Strategic communication is an emerging term often applied to planned communication campaigns. Although models vary, strategic communication for both business and nonbusiness purposes almost invariably uses research to identify a problem or issue, relevant publics, and measurable goals and objectives. Research can contribute to goal identification, for example, by finding out what subjects want, establishing a baseline with which to contrast outcomes, or by illuminating trends, past performance patterns, cycles, and the like. A strategic communication plan then adopts steps, or strategies, for addressing that problem with target publics and employs a series of measurable tactics through which to implement those strategies. Strategic communication campaigns are conducted under many labels including public relations, community relations, constituent relations, crisis management, health promotion, issues management, investor relations, membership relations, outreach, public affairs, public health, public information, risk communication, strategic advertising, strategic marketing, and the like. These campaigns typically use the set of skills and approaches developed over three-quarters of a century by the field of public relations but often, especially in marketing, advertising, and health promotion, they are not called "public relations" by their sponsors.
Modern public relations campaigns are strategic in nature and most public relations practitioners and scholars see public relations as strategic communication and themselves as strategic communicators. But there are other strategic communicators who do not see themselves as practicing public relations (interpersonal, group, and organizational communicators are often considered strategic). As a result, the term strategic communication, which is not objectionable to public relations people, is the broader and more inclusive of the two and is an appropriate term for referring to planned, research-based persuasive and informational campaigns including those conducted as public relations campaigns. Public relations is a paradigmatic example of strategic communication and will be used that way in this article, the conclusions of which, it is hoped, may be applied broadly to strategic communication.
Public relations and other strategic communication campaigns can be conducted for many purposes including (a) public diplomacy, used to persuade the people of another nation to influence their government's policies toward the sponsoring nation (Kunczik, 1990; Signitzer & Coombs, 1992); (b) litigation public relations, used to influence the outcomes of jury trials (Gorney, 1995); (c) public health promotions (Anderson, 1989; Flora, Maccoby, & Farquhar, 1989; Reardon, 1989); (d) development public relations, used to build support for national development programs (Karim, 1989; Pratt, 1985); (e) the support of social causes such as charities, religions, the environment, or activist organizations (Grunig, 1989); and (f) the support of particular candidates or political policies (Manheim, 1994). Such campaigns can also be used to gain acceptance for a corporation's or industry's apologies (Hoover & Garmon, 1990), public policy views (Crable & Vibbert, 1985; Jones & Chase, 1979), or products. Along with employee directed campaigns (Kreps, 1989) these last three examples of public relations campaigns may constitute public relations' primary contribution to business communication and are among the most common kinds of campaigns.
As divergent as the names and purposes of such campaigns are, they have as a common purpose the influencing of individuals, groups, organizations, even whole societies. A campaign intended to influence suggests a relationship, or a desired relationship, between the parties, and the ethicality of such campaigns is determined primarily by the values and relationships expressed in them, including how the target publics are treated. Indeed, the social relationships that campaigns seek to create, maintain, or change produce the core ethical issues of public relations, in particular, and strategic communication, in general.
Influence attempts of the campaign raise serious ethical questions. The more successful the campaign is at influencing others, and hence the greater its reach or impact, the more significant the ethical questions become. So, if we are moving into an era in which campaigns can reach increasingly larger audiences, or be more persuasive by reason of the media channels or strategies they employ, the ethical questions raised can be expected to become broader and more urgent.
This essay examines ethical implications of the typical approach to public relations campaigns, and proposes a less ethically troubling alternative. First, the two basic models used to conduct campaigns are presented: monologic and dialogic. The second section of this article argues that in the new information age, the reach and impact of public relations campaigns can be expected to grow. But it also notes that new information technology can present increased opportunities to choose between the monologic and dialogic approaches. The third section identifies the monologic approach as the dominant model behind current public relations campaigns, and argues that the dialogic model is a more ethically sound alternative. In the final section, some of the practical objections to the dialogic model are discussed. This article concludes by indicating that objections to the dialogic approach are not convincing.
