Martin Community College Fringe Public Relations Article Discussion

siminar in public relations

Martin Community College

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Public Relations Review 38 (2012) 880–887 Contents lists available at SciVerse ScienceDirect Public Relations Review Fringe public relations: How activism moves critical pr toward the mainstream W. Timothy Coombs ∗ , Sherry J. Holladay Nicholson School of Communication, P.O. Box 161344, University of Central Florida, Orlando, FL 32816-1344, USA a r t i c l e Keywords: Activist Persuasion Excellence Theory Critical i n f o a b s t r a c t The dominance of Excellence Theory in public relations theory and research may be eroding as contemporary issues in corporations, including the concern with activist challenges to reputation management and corporate social responsibility, increase in visibility and demand explanation. We argue that Excellence Theory‘s seemingly reluctant evolution has provided unsatisfactory treatments of concepts like power and activism, even though it has attempted to address some limitations of the symmetrical model’s efficacy in responding to activist challenges. Excellence Theory‘s acknowledgment of once-vilified concepts like persuasion and power sets the stage for critical public relations theory and research to emerge as significantly more capable of addressing activist advocacy and concomitant issues. The paper argues that critical theory, buoyed by acceptance of its key concepts, its increasing access to presentation venues and journals sympathetic to once-marginalized, alternative perspectives, is poised to infiltrate the public relations orthodoxy. This possibility offers hope that once marginalized pluralistic approaches, especially critical public relations, may disrupt the colonization of the orthodoxy and infiltrate mainstream public relations. © 2012 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. 1. Introduction Fringe science is “a phrase used to describe scientific inquiry in an established field that departs significantly from mainstream or orthodox theories” (Friedlander, 1995). Unlike pseudo-science, fringe science relies on traditional scientific methodologies and research conventions. Although fringe science research is viewed as highly speculative, it has, at times, moved to the mainstream. Examples of this mainstream transition include plate tectonics, chaos theory, and the science of black holes. Fringe scientists are regularly marginalized by scientists immersed in dominant paradigms and have difficulty finding funding for their research. Their research is not taken seriously by the mainstream orthodoxy, perhaps primarily because it frequently challenges accepted ideas. Critical public relations can be easily classified as “fringe public relations.” It deals in topics that are on the periphery of “orthodox public relations research” and departs significantly from the dominant paradigm of Excellence Theory. Critical public relations researchers have found themselves on the fringe when trying to find venues to present and to publish their research, especially in the US. Many mainstream public relations researchers regard the fringe public relations work as threat, nuisance, or both. But cracks are beginning to emerge in mainstream public relations theory as “fringe” concepts begin to play an increasingly important role in the field. Terms once ignored or shunned, such as activists, persuasion/advocacy, and power, are emerging as legitimate concerns for mainstream public relations research. ∗ Corresponding author. Fax: +1 407 823 6360. E-mail addresses: (W.T. Coombs), (S.J. Holladay). 0363-8111/$ – see front matter © 2012 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. doi:10.1016/j.pubrev.2012.02.008 W.T. Coombs, S.J. Holladay / Public Relations Review 38 (2012) 880–887 881 McKie (2005) notes that critical public relations draws upon broader critical theory as articulated typically by European philosophers concerned with issues like power and oppression in society, including, somewhat ironically, Habermas (1984), whose work on the ideal speech situation and democratic communication presaged Grunig’s two-way symmetrical communication model. McKie predicted that critical theory would infiltrate public relations theory and research as it did in organizational and management studies. McKie also attributed interest in critical theory to the internationalization of the field and the growing awareness of diverse philosophical traditions and social theories. In addition, we believe an increasing array of publication outlets, especially those outside the US that are less constrained by the orthodoxy and encompass broader views of public relations, offer the potential to erode the symbolic capital and dominance of the US-based Excellence Theory. One could argue the dominant paradigm is trying to co-opt terms like power, persuasion and advocacy, and activism. However, an alternative view is that once these fringe concepts establish roots within the mainstream of public relations, no one will be able to control how their influence might