Ethics in Strategic Communication Campaigns: The Case for a New Approach to Public Relations

By Botan, Carl | The Journal of Business Communication, April 1997 | Go to article overview

Ethics in Strategic Communication Campaigns: The Case for a New Approach to Public Relations


Botan, Carl, The Journal of Business Communication


Strategic communication is an emerging term often applied to planned communication campaigns. Although models vary, strategic communication for both business and nonbusiness purposes almost invariably uses research to identify a problem or issue, relevant publics, and measurable goals and objectives. Research can contribute to goal identification, for example, by finding out what subjects want, establishing a baseline with which to contrast outcomes, or by illuminating trends, past performance patterns, cycles, and the like. A strategic communication plan then adopts steps, or strategies, for addressing that problem with target publics and employs a series of measurable tactics through which to implement those strategies. Strategic communication campaigns are conducted under many labels including public relations, community relations, constituent relations, crisis management, health promotion, issues management, investor relations, membership relations, outreach, public affairs, public health, public information, risk communication, strategic advertising, strategic marketing, and the like. These campaigns typically use the set of skills and approaches developed over three-quarters of a century by the field of public relations but often, especially in marketing, advertising, and health promotion, they are not called "public relations" by their sponsors.

Modern public relations campaigns are strategic in nature and most public relations practitioners and scholars see public relations as strategic communication and themselves as strategic communicators. But there are other strategic communicators who do not see themselves as practicing public relations (interpersonal, group, and organizational communicators are often considered strategic). As a result, the term strategic communication, which is not objectionable to public relations people, is the broader and more inclusive of the two and is an appropriate term for referring to planned, research-based persuasive and informational campaigns including those conducted as public relations campaigns. Public relations is a paradigmatic example of strategic communication and will be used that way in this article, the conclusions of which, it is hoped, may be applied broadly to strategic communication.

Public relations and other strategic communication campaigns can be conducted for many purposes including (a) public diplomacy, used to persuade the people of another nation to influence their government's policies toward the sponsoring nation (Kunczik, 1990; Signitzer & Coombs, 1992); (b) litigation public relations, used to influence the outcomes of jury trials (Gorney, 1995); (c) public health promotions (Anderson, 1989; Flora, Maccoby, & Farquhar, 1989; Reardon, 1989); (d) development public relations, used to build support for national development programs (Karim, 1989; Pratt, 1985); (e) the support of social causes such as charities, religions, the environment, or activist organizations (Grunig, 1989); and (f) the support of particular candidates or political policies (Manheim, 1994). Such campaigns can also be used to gain acceptance for a corporation's or industry's apologies (Hoover & Garmon, 1990), public policy views (Crable & Vibbert, 1985; Jones & Chase, 1979), or products. Along with employee directed campaigns (Kreps, 1989) these last three examples of public relations campaigns may constitute public relations' primary contribution to business communication and are among the most common kinds of campaigns.

As divergent as the names and purposes of such campaigns are, they have as a common purpose the influencing of individuals, groups, organizations, even whole societies. A campaign intended to influence suggests a relationship, or a desired relationship, between the parties, and the ethicality of such campaigns is determined primarily by the values and relationships expressed in them, including how the target publics are treated. …

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Ethics in Strategic Communication Campaigns: The Case for a New Approach to Public Relations
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