Ethics of Monological and Dialogical Campaigns
Public relations is often used for strategic business communication, and the ethicality of strategic communication can be analyzed not so much in terms of its content as its process - the relationship it assumes or enforces between the involved parties - and the attitudes and values this reflects. It is the question of process, then, where an assessment of any communication campaigns should start. In view of Habermas's (1984) equation of ethical communication with dialogic process and the support other scholars (Johannesen, 1996; Pearson, 1989c) lend to this analysis, this section identifies first monologic and then dialogic communication. These are the foundational concepts employed in this article.
According to Johannesen (1996), monological communication is:
Characterized by writers such as Matson and Montagu, Howe, Gusdorf, Gibb, Shostrom, Jaspers, Meerloo, Geenagle, and Rudinow [using] much the same vocabulary as Buber to explain the nature of monologue. A person employing monologue seeks to command, coerce, manipulate, conquer, dazzle, deceive, or exploit. Other persons are viewed as "things" to be exploited solely for the communicator's self-serving purpose: they are not taken seriously as persons. Choices are narrowed and consequences are obscured. Focus is on the communicator's message, not on the audience's real needs. The core values, goals, and policies espoused by the communicator are impervious to influence exerted by receivers. Audience feedback is used only to further the communicator's purpose. An honest response from a receiver is not wanted or is precluded. Monological communicators persistently strive to impose their truth or program on others; they have the superior attitude that they must coerce people to yield to what they believe others ought to know. Monologue lacks a spirit of mutual trust, and it displays a defensive attitude of self-justification. (p. 69)
As Habermas (1984) suggested, the key is process and relationships. In the case of monologic communication the process is one of seeking to instrumentalize receivers by engaging in "goal directed, feedback-oriented interventions in the world of existing states of affairs" (pp. 1142) for the purpose of achieving a relationship characterized by "power over people and view[ing] them as objects for enjoyment or as things through which to profit" (Johannesen, 1996, p. 68). As I will seek to establish later, the predominant model of public relations in use today is monological. A dialogical model may be preferable; however, and dialogic communication has several characteristics that set it apart from monologic.
In terms of process and attitude, dialogic communication is the polar opposite of monologic communication and may well be the foundation of higher standards for ethical business communication. For example, Pearson (1989c) believed that "establishing and maintaining dialogical communication between a business organization and its publics is a precondition for ethical business practices" (p. 125). Dialogue is characterized by the relationships and attitudes the participants have toward each other in that:
Participant attitudes are viewed as an index of the ethical level of that communication. The assumption is that some attitudes (characteristic of dialogue) are more fully human, humane, and facilitative of self-fulfillment than are other attitudes (characteristic of monologue). Dialogic attitudes are held to best nurture and actualize each individual's capacities and potentials. (Johannesen, 1996, p. 64)
Pearson (1989c), for example, said that "Weaver's interpretation of Plato's Phaedrus suggests successful dialogue takes place only when speakers treat each other as ends rather than means" (pp. 123-124). Indeed, "dialogue manifests itself more as a stance, orientation, or bearing in communication rather than as a specific method, technique, or format" and those using this approach attempt to generate an atmosphere characterized by authenticity, inclusion, confirmation, presentness, a spirit of mutual equality, and a supportive climate (Johannesen, 1996, p. 66). Pearson (1989c) concluded by suggesting that "ethical business practices can be analyzed in terms of speech acts where ethical communication is operationalized as the opportunity among communicators [for example, practitioner or client and publics] both to engage in all types of speech acts and to move the discussion toward levels of increasing abstraction (or concreteness)" (p. 126). Habermas (1984) also discussed freedom to move a discussion up or down between levels of abstraction. Examples of this would be the freedom to move to a higher level of abstraction by questioning the assumptions behind an utterance or to a more concrete level by addressing the utility of a policy or the effects on the listener of acquiescing to a request. Habermas called this kind of communication dialogue, which for him was synonymous with ethical communication.
Dialogic communication, then, would be characterized by a relationship in which both parties have genuine concern for each other, rather than merely seeking to fulfill their own needs. Many, probably most, strategic communication campaigns today define their goals only from the perspective of the sponsor so they typically seek to reduce the receivers to a vehicle for achieving those needs. Recent advances in communication technology make such campaigns able to reach - and therefore to attempt to instrumentalize - broader audiences more efficiently than ever before. However, these same advances can facilitate dialogic relationships in many situations that have been largely monologic in the past. Therefore, before turning to a fuller analysis of the monologic nature of contemporary campaigns, some effects of the expansion of the information society need to be considered.
