Public Affairs Decision Making in the U.S. Air Force: An Application of Multiattribute Utility Theory

By David, Prabu; Peirson, Michael M. | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Autumn 1998 | Go to article overview

Public Affairs Decision Making in the U.S. Air Force: An Application of Multiattribute Utility Theory


David, Prabu, Peirson, Michael M., Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


Public relations decision making by U.S. Air Force public affairs personnel was evaluated by using multiattribute utility theory. Exploratory cluster analysis revealed that only 48% of the decisions adequately fit the public relations excellence criteria of accommodation and long-term relationship building. Fourteen percent of the decisions were based on asymmetrical options with a clear emphasis on leverage for the organization, and 37% of the decisions focused on communication tactics. There was a negative correlation between strength of relationship with the supervisor and preference for symmetrical solutions. Furthermore, female employees reported a weaker relationship with their supervisors than their male counterparts.

Public relations is defined in textbooks as a management function that promotes mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and its publics.1 Although mutually beneficial relationships are the end goals, the purpose or motive behind these goals has dominated the research agenda. At the center of this debate is the two-way symmetrical model of public relations practice advanced by Grunig and his associates.2 In addition to providing an ethical framework for enhancing the image of a profession that is often confused with hucksterism and spin doctoring,3 the Grunig and Hunt formulation offers two related but distinct dimensions to evaluate the practice of public relations. While the two-way component of the model refers to the craft of practicing communication, the notion of symmetry is tied to professionalism, with an emphasis on balance or compromise between the organization and its publics.4

Although the two-way symmetrical model can be interpreted as an idealistic approach that advocates pure cooperation, Dozier, Grunig, and Grunig5 have clarified that symmetrical public relations practice does not automatically imply pure cooperation. Instead, they defined symmetrical public relations as a win-win practice that benefits both the organization and the publics. The idea of win-win public relations has been identified by other scholars as well as an important measure of excellence in public relations. For example, using game theory, Murphy argued that a mixed-motive game is a more appropriate analogy for public relations practice than a game of either pure conflict or pure cooperation.6 In addition, Cancel et al. have argued that the balance between advocacy and accommodation is an important element of symmetrical public relations.7

Besides the evolution of symmetry from a dichotomy to a continuum, there has been a significant shift in the unit of analysis from the organization to the public relations practitioner.8 While earlier work based on systems theory9 focused mainly on the organization, the current emphasis in public relations research is a holistic approach that takes into consideration the organizational, individual, and situational factors,10 leading to a contingency model of public relations.

The purpose of this paper was to examine public affairs decision making at the individual level by simulating three public relations situations that were carefully crafted to include a variety of contingencies. For each situation, advocacy and accommodation options were included. Then, using Multiattribute Utility Theory (MAUT) as the theoretical framework and Adaptive Conjoint Analysis (an interactive computer program) as the methodological vehicle, patterns of public affairs decision making were evaluated.

Since the focus was on individual differences in public relations decision making, the goal was to keep the variance in organizational factors to a minimum. Mainly, we were interested in studying an organization which, at least in principle, had an open philosophy and a uniform mission statement about the role of public relations. Other considerations were the size of the organization and its impact on the public. Large federal government public affairs departments seemed to fit these requirements best.

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