Provocations in Public Relations: A Study of Gendered Ideologies of Power-Influence in Practice

Article excerpt

Responses from 869 public relations practitioners were examined to see how female and male practitioners perceive and enact power-influence in public relations, including perceptions of power-influence, resources, preferred influence tactics, constraints on power, persuasive appeals, and what it means to "do the right thing" in public relations. Male and female practitioners shared similar definitions of power-influence in practice and similar beliefs in the value of personal advocacy and ethical appeals to influence decision making. Practitioners illustrated differences in the value of influence resources, choice of influence tactics, perceptions of constraints on practice, and style and vocabulary of dissent.

Issues of power and gender significantly impact public relations, but research has only begun to interrogate these issues as socially constructed norms that constrain public relations practitioners and their work. Over the last decade, Berger and Reber have explored power and influence and developed a "power relations" perspective for public relations.1 Over the same time period, Toth and Aldoory have developed gender theory in public relations to examine how the profession is gendered.2 The current research brings together the work of these scholars and analyzes power and gender as intertwined, discursive constructions that influence meanings about public relations ascribed by communication professionals.

Specifically, researchers reinterpreted qualitative data collected by Berger and Reber using Aldoory' s discursive conceptualizations for gender and power in public relations.3 Berger and Reber conducted indepth interviews with public relations professionals and completed a survey of members of the Public Relations Society of America to examine perceptions of power among male and female professionals. The amount of data collected and the methods used are significant contributions to public relations research - and re-examining some of these data elaborates the power relations perspective for future empirical testing. Additionally, this analysis helps evaluate the heuristic and practical value of Aldoory's concepts of gender and power for public relations. This study contributes not only to theory-building in public relations, but also to the decline of stereotypes about who can perform "feminist" analysis and how useful it is for general theory in public relations.

Literature Review

Power and Influence in Public Relations. Berger and Reber argued that most practitioners use the words "power" and "influence" interchangeably, and, thus, "we use power and influence to mean more or less the same thing."4 Historically, definitions of power and influence in public relations have been limited to the realm of formal power relations as they played out within organizational structures. For example, Spicer related how power occurs through interactions between organizational members. It can result in influence on others, especially when it occurs through "legitimate, sanctioned organizational bases, such as those that formally come with any position or accrue through perceived expertise."5 Berger and Reber defined power and influence as "the ability to get things done by affecting the perceptions, attitudes, beliefs, opinions, decisions, statements, and behaviors of others" (emphasis in original).6

Just as conceptualizations of power and influence have been limited in scope, corresponding studies of power and influence in public relations have also been limited. However, there has been some recent scholarship that looked at power in public relations from postmodernist and practical-critical perspectives. Spicer, for example, argued that "...an understanding of power and politics is essential for understanding the 'political nature' of many public relations decisions and actions."7 Similarly, Holtzhausen wrote about the political nature of power: "Postmodern theories urge public relations practitioners to acknowledge the political nature of their activities and to be aware of the power relations inherent in everyday practice. …