CAP_320_specialpublicsarticle

CAP_320_specialpublicsarticle - I'uhlie Relatinns Review 2m...

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Unformatted text preview: I'uhlie Relatinns Review. 2m 4 I 4')“ FIE l'upx‘rtghl It.) Jiltlll In.- [Ham-m .‘ineuee II1L' 15551: [IS-M. S L l l r‘tli iightt. u't teprtntnewm in amt- t'mtn temrtcd. Inactive Publics: The Forgotten Publics in Kirk Hallnbmt Public Relations* ABSTRACT: B}: Iiieusing nn aetivisni and its consequences. recent public relitriuns theory has larger ignored irinrrfi't*‘riit!i!t't:t, that is‘ stakeholder groups Ill-.1: tiernnnsmne lmr levels nt'knuwl- edge and involvement in the organization or in. prtiduets, ser- viees. candidates. or causes, but are impul‘t ant to an urgani'mtiem. This .lr‘EiCiC examines the nature m‘inaerive publies and PI’UPI'JSL‘S .1 model that iUL'JICS inactive pilhlics .in‘iung five categtn'ics {1i- publies along the dimensions of knmvledge and invuivement The mutiel prm'idrs i1 Lhenretiealii.‘ rich ttitemtnit'e for how public relatinns practitinnen might eutteeptuctiize ptit‘rfiet, .1 central etm- eeln in public relatinns theury and practice. Kirk i-Iallahun is an .mistam prutbmur in the Department [if ltntrtuiism and 'l'eehnieai (Iuntmltnieatinn at Colorado State University. In recent years, public relations theter has focused mnstly nun ptihlies that are interested in and concerned about the activities of" organiza- tions. Larger m'erlt'inked is the intpurmnce nf grt'iups that have tinly minimal nintivatitnt, :l'l'iilirj." ur uppurttlniry [0 know about. tzi'lk ahntn, nr parrieipate in efiiirts to influence the policies nr practices. 0|“ nrganizatiuns. These thrgtnten eunatitueneies can he referred tu as t'rmctt've panties. The field‘s preneeuparinn with activism i5 well—grounded theoretically and well-founded because uf'the putenu'ai eunseqnenees tifaetix-‘ist grnups, which can ' This artie'le is based on ti Top Faculty Paper presented at the FILE-K Educators Academy lntcmntiuml Interdisciplinary Research (Conference in lune [999 at ('Iullege Park. MA. Winter 3mm 499 f’ftbiir Rn’ill‘inm Kri'tfip directly and immediately threaten the organization‘s goals or help to attain them. However, the assumption underlying contemporary theory fircused around activ— ists is that the interests oforganizations and publics are necessarily at odds with one another. The focus on activism, as manifesth in issues management, for example, implies that individuals who constitute a public are sufficiently interested and equipped to think about problems, to engage in meaningful conversation with others, and to organize to take action. For example, normative models that suggest public relations is practiced ideally as two—way, symmetric communication pre- sume that publics are active participants anti are both motivated and able to voice concerns through activities such as collaboration.' Similarly, situational theory is intended to serve as a predictor of activism, as measured in active information seeking and passive information processing.2 Recent articles that draw on inter- personal communication, psychotherapy, and interorganizational communication similarly assume that organizations and publics must interacr to form relation- ships); This article begins with a quite different set of'assumptions from those that underlie much contemporary public relations theory. First, it assumes that not all public relations activities necessarily revolve around issues, disputes, or conflicts. Indeed, many public relations pmgrams today merely involve building positive relationships. In such cases, difl'erences between organizational interests and pub- lic needs might not exist or might be minimal at best. Second, many organizational—public relationships can operate at an ex- tremely low leVel, that is, rank-in-file members of'a public have only minimal knowledge and invnlvement in the policies and practices ot'an organization. More important, this minimum-level relationship mflim' both parties. A richer, more intensive, more "meaningful" relationship might not be necessary. Indeed, orga- nizations might not have the financial, temporal, or human resources to establish close relationships with everyone; meanwhile, members ol’inactive publics simply have other concerns. Third, the proSpect of establishing and maintaining minimal relationships with inactive publics pose a set ot‘communieation challenges that are quite dit‘r'cr- ent from interactions with highly active pubiics, where communications are often highly reactive, interactive, and sometimes confrontational. Such communications efforts require different strategies that public relations theorists must begin to address in a more coherent manner." DEFINING INACTIVE PUBLICS One ofthc most conceptually troublesome notions in con- temporary public relations is the idea ofa anir. In its classical definition, public is reserved to describe groups that are actively involved in the discussion ofa public issue. Publics, thus, are organized around issues. Dewey