempt to reach the wider community. Success was measured through the energy savings which for this campaign was a 10.2 percent drop, double what was expected. The success of this campaign is a result of the symbolic nature of the message and act and that individuals were openly willing to participate in this dialogue (Heath et al 2006). Symbols have the ability to capture and communicate an idea or culture to an audience with few words that can have significant impact (Browning et al 2008).

 While dialogue in symmetrical communication can manage mutual needs and interests to a shared advantage (Heath 2007), it does not consider the environment, in relation to culture, power, resources and goals. Dialogue and the idea of mutual benefits and understanding may be desirable it is often difficult to achieve with organisations often turning to other theories and methods of public communication such as rhetoric (Heath 2007). Rhetoric takes a different standpoint where organisations act as advocates for the public to attempt to solve a problem and in turn standout (Heath 2007). An organisation needs to strive for excellence in communication, this needs to be achieved through the best fit in model with considerations of the environment and other organisational factors.


Considering that public relations is about influence and understandings, Neff's statement emphasizes communication as the central basis.

The issue of interactivity suggests to identify the different interested parties involved in the communication process. Whereas the audience implies a connotation of passivity, which can outline a one-way communication, publics refer in many cases of the literature to a potential interaction with the organization since they are active. In that sense, the publics-organization interactivity relies on a complex relationship likely to lead to the emergence of a richer communication process in terms dialogic information: multiple partners take advantage of others' arguments and feedbacks to make adjustments. This is brought out by Gruning (2006) when he recommends to use communication as a means to adjust behaviour instead of influencing and controlling others.

Then, if Gruning's symmetrical model has been criticized and considered too idealistic, it is worth pointing out that theories can be viewed as lens putting forward aspects of public relations functions in organizations at the expense of others. In that sense, Toth (2009) argues that theory provide in-depth understandings and can be considered as a 'guide' (p. 49) to convey keys of interpretations. Therefore, building on Bo's argument (first post), when Gruning proposes symmetrical communication as a normative model for practive, it closes a fortiori, as an intrinsic and expected consequence, some doors of interpretations.

The rhetorical perspective developed by Toth (2009) allows to explore the dialogic nature of public relations concerns and underlines the situational features of the practice. The decision-making process which emerges from the rhetorical perspective is empowered by communication and the role of publics is responsible for generating and shaping issues. In that sense, the 'Building Community Trust on Mitchell Freeway Joondalup' entry in the Golden Target Awards (GTA) database illustrates the faculty of dialogue to catalyse the communication process in challenging opportunities and resolving issues.

In a relatively hostile context of the extension of the Mitchell Freeway Joondalup, the campaign aimed at managing the impact of the project as well as building trust and conveying information to the community. As a large-scale works, commitment of the entire target was required, and it was necessary to deal with various profiles, from stakeholders to community and potential final users. Beyond sharing information, main concerns were identified notably though a formal dialogue between the project and community, which has been a key factor of success. The use of dialogue, managed by an intermediary (Construction Reference Group) favoured involvement and participation from community as well as public. As a result, shared understandings led to the success of the decision-making via the community participation and mutual adjustments, since objectives were reached: 99 per cent of a sample of 300 random residents were aware of the project, half of the residents could not mention any disadvantages and most of troubles experienced by residents fell dramatically. Evidence that the public was very active, highly decisive in the dialogue and impacting in the way to build the meaning of the community-organization relationship (Toth, 2009).

Besides, while tackling the issue of persuasion, Susan (first post) evoked symbolism in language (Browing, Hartelius, 2008), which Toth (2009) reinforces in mentioning a 'symbolic behaviour' (p. 50) through notably the example of words to leverage the communication process between the partners.

Messina (2007) attempts to go a step further and aims at defining a framework for ethical persuasion, which goes along with various values ('truthfulness, authenticity, respect and equity', p. 42) as he refers to the literature. If agreement seems to be the expected end of a dialogue, he argues that respect needs to be reached to achieve an ethical persuation. While inducing beliefs or action, which defines persuasion, it is necessary to maintain a focus on human people: in other words, thinking human interests as an entity rather on one's own objectives. Consequently, it appears that the place of persuasion is fundamental in dialogue since it can determinate the ethical practice, even if the boudaries of ethics are (partly) made by worldviews and moral judgements about what is right and what is not (L'Etang, 2006).

Posted Date: 2/27/2013 6:27:30 AM | Location : United States

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