Increasing Importance in an Information Society
As the information age unfolds, and we become more of an information society, public relations and other strategic communication campaigns will play an ever larger role in the lives of organizations. The information society has been discussed by Beninger (1986), Dordick (1987, 1989), Machlup (1962), and Machlup and Mansfield (1983). It is characterized by a preponderance of the labor force being engaged in information work (Schement, 1989), as opposed to a minority being so engaged, which has been true since Aristotle. Paisley (1980) defined information work as "the production, distribution, transformation, storage, retrieval, or use of information" (p. 118). Public relations and other strategic communication campaigns are instances of such information work and are, therefore, part of the emerging information society, both intuitively and functionally. The former because information is the primary tool of strategic communication campaigns, including public relations. The latter because this work is composed primarily of the production, distribution, transformation, storage, retrieval, and use of information. Indeed, it is hard to conceive of any endeavor that is more quintessentially information work than is strategic communication.
As we move more deeply into the information age through the Internet, cyberspace, satellites, and the like, we descend into the kind of information-centered economy and work experience that are natural for public relations and strategic communication practitioners. In fact, Bovet (1995) has suggested that:
Perhaps no field of endeavor is better suited to the new millennium than public relations. There's a 'third wave' revolution occurring in the civilized world, according to Alvin and Heidi Toffler . . . power and productivity in the new order are based on developing and distributing information - two of the primary activities of public relations practitioners. (p. 1)
The development of an information society, and a concomitant information economy, brings with it a certain raising of the stakes in the communicative relationships between organizations and their publics. Reasons for this are (a) organizational actions can be communicated, or exposed, to audiences worldwide in a matter of hours or minutes; (b) publics come to expect large amounts of information; (c) better educated publics process information more thoroughly, or at least in greater quantities than in past eras; and (d) an increase in activist and consumer groups has decreased the probability that a problematic organizational action will go unnoticed.
Although assertions of a causal relationship are beyond the scope of this article, a significant drop in confidence in major social institutions has occurred coincidentally with the emergence of an information society. For example, in the slightly more than a quarter century between 1966 and 1994, those expressing a great deal of confidence in major companies fell from 55% to 19% (Samuelson, 1996). These and other factors suggest that the need for strategic business communication will increase and that it will play an increasingly important role in establishing the ethical reputation of organizations in the next decade. Leading business executives seem to agree that public relations, at least, will be important in determining how ethical businesses and business communication will be perceived to be in the next decade. In a 1995 study, for example, a retired Johnson & Johnson Products Vice-President for Public Relations surveyed the CEO's of ten of the largest and most influential corporations including Exxon, Ford, General Motors, Johnson & Johnson, Merrill Lynch, PepsiCo, Phillips Petroleum, Pacific Gas and Electric, Prudential, and Rockwell International. Among the findings were that "more than ever before, CEO's expect their senior management people to specifically deal with the public relations ramifications of their decisions so that potential problems are not allowed to escalate into major issues" (Foster, 1995). A perceived lack of ethics is, in the final analysis, the surest way to leap from a potential problem to an actual one and this is why public relations scholars have dedicated increasing attention to ethics.
Indeed, perceived ethics may be part of the reason Edward Bernays, commonly known as the "father" of public relations, turned down many notable clients including Hitler, Franco, and Somoza (Wilcox, Ault, & Agee, 1995). With this as a precedent, the modern generation of public relations scholars and practitioners has moved toward developing a stronger ethical foundation. This may be partially in response to the belief that perceptions of a business' ethics are largely dependent on how strategic communicators are perceived and partially in response to the realization that new information technology is assuring that increasing numbers of people will share in those perceptions more quickly than ever before.