defined a public as a group ot'people who { 1) Face a similar problem, {2) recognize the problem exists, and (3) organize to do something about the problem. Blumer later offered a similar defi- 500 Vol. 2(1, NU. ‘I‘ .lflnrfl'ltr Public; nition of“ public as a group of people who are (l) confronted by an issue, [2) divided in their ideas about how to meet the issue. and {3'} engaged in discussion about the issue.5 In contemporary public relations practice, this narrow definition o’fa public is largely igntgired. Researchers and practitioners often use the term public when referring to a variety of other. closely related concepts. Public is used to refer to potential or actual audiences, that is. receivers of messages. Public also is used to describe segments. such as a market segments that is. a group ofpeopic who share particular demographic, psychographie or geoc‘lcnmgraphic characteristics and thus are likely to behave or respond to organizational actions or messages in a similar way. With increased ti-equency. public is used to who to ranmoms'rt'ers, that is. groups drawn together by shared experiences. values. or symbols. Public also can he used synonymously with constituents, that is. groups [such as voters) that an organization serves and to whom the organization is ethically or legally responsi- ble. The term is also used to denote std keimiders. that is, people who are impacted by the actions ot'an organization. In their threevstage model oFissue development. Grunigand Reppet i 1992 i illustrated the difficulty oFttornenclatu.te. In describing the first stage. the stake-harder smgr, they wrote: An organization has a relationship with stakeholders when the behavior ol'thc organization or of the stakeholder has consequences on the other. Public relations should do hematite towards to scan the environment and the behav- ior ol'thc organization to identify their consequences. Ongoing communica- tion with these stakeholders helps to build a stable. long-term relationship that manages conflict that may occur in the relationship." The authors explained that the second stage. the public some. occurs when "stakeholders recognize one or tour * consequences ol-a problem and organize to do something about it or them.“ Finally1 they identified the Esme stage, which is “not reached until publics organize and create issues out of the problems they perceive.“ Grunig and Repper admitted only subtle ditlercnees between a srake- holder group and a public. In particular. stakeholders are passive: “Stakeholders who are or become more aware and active can be described as missiles”? This inconsistency is troublesome beca use Grunig and Repper Freely acknowledged that public relations initiatives are not limited to publics alone. that is, active groups. but can land should) be directed to passive stakeholder groups as well. One way to reconcile this problem is to define all groups to which public relations cl’r'orts are directed as publics, but to recognize that they differ in their levels titanium-passivity. inactiye publics largely meet the definition ofstaltehold- era,"I but no assumption is necessarily made that they recognize their stakeholder role. This approach is considerably more straightfimyard and subtly extracts the definition of public from a discursive framework. that is, a requirement that a concerted interaction among, individuals is necessary for a public to exist.” Thus a public might be defined simply as a group with. which an organization wishes to Winter 2000 501 I’uih'ir Relations Rrpirw establish and maintain a relationship. Alternatively, a public can be defined as a group ofpeoplc who relate to an organization, who demonstrate varying degrees inactivity—passivity, and who might. [or might not] interact with others co accruing. their relationship with the organization. Inactive public, as defined here, is strikingly akin to the notion ofa mass, which along uith crowd and prelim constitute the three principal categories of social groups identified by Blumer. The noted sociologist distinguished a mass from a public by observing that a mass “merely consists ofan aggregation ot’people who are separate, detached, anonymous“ and who act in response to their own needs'“ A mass is characterized by very little interaction or communication, considerable homogeneity, and wide geographic dispersion. However. members ol'a mass are brought together by some common source of interest or attention. This might include, for example, the identity people share as citizens ol'a nation or the common stake they have in an organization. In this sense, a mass or an inactive public might be considered a minim“: temrmtnitjr. a group ol’people who share a common set of symbols and experiences. ” A SOCIETY OF LOW-LEVEL RELATIONSHIPS T he inactive nature ot'the population in modern society has been recognized by sociologists, political theorists, and iournalists. Theories of mass society, as first proposed by classical sociologists, suggest that individuals have become atomized members ot'societv through the division ol'labor and estrange- ment Jfrom others. In mass society, people are thrust into a social system dramat- ically dilTerent From the communal structure that characterized life before the rise of urbanization and ind ustrializatitm. I 3 Lippmann was one of the firsr observers ofthe implications ol‘these changes for communications and the political process. He observed that, by the 192%, people no longer acted based on direct experience, but were dependent on sec- ondary information sources such as the mass media. Lippmann argued that people act based on the resulting “pictures inside our heads.