re-shape the field. Perhaps attempts to co-opt the terminology of the fringe will instead terra form orthodox public relations. Or the actual outcome may lie somewhere between these two extremes. What seems clear is that fringe public relations is having an effect upon orthodox public relations and is poised to challenge and alter the dominant paradigm. In this paper we posit that the burgeoning interest in activism is the key to fringe public relations’ growing influence on the existing public relations orthodoxy. The initial part of the article examines what constitutes critical public relations and how its use of the key terms “persuasion,” “power,” and “activism” have positioned it in relationship to the public relations orthodoxy. Initially, these key terms were reviled by public relations orthodoxy and embraced primarily by the critical theorists; however, they are now accepted. We argue that it is the growing power and presence of the idea of activism in public relations and escalating interest in critical public relations that has promoted this sea change. The latter part of the article justifies the role of activists and activism in awakening public relations orthodoxy to power and persuasion. The rapid development of reputation and corporate social responsibility as public relations concerns will help to illustrate the point. Finally, we consider how the spread of activism moves beyond co-optation efforts to a genuine opportunity for fringe (critical) public relations to establish itself firmly within the recognized theories of public relations. 2. Background: key elements of critical public relations A central point in this article is that critical public relations is currently on the fringe of the field but in a position to become more mainstream. To fully develop this point, we must begin by understanding what constitutes critical public relations before we examine its fringe relationship to the current orthodoxy of public relations research. The definition of critical public relations will introduce the key terms of power and persuasion. While critical public relations represents a diverse set of views rather than being monolithic, the perspective does coalesce around the idea of power. We can observe the centrality of power when we examine how critical scholars have conceptualized public relations. Motion and Weaver (2005), extending on their work from 1996, used a discourse perspective to argue that public relations is about “the struggle for and negotiation of power” (p. 50). Weaver (2001) noted that critical public relations is “defined by a central concern with theorizing issues of power” (p. 280). Similarly, Edwards (2012) recognized that public relations is value-driven and has the potential to “engender both power and resistance” (p. 19). Rakow (1989) posited that the unequal distribution of power for creating information kept publics in a passive position to organizations. This sampling of the critical public relations literature over a twenty year period illustrates the central role of power in this perspective. A foundational observation from critical public relations is that existing power relationships privilege organizational interests (Motion & Weaver, 2005; Roper, 2005). Power is frequently linked to Gramsci’s (1971) term hegemony or “domination without physical coercion through the widespread acceptance of particular ideologies and consent to the practices associated with those ideologies” (Roper, 2005, p.70). Public relations practitioners utilize communication to create power. Practitioners create discourses that present and justify their view of the world. When publics accept the practitioner’s view of the world, hegemony is created and publics cede power to the organizations. Organizations can use power to dominate publics and much of the critical public relations research seeks to illuminate this hegemonic domination. However, publics also can use power to transform their relationships with organizations. Drawing upon Foucault (1972), Roper (2012), Motion and Weaver (2005) refer to the ability to transform relationships as the “positive and productive” conceptualization of power. The ability of discourse to create domination connects power with persuasion. Persuasion is the ability to influence people’s attitudes and/or behaviors. The critical public relations writings are addressing persuasion when they discuss organizational efforts to influence perceptions such as the use discourse to shape public opinion (Motion & Weaver, 2005) or the promotion of the symbolic interests of an organization (Roper, 2012; Weaver, 2001). We are not equating persuasion with efforts to establish hegemonic control but persuasion plays an integral role in the process. Our point is that persuasion, like power, is closely associated with critical views of public relations. Moloney (2006) argues that persuasion is a defining element of public relations because public relations is motivated by the “self-presentation-for-attention-and-advantage” (p. 121). Morris and Goldsworthy (2008) stated “PR is about persuading people to act (or not act) in particular ways” (p. 100). Critical public relations scholars openly recognize that public relations is about persuasion rather using the veneer of public relations as information. 