The result is that new and greater ethical challenges, not all of which are related to technology, will confront practitioners and those who hire them. For example, a recent issue of Strategist (Public Relations Society of America, 1995a), an official publication of the Public Relations Society of America, featured a point-counterpoint article about whether a practitioner should represent the Bosnian Serbs. At about the same time, an issue of Public Relations Tactics (Public Relations Society of America, 1995b) reported that today only 34% of public relations firms would accept tobacco companies as clients. In another example, I was the last of three public relations scholars to speak to a group of colleagues a few years ago, with no idea as to what the other two had said. During the question and answer period the first question was, "Are all you PR people preoccupied with ethics?" The answer, increasingly, is yes, and this seems to be the case in much of strategic communication as well (Gandy, 1992; Rakow, 1989).
There is another dimension to the information society that is particularly relevant to a discussion of monologic and dialogic communication. This is the effect of demassification of messages (Williams, Rice, & Rogers, 1988). Demassification essentially involves the customization or tailoring of messages for increasingly smaller audiences and is facilitated by several new information technologies such as computer-driven on-line information systems. These allow people to select the precise information, or mix of information, they want and avoid the cost and inefficiency of waste coverage. One popular instance of demassification occurs when a phone user works through an automated menu of alternatives to get specialized information on topics like how to treat a sunburn or order a tax form, rather than having to watch a television program or buy a whole book in hopes of finding a little relevant information. Because of their interactive attributes and ability to attend to small groups or individuals, demassification technologies have the potential to facilitate dialogue, but the presence of a monologic or dialogic attitude remains the primary determinant.
The emergence of an information society, and its attendant information technology, makes resolving the question of monological or dialogical communication in public relations even more urgent than in the past. The next section explains the approach to public relations most commonly used in business, the significant ethical questions associated with it, a more dialogical and negotiation-centered approach, and the ethical benefits it carries. Finally, some of the reasons why this model has not gained popularity in the business community are examined, and counter-arguments or comments are offered to strengthen the case for adopting the new model for public relations and strategic communication.
Approaches to Public Relations
Academics have discussed competing approaches to public relations including paradigms (Botan, 1993a) and four specific models (Grunig & Hunt, 1984). In actuality, however, practitioners tend to fall into one of two roles: technicians or managers (Broom & Smith, 1979). A technician perspective on public relations (otherwise known as a "hired gun" perspective) is by far the dominant model of public relations practice and teaching today (Botan, 1994b).
Technician or Monologic Approach
This view sees public relations not from an ethical perspective but as a set of technical journalism-based skills to be hired out. Most important among these is the ability to write press releases well, but organizing and hosting press conferences, laying out or editing publications, taking pictures, and handling media relations are also important skills (Botan, 1994b). In effect, the practitioner becomes the client's hired journalist-in-residence, or a mechanic for media relations. The most important attribute of this approach is that practitioners and their employers assume that the practitioner should be primarily a conduit for strategies, and sometimes even tactics, that have been decided elsewhere in the organization. In doing so this approach instrumentalizes publics, and to a lesser extent practitioners, and negates both the ethical role of the practitioner and the dialogic perspective discussed below.
In a technician approach, the practitioner cedes unquestioned authority to decide major ethical issues such as message purpose, content, and targeting to someone outside themselves, in this case to corporate leaders (Botan, 1994a). In doing so the public relations department usually accepts what is essentially a one-way communication role and assures that it will have little voice in deciding what is ethical for the organization to do with respect to its publics or in deciding exactly how public relations itself will be practiced. In fact, those making the calls under this model are often organizational leaders with little or no training in communication, in communication campaigns, in persuasion, or in the media and its role in society. They often do not even have basic training in the legal or ethical aspects of public communication campaigns.
As will be seen shortly, the technician approach uses nondialogic communication. Recall that such communication frequently has the effect of instrumentalizing people (Habermas, 1984), by reducing them to a site where the speaker seeks to meet his or her needs. A technician approach to public relations lends itself quite readily to such an instrumentalizing process because it focuses only on getting what the client wants. Implicit in this approach is the idea that practitioners should view publics as either a source of trouble for the client or as the possessor of something the client would like to acquire, such as money or votes. Ethics in the technicians view is based on what Sullivan (1965) and Pearson (1989a) called craft and partisan values. In this view what is labelled good public relations is a technically good product, and a good motive is loyalty to the employer. Ethical public relations, then, is simply being loyal to the client or employer's strategic interests or being good at the craft. As previously discussed, such a monologic approach to any communication, including strategic campaigns like public relations, is problematic. Thus, an alternative model is needed. One alternative approach would be dialogic in nature, featuring the practitioner's ability to facilitate a give-and-take relationship between clients and publics. This can also be called the negotiation or adaptation model of public relations (Botan, 1993b).