“ ' 3 Later, he suggested that the population in modern society had beetmte a phantom paid—it that was mostly disinteresth in public atihirs and quite content to delegate decision making about issues to experts. H Subsequent writers have lamented the decline in the robustness ot'public discussion and debate. '5 Significantly, inactivity should not be confused with deliberate manipulation or control by powcrfitl forces within society, as critical theorists suggest. 1“ indeed, inactivity is not equivalent to a lack or capability or coticern for others by people in society. Research in the past three decades suggests that audiences are not passive, but are active processors ol‘ini'tirmation. People construct their own meaning from mediated messages and other Forms ot'communication and put information in the contest of their own lives.” In large measure, the inactivityr characteristic of mass pubiics today can be 502 Vol. 2!}. No. 4 hmrmrr Ptrlu't'rt explained as a function of' the large, complex, interdependent nature of modern society. Today, people iuggle a varieti,r ofdillh‘ent activities and concerns in their daily lives, Cognitive psychologists have characterized humans as “cognitive mi- sers," [8 who process information only as required to cope with intiirmation over- loael."Jr People can cope with only a limited number oi'ptohlems or situations in their lives at one time. In the same way, the carrying. capacity of public arenas to address social problems or issues is limited?" As a result. people are srlerti'i-r about the issues in which they become involved or consider important. Individuals enter into deep relationships with only a handful of other individuals lspouses, significant others, friends) and onlj.t a few organizations or institutions (most notably, schools and employers}. Yet as a matter of survival, they also enter into a wide range of secondar}r or tertiary relat'it'n‘iships that are much more superficial and purposely limited in scope. Not all relationships are equally important; thus assumptions that public relations should treat everv IJrgilliiififlllfll‘ltllrpllhllC relationship in the same way requires caretiil scrutiny? Resource dependency theory, For example, suggests that people enter into relationships in response to the need for resourcesfl [n toda_t"s industrial society, publies contract with large, complex organizations that provide services ranging, from groceries to Utilities. As long as those services are provided reliably and satisiitctotilv, and within a range oi'ethical expectations, there is no reason for many people to pay much attention to these organizations or desire a more in-depth relationship with the organization that provides them. The closing, of gaps in expectations is one basis For dealing with issues, whereas the elimination ofgaps in relial‘xilit‘ir and satisfaction is behind the recent total quality management move- ment in organirations.“ Social exchange theory suggests that people enter into relationships by analyzing costs versus benefits. People expect benefits to exceed eosts, and people will Withdraw From a relationship whenever perceived costs esceed benefits, hast on their analysis of comparison levels.“ Under this socioeconomic approach to relationships, people have little incentive to change for incur “so-itching costs“) unless the perceived costs significantly exceed the perceived henelits. Unless the problem is particularly important, or people are prompted to act by external actors, inertia can lead to indifference and inactivity or what miqu be termed rat—trim lefth Pia H. 2 5 A TYPOLOGY 0F PUBLICS What defines inactive publics? An inactive public is theo- retically the opposite ot'an active public. An analysis oi'the behavioral literature suggests that two criteria are paramount in understanding the behaviors ofindi~ viduals and the groups they comprise: the knowledge that individuals and groups hold about a particular topic and their involvement in the topic. The logical extension of' this approach is to suggest a live-cell model that dilierentiates groups Winter ZlHlll 50.3 l’uixl'ir: Relation: Reariru' Low High in voivemen t in voivemen t High K no wiedge Low inactive ' Knowledge Publios No Knowledge/ No in verve-men? Fixture 1. Fire Puhlics Model Based ()1: Knowledge And involvement exhibiting different combinations of high and low inwih'ement and high and low knowledge. plus a provision for groups that exhibit virtually no knowledge not involvement (Fig. l ). Significantly, this model builds up previous theorizing about publics in political Science and extends and refines I. Grnnig‘s classification scheme For publics.