What the Public Thinks about Public Relations: An Impression Management Experiment

Article excerpt

Impression management theories suggest that perceived motives of selfinterest may explain the poor reputation sometimes attributed to public relations. A 4x2x2 factorial design experiment with 585 nonstudent adults and undergraduate students tested effects of motives, communication style, and licensing on the reputation of public relations. Perceived motives to impression manage in public relations, seen as advocacy behavior, had a main effect. Public relations was found to be less wellregarded when its practitioners were seen as acting with overt, intentional behaviors for self-gain compared with practitioners not appearing to be intentionally managing impressions. Mixed support was found for licensing as a means of enhancing reputation. Results of experimental tests suggest licensing may create a halo effect around selfishly motivated practitioners. The effect of one-way or two-way communication was in combination with the other factorial variables.

Introduction

What does the public think about public relations? Anecdotal narratives would have us believe the public thinks poorly of the profession. Although public relations widely pervades most Western cultures, its practitioners are often likened to flacks, shysters, and worse.1 Yet there has been comparatively little formal research conducted about the public's view of public relations. Public opinion polls measuring prestige of various occupational groups, however, include public relations. One such analysis of prestige ratings of 740 occupational titles, with the low score for dishwashers and the high score for physicians, had public relations specialists rated above average and ahead of advertising salespersons, fortune tellers, and used car sellers, but behind print journalists, television and radio announcers, and funeral directors.2

The reputation of public relations is thought to be worthy of additional research; for example, management perceptions of public relations has been identified as one of six priority research questions for public relations researchers.3 It seems reasonable to re-examine public relations' perceived poor image among the general public and to seek explanations for why it is that public relations appears to be disliked, distrusted, and denigrated. Might there be something intrinsic about public relations itself that diminishes its reputation? This study applies impression management as a theoretical frame and uses experimental methods to investigate the effects on the public's attitudes toward public relations of three specific aspects of public relations practice: (1) motives perceived as driving a public relations program, (2) communication styles used, and (3) perceived professionalism of practitioners.

Although comparatively rare, experimental method has proven useful in public relations research.4 Much of the impression management research in interpersonal, social, and organizational communication/ psychology has used experimental method to focus on goals and behaviors of impression managers. For example, Schlenker and Leary5 investigated audience reactions to fictitious actors in written scenarios in which the actors' actions are manipulated to measure various impression management effects. Since the present research investigating effects of motives to manage impressions in public relations is grounded in impression management theory, the Schlenker-Leary experimental design was adopted as the methodological model for this work.

The Impression Management Perspective. Impression management, or what some researchers call self presentation, is the process of regulating behavior in order to create a particular impression on others.6 Rooted in the work of Erving Goffman,7 it involves the deliberate regulating or controlling of information and the editing of the images that are presented so they are consistent with the goals of the impression manager.8 Impression management theory focuses in part on actors' motives. …