Alternative Dialogic Approach
In the view of Dervin (1989), "communication cannot be conceptualized as transmission. Rather, it must be conceptualized in terms of both parties involved in creating meanings, by means of dialogue" (p. 72). What is called for in public relations, then, is not the primarily transmission-oriented and monologic technician model but an alternative model that features an exchange between groups and organizations. Pearson (1989a; 1989b) and Botan (1993a; 1993b) have argued that a dialogic view of public relations differs from a technician approach by being more humanistic, communication-centered, relationship-focused, and ethical. This perspective focuses on communicative relationships rather than on technical skills (see Johannesen, 1996 for a summary of dialogic approaches to communication). Traditional approaches to public relations relegate publics to a secondary role, making them an instrument for meeting organizational policy or marketing needs; whereas, dialogue elevates publics to the status of communication equal with the organization. This is because a negotiating relationship means that either party can take the initiative in seeking to establish a new relationship or to renegotiate an existing one, hence, public relations is equally the province of corporations, activist groups, government bodies, and employee organizations. This model is, therefore, more ethical than a monologic approach because it goes much further toward "treating each other as an ends rather than a means" (Pearson, 1989c, p. 124).
A dialogic view assumes that the ability to construct what Boulding (1973) has called mental images is a fundamental part of the human experience and that public relations practices that facilitate this process inside publics are more ethical than those that inhibit it (Botan, 1993b). Consistent with the human nature and dialogic views of ethics (discussed more fully by Johannesen, 1996), the dialogic approach to communication shares with the rhetorical approach the view that humans are uniquely equipped to use symbols and that it is this ability which sets humans apart from other creatures (Burke, 1966; Langer, 1948; Richards, 1965; Wieman & Walters, 1957). These writers contend that the human use of symbols to interpret our social and physical environment is a process that contributes to our humanity; therefore, communication practices that contribute to the rational use of symbols also contribute to our humanity. This view of ethics focuses on the right to free choice based on the connection between symbol use and a rational mental life which Langer (1948) described as "characteristically human and above the level of sheer animality" (pp. 34-35).
A technician perspective focuses on the capacity of a message to elicit desired behavior from publics. Although not seeking to be deceitful, to short circuit rational decision making, or to manipulate publics; the technician model has no specific interest in avoiding these behaviors. As monological communicators, they see communication partners as the means to an end. A dialogical view, on the other hand, sees communicative partners as ends in themselves. From the dialogical perspective practitioners would begin from the assumption that target publics have interpretations of the world that are as varied and valid as the client's interpretations. They would assume that the real goal is not reducing publics to the service of the client through instrumental mastery but joining with the publics in the process of negotiating new mutual understanding.
Objections to the Dialogic Model
The answer seems simple. Public relations, like other communication, should be dialogic, respecting and facilitating the rights of publics to engage in informed and free decision making by exchanging persuasive and informative messages. Public relations should simply make available the information publics need, along with a forthright and honest advocacy of what the client wants. What could be simpler?
Although conceptually simple, a dialogic approach to public relations is very difficult to operationalize in the world of business, and consequently, it is rarely used (Gaudino, Fritch, & Haynes, 1989). This appears to be the case for several reasons, including short-term goals, costs, and the wishes and rights of publics and mass audiences. But these impediments to dialogic public relations may not be as significant as they seem at first glance.
First, a focus on short-term goals, such as sales or product promotion, can make clients unwilling to provide information that can be used to make decisions contrary to their short term goals or to provide information that does not directly address those short term goals. If clients are convinced their interests are best served by short-term (that is, tactical) public relations it can be quite difficult for a practitioner to disagree successfully. The fact that a long-term relationship can be much more important to the organizations future, and that building these requires a consistent practice over an extended period of time, may be overlooked when responding to the exigencies of a competitive marketplace or a crisis. Johnson & Johnson Products' classic handling of the Tylenol poisonings, however, is just one of many examples of successful and ethical public relations practices built on the clear understanding that public relations is a long term (that is, strategic) endeavor and that it is possible to build long term relationships, even in the throes of a crisis. Finally, in an information environment characterized by near instantaneous exposure of organizational errors, the whole idea of what constitutes short-term changes. Ninety days can be an eternity during a public relations crisis, so even ninety-day goals can be rendered almost meaningless if, for example, a ships captain gets drunk and spills a few million barrels of oil in a wildlife wilderness.
