The Internet and Public Relations: Investigating Practitioners' Roles and World Wide Web Use

Article excerpt

A national e-mail survey of public relations practitioners investigated how use of the World Wide Web and practitioners' roles and status are linked. Cluster analysis partially replicated and refined Leichty and Springston's 1996 roles typology, further challenging the traditional manager-technician dichotomy that has driven twenty-five years of roles research. Managers used the Web more than technicians for research and evaluation and more than internals for issues communication. Managers and internals use the Web more than technicians for productivity and efficiency. In general, practitioners are no longer laggards in new technology, and women have caught up with men in use of new technology, such as the Web.

Introduction

Public relations practitioners have long struggled to justify their professional status and management roles to the top management of their organizations.1 To enhance their status, practitioners have pursued management roles through activities such as environmental monitoring.2 New communication technologies may or may not enhance practitioners' management status. While practitioners' roles have long been a popular focus in public relations research,3 comparatively little research has been conducted to assess practitioners' use of the Internet, specifically the World Wide Web. The purpose of this study is to examine how Web use varies by roles practiced in public relations and thereby contribute to the literatures on roles as well as new technologies in public relations. It extends the work of Leichty and Springston4 to further elaborate roles in public relations, and of Porter, Sallot, Cameron, and Shamp,5 to investigate how practitioners use new technologies to enhance roles in public relations.

Trends in Internet Use and Public Relations. With the creation of the World Wide Web in a Swiss particle physics laboratory in 1990, a new mass medium was born.6 As of 2003, more than 580 million people have access to the Internet worldwide.7 One hundred-five million people are online daily in the United States alone,8 and ten million new users came online in 2002.9 Research has yet to show the Web's full impact on public relations. In a recent international e-mail survey, 98% of 276 practitioners surveyed agreed that the Internet is having an impact on PR practice. Eighty-six percent agreed that this impact has been positive and reported going online 5.8 days during an average week and spending between fifteen and nineteen hours per week online.10 In addition to presenting information in a graphically pleasing, personalizable, customizable form, the World Wide Web can be used to improve research and evaluation, issues management efforts, two-way communication between internal and external environments, and productivity and efficiency, thereby increasing the likelihood of manager role enactment in public relations.11

Preliminary research suggests that practitioners could use the Web as an effective tool to enhance their status within organizations. In a recent study of how corporate public relations practitioners use information technology-such as "Lexis/Nexis" and "Dow Jones News Retrieval"-to further issues management, most practitioners classified as managers or technicians used Internet-based online databases, along with broader resources freely available on the Web, such as "Infoseek" and "My Yahoo! News Services."12 This enabled them to establish their own research agendas and conduct more formal research, identify issues early in the issues cycle, improve two-way communications between internal and external environments, and acquire more autonomy within their organizations, thereby assuming more of a management role. However, few were using those new technologies to improve their work environments.

Public Relations Practitioners Still "Laggards" in Web Use? Some research focusing specifically on the Web suggests that practitioners have not taken full advantage of new technologies. …