882 W.T. Coombs, S.J. Holladay / Public Relations Review 38 (2012) 880–887 Table 1 Central concepts in Excellence Theory. • Top management understands the value of public relations • Public relations contributes to strategic planning • Public relations enacts a managerial role • Public relations utilizes the two-way symmetrical model of public relations • Practitioners have skills and knowledge to enact the managerial role and two-way symmetrical model of public relations • Activist pressure can create the need for organizations to communicate • Organizations have a participative culture • Diversity in race and gender benefits public relations Activists are among those publics that engage organizations. Activists seek to change organizations in some fashion and that requires them to utilize power and persuasion. Typically activists are marginalized by and have much less power than organizations. Through public relations, activists can attempt to build power and to persuade organizations to alter their behaviors and policies (Coombs & Holladay, 2007). Critical public relations has been on the fringe of the field because it asks the tough questions about power, persuasion, and activism that the orthodoxy of public relations chooses to ignore. From Rakow (1989) to Pieczka (1996) to Motion and Weaver (2005) to Edwards (2012) we witness a steady stream of critical public relations work that challenges the orthodoxy to consider power and persuasion in a serious manner. Those challenges set the stage for the considering critical public relations’ relationship with the public relations orthodoxy. 3. The dominant paradigm/orthodoxy of public relations: Excellence Theory As Botan and Hazleton (2006) observed in Public Relations Theory II, Excellence Theory is the closest the field of public relations has to a dominant paradigm. The effects of Excellence Theory are easily visible in the published literature that comprises the corpus of public relations theory and research. Hence, Excellence Theory is the orthodoxy to critical public relations’ fringe position. Excellence Theory began life as the four public relations models (Grunig & Hunt, 1984) and was designed to explain the evolution and practice of public relations. The two-way symmetrical model of public relations evolved into the symmetrical “worldview” (Grunig & White, 1992) and eventually the Excellence Theory (Grunig, 1992a). Table 1 presents a summary of the central concepts that comprise Excellence Theory. As with any theory, Excellence Theory has evolved over the years. What is of interest to us is how Excellence Theory has changed in relationship to three concepts central to critical public relations: (1) persuasion, (2) power, and (3) activism. The changes related to these terms are what suggest an opportunity for critical public relations to gain greater prominence and acceptance in public relations. The term “activism” emerged early in discussions of two-way symmetrical communication (e.g., Grunig, 1992b). McKie and Munshi (2007) noted how activists were characterized as “obstacles” in the early discussions of two-way symmetrical public relations. Grunig (1989b) stated, “When members of active publics join activist groups, they contribute to the constraints on organizational autonomy that creates a public relations problem and bring about the need for a public relations program” (p. 3). Grunig (1992b) echoed this idea, “This chapter represents an attempt to help public relations practitioners deal in a more than an ad hoc way with the opposition their organizations often face from activist groups” (p. 513). In general, activists are treated as constraints or problems that public relations must address. As Holtzhausen (2007) observed, there was an ongoing hostility toward activists in public relations research. The incipient discussion of the four models of public relations recognized persuasion as a relevant concept. Scientific persuasion was the hallmark of two-way asymmetrical public relations and practitioners using this model relied upon theories of persuasion to guide their message construction. “They [practitioners] use what is known from social science theory and research about attitudes and behavior to persuade publics to accepts the organization’s point of view and to behave in a way that supports the organization” (Grunig & Hunt, 1984, p. 22). In contrast, two-way symmetrical was characterized by mutual understanding and guided by theories of communication. Two-way symmetrical communication reflected a balance in the relationship between the organization and publics in contrast to asymmetrical’s focus on changing public behaviors and attitudes. Although primarily descriptive, the early discussion of the four models still endorsed the two-way symmetrical model. Persuasion was to be avoided in public relations in favor of mutual understanding in part because persuasion was inexorably linked to an organization acting in its