“ Inactive Publjcs Inactive publics are. conceptualized here as groups com.- posed of' individuals who, as a whole, posse.“ comparatively low levels ot‘knowl- edge about an organization and low leVels ofinvoivement in its operations. Knowl— edge and involvement similarly can he operationalizeti in terms ofthe products, Services, candidates‘ or causes provided or represented by an organization. Inactive publics generally are organization stakeholders who might or might not recognize the consequences for them of an organization’s aetions. As a whole. members 01" inactive publics might be satisfied with the relationship that exists between them and an organization because the relationship meets their needs. Alternatively. members oi'inactive publies might believe it is not worthwhiie to challenge the relationship or might take the. relationship for granted without much consider- ation. Yer others might take a iataiistie position that nothing can he done to alter the situation. 50-!- Vol. 26. No. 4 Inner: t'r l'trln't'rr Are-used Publies Aroused publics share comparatively low levels of knowl- edge about an organization and its operations with inactive publics, but include people who have recognized a potential problem or issue. Their level ofinvolvc- rnent is heightened. Their arousal can be prompted hv several dil’r'ercnt factors: personal experience; media reports or ach'ertising, about a situation involving oth~ ers with whom they identify; discussions with friends; or esposure to issue creation efforts by organizers for social It'lovementsq special interest groups, or political parties. The transformation oliindividuals from an inactive to an aroused state and. eventually. to an active state constitutes the limited Focus ot‘situational theory. Amused Publies Aware publies include groups that might he knowledgeable generally about an organization or situation1 even though its members miqu not be allotted by it directly. Aware publics often include groups labeled hv political scientists as attentive publ't'rr. that is, the stratum ol'societv that is generally knowl- edgeable ahout the world (including. public ailititsl and serve as opinion leaders through their positions in society. education. or backgrounds.” These groups can include all-isms publics. Aware puhlics. in contrast to merch- aroused publics. can be knowledgeable shoot an organization and or its activities and might be able to articulate the origins, processes and consequences of potential issues. Howeven merer aware puhlics do not have a personal stake. Active Publics Active publics are composed oi’individnals who share both hi gh involvement and high knowledge of'an organization (or an issue) and thus are predisposed to monitor situations and to organise, if required. Theft clearly meet the traditional definition ot‘a public set forth by Dewey and Blumer. Examples include the leaders of social movements and special interest groups as well as close followers who are willing to exert personal time and eliiort to effect change. Active publics often are directly involved in issue advocacy; might serve as missionaries For the cause; and might serve as representatives for a social movement, special interest groups or political pamy in interactions with an organization. Nonpublics Nonpublics, the default component in the model, are corn— posed of individuals with no knowledge and no involvement whatsoever with an organization. l-ltnvever. once individuals attain any level ol'knowledge or involve- ment, they properlv should he accorded inactive public status. An Alternative Perspective on Publics Others have suggested the potential value ot'rcassessing the classification ot'publics used in the field. For example. Goldman and Theus sug- Winter lelln 505 Faith's llclntt'mir RrI-irnr gested, based on their study ol'two healthcare organizations, the need for L‘at'mther look at the accepted definitions of aware and active publics“ and Called for a redefinition of the terms as used in Grunig’s model.Ill This model of publics departs from Grunig‘s typology of active, aware, latent, and nonpublics in several ways, First, its purpose is to identify the different states in which groups and individuals might be found for purposes of an organi— zation initiators cantortirrirnrin-nswith them, rather than predicting the probability of an individual becoming aroused about or active on an issue. i. Gru11ig"s model in situational theory makes the presumption that activism is the ultimate result. Second, the model presented here incorporates, as antecedents. the general con— cepts oi'ltnowlcdgc and involvement, rather than problem recognition, constraint recognition and involvement. In particular, the emphas...
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