Debating Healthcare Reform: How Political Parties' Issue-Specific Communication Influences Citizens' Perceptions of Organization-Public Relationships

Article excerpt

A survey of U.S. citizens (N = 420) was conducted to examine the influence of strategic communication regarding healthcare reform on perceptions of organization-public relationships (OPRs) with political parties. Results indicate that issue-specific strategic communication-and dialogic communication in particular-not only improved perceptions of the OPR with the sponsoring political party, but also destabilized relationships with the opposition party. Positive perceptions of political OPRs resulted in favorable attitudes toward parties and support for the parties' position on the issue.

The healthcare reform debate was renewed in spring 2009 and was a topic of heated discussion throughout the summer and fall. Both major political parties advocated for and against reform using tactics that included working with advocacy groups, engaging in grassroots lobbying, town-hall meetings, talk-show appearances, and advertising. While Democrats attempted to paint the issue as health insurance reform that would protect the public from insurance companies and extend healthcare to the uninsured, the Republican strategy was to depict reform as a government takeover of the healthcare industry that would result in lower quality care and higher costs. Ultimately, healthcare reform passed in March 2010.

The contentious nature of this debate provided political parties and interest groups with opportunities to play a role in framing reform by strategically constructing messages to influence various publics. These efforts may have implications for the relationships between publics and political parties. Thus, it is critical to understand how strategic communication contributes to the development of relationships between the public and the political parties that form the focal point of citizen engagement.1 To that end, the present study builds on a model of political organization-public relationships (POPRs) proposed by Seltzer and Zhang.2 This study refines their model of the relationship between citizens and political parties by examining issue-specific strategic communication used by the two major parties, how issue-specific communication shapes citizens' perceptions of their relationships with those parties, and how issue-based POPRs shape attitudes toward an issue within the context of the healthcare reform debate.

Literature Review

Organization-Public Relationships. Modern definitions of public relations position the practice as "the management function that establishes and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and the publics on whom its success or failure depends."3 These relationships form between organizations and publics when each entity's behaviors "impact the economic, social, political and /or cultural wellbeing of the other."4 In summarizing the literature on organization-public relationships (OPRs), Ledingham5 proposed a theory of relationship management: "effectively managing organization-public relationships around common interests and shared goals, over time, results in mutual understanding and benefit for interacting organizations and publics."

The understanding of OPRs has been advanced through the development of models6 that break OPR development into four components: (a) antecedents, (b) maintenance strategies, (c) OPR state, and (d) outcomes. Antecedents refer to situational conditions that include preexisting attitudes toward the organization, communication behaviors and linkages between parties in the relationship, and other situational factors, such as motives and needs for developing relationships. Strategies used by organizations to manage OPRs have been alternately referred to as maintenance strategies7 and cultivation strategies.8 The use of two-way symmetrical communication (i.e., dialogic communication) has been proposed to enhance OPRs9; these strategies, implemented tactically using mediated and interpersonal communication, attempt to encourage twoway interaction between the public and the organization with the goal of achieving mutual understanding and benefit for both parties. …