Second, the cost of establishing and maintaining ongoing dialogic communication with publics, in terms of both time and money, may appear to be prohibitive. This is particularly so in light of the fact that public relations is almost invariably treated in corporations as a staff, as opposed to line, function. It may be very difficult to argue for investing scarce organizational resources into what is conceived of as a support function. One source of this difficulty is perceiving public relations as merely a staff function, on a par with accounting or janitorial services. In point of fact, public relations differs substantially from such functions. Competitive organizations exist through their relationships with the various elements of their environments, that is why the CEO's cited in the first section of this article expect senior executives to deal with the public relations ramifications of each of their decisions. Marketing, purchasing, and sales are three other examples of departments that are concerned primarily with external communication but that differ from public relations in that they focus on fewer and more specific publics. Although public relations plays a support role for each of these departments in dealing with their target publics, it also targets publics that marketing, purchasing, and sales typically do not. These include investors or stockholders, government bodies, news media, activist groups, employees, and the like. Relegating public relations to a staff or support function also relegates all these crucial publics to a secondary status. If these publics are of major importance to the organization's future, public relations might best be thought of as something more than just a support function. Not quite a full line function but more than just a support function. Furthermore, in an information environment characterized in part by the demassification of messages, the opportunity to establish more cost-effective and dialogic relationships with bigger audiences is likely to present itself with more frequency.
Third, publics may not always want dialogic communication. Witness, for example, the popularity of television and other relatively nondialogic media. The assumption that dialogic communication is always "better" or more ethical than nondialogic communication (Pearson, 1989b) comes, ultimately, out of our models and perceptions of interpersonal communication. In that context it may be reasonable to assume that people often want more dialogic communication. These same people, however, do buy a newspaper or turn on a television to find dialogue. Indeed, it is questionable whether it is ethical for practitioners to try to make publics expend the time and effort necessary to engage in dialogic communication if they do not want to do so. No one of us could possibly engage in meaningful dialogues about all the subjects that organizations in our environment may wish us to - and we have a right not to. Too much dialogue can, under certain circumstances, be as oppressive as a complete lack of it would be. Again, the demassification aspect of much new information technology also provides increased options. With messages more specifically tailored for target publics - and those publics who are interested being free to engage in interactive communication, whereas those not interested pass it by - it may be possible to enhance dialogic opportunities while at the same time avoiding imposing on those who do not want such relationships.
Finally, public relations typically entails efforts to communicate with large and diffuse mass audiences; therefore, actually practicing dialogic communication may be very difficult, even impractical. A dialogic give-and-take is most easily achieved in a face-to-face context, although it is possible in even mass-mediated contexts (Johannesen, 1996). Although business communicators are not obligated to attain some ideal level of dialogue, the constraints imposed by the communication situation and the ability to demassify some messages in an information society may make it economically feasible to exercise the dialogic option.
This article has argued that public relations is a significant aspect of business communication. Specifically, public relations was described as planned, research-based communication campaigns covered by the umbrella term "strategic communication." It has also argued that public relations, like most strategic communication, will likely grow in importance as the information society develops. This development suggests that strategic campaigns will play an increasingly important role in how publics perceive organizations and particularly in the attributions they make about the ethics of organizations. In this article, I have suggested that the monologic model currently used for most public relations campaigns is ethically problematic, and that an alternative model is necessary. I argued that a more ethically sound model for conducting public relations campaigns is one based on dialogue. Such a model has inherent ethical advantages over the monologic model, but it also has several possible business-related drawbacks. These drawbacks, however, are not significant enough to justify the continued use of a monologic model.
Carl Botan is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN 47907. He may be reached for questions and comments at the above address or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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