own self-interests (Grunig & Hunt, 1984). Over time, the criticisms of the two-way asymmetrical model and the persuasion function became more incisive. In 1989, persuasion became linked with manipulation. Here is a sample description: “two-way asymmetrical models intend to persuade or manipulate publics” (Grunig, 1989a, p. 30). On pages 29 and 30 in the 1989 Public Relations Theory chapter, persuasion and manipulation are paired together five times. This description maligns persuasion and positions it as a “devil term” in public relations. Persuasion, now demonized, was a practice to be avoided in public relations and a practice linked to unethical behavior. Additionally, in 1989 the presuppositions of symmetrical and asymmetrical models of public relations, the precursors of worldviews, were detailed. The asymmetrical presuppositions were largely negative while the symmetrical presuppositions were positive. Works by Gandy (1982) and Olasky (1987) were used to indict the two-way asymmetrical W.T. Coombs, S.J. Holladay / Public Relations Review 38 (2012) 880–887 883 Table 2 Two worldviews in Excellence Theory. Asymmetrical (persuasion) Internal orientation Closed system Efficiency Elitism Conservatism Traditional Central authority Symmetrical (mutual understanding) Equity Autonomy Innovation Decentralization of management Responsibility Conflict resolution Interest-group liberalism model of public relations. The solution was to use the innately ethical, two-way symmetrical model of public relations. The demonization of persuasion left only one legitimate alternative, the “inherently ethical,” two-way symmetrical model. In 1992, the publication of the Excellence in Public Relations and Communication Management articulated the case for the two-way symmetrical model (Grunig, 1992a). In chapter two of the book, the presuppositions were expanded and were labeled “worldviews.” Again, persuasion was equated with manipulation. The two-way asymmetrical model of public relations, synonymous with persuasion, was vilified. Here are examples of the blatant negativity associated with the two-way asymmetrical model: (1) “the asymmetrical worldview steers public relations practitioners toward actions that are unethical, socially irresponsible, and ineffective” (Grunig & White, 1992, p. 40). (2) “it is difficult, if not impossible, to practice public relations in a way that is ethical and socially responsible using an asymmetrical model” (Grunig & White, 1992, p. 40). In addition, the worldviews of asymmetry are clearly negative while those of symmetry are clearly positive. Table 2 provides a brief contrast of the two worldviews. Persuasion is negative as it is associated with unethical and socially irresponsible behavior. It is in this chapter of Excellence in Public Relations and Communication Management that power begins to enter the discussion as Rakow’s (1989) criticism of symmetry is refuted. Her criticism was premised on the unequal power between publics and organizations. Excellence Theory argues that the power issue has been resolved “because publics have gained power by organizing into activist groups” (Grunig & White, 1992, p. 47). In addition, Grunig and White (1992) turn to Alvin Gouldner and structural–functional sociology to support their contention that power is not an issue. They argue that the norm of reciprocity keeps the more powerful in check. In other words, people do not abuse their power because they know others may respond in kind. Those who abuse power are punished for those actions. The term power became reserved for whether or not the public relations department was part of the dominant coalition, those actors in the organization that make the decisions (Berger, 2007). The discussion of power centers on the public relations department and its connection to the C-suite, not the relationship between publics and the organization. In 2001, Dozier, Grunig, and Grunig (2001) perpetuated the view that asymmetrical public relations is about behavior and attitude change—persuasion—and that it poses ethical problems. Dozier et al. (2001) state, “public relations practitioners are not convincing when defending the ethics of many asymmetrical, commercial campaigns” (p. 235). Persuasive efforts designed to change the attitudes or behaviors of publics are positioned as unethical. They contend the more appropriate and ethical approach is to build mutual understanding through the two-way sym ...
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Note-Taking Template for Journal Articles
Title of Article: ________________________________________ Publication: _________________________
Author(s): ___________________________________________ Date: ______________________________
What was the context for this research?
What has been studied or determined already?

Methods & Nature of this Study
What was the objective?
How did the author(s) collect data?
When and where did the research take place?

What highlights emerged?
Were there any surprises?


The context of the research is on the role that activism
plays i...

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