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Chapter 2. Literature Review

There has been much debate among scholars about the nature and purpose of public relations. However, there is one common thread which can be identified in most theories, as well as in historical accounts describing the development of the practice of public relations, which is the concept of dealing with a select number of groups, referred to as key constituents, target audiences or publics, as opposed to addressing the mass audience, or the general public as a whole. Contemporary public relations theory suggests that organizations, when planning their public relations activities, must segment their social environment (i.e., the population as a whole) into individual groups, or publics, and target their communication efforts only at those groups that have consequences for an organization, or have the potential to have a negative impact on the organization.

This chapter will review theories, scholarly opinions and research findings relevant to the concept of the public at large, the relationship-building approach to public relations, principles of segmenting the general public, as well as the notion of community applied to contemporary public relations and new communication technologies.

The Concept of a Public

The central concept in regards to dividing, or segmenting, a population into specific groups is that of a public. The term has its roots in political science and, according to Price (1992), originates from the Latin phrase populus, meaning “the people” (as cited in Vasquez and Taylor, 2001, p.139). Vasquez and Taylor observed that today the term usually refers to matters of common interest and concern, for example, to a mass population of individuals involved in civic affairs under all circumstances. In other cases, like in the fields of social psychology, marketing and public relations, the term may refer to a situational collection of individuals who emerge in response to a problem – i.e., a situation.

John Dewey was one of the first to develop a theory of publics. According to Dewey (1927), a public is a group of people who face a similar problem, recognize that the problem exists, and organize to do something about the problem:

The public consists of all those who are affected by the indirect consequences of transactions to such an extent that it is deemed necessary to have those consequences systematically catered for (pp. 16-17) …. When a family connection, a church, a trade union, a business corporation, or an educational institution conducts itself so as to affect large numbers outside of itself, those who are affected form a public which endeavors to act through suitable structures, and thus to organize itself for oversight and regulation (pp. 29-30).

Dewey (1927) defined a public as “those indirectly and seriously affected for good or for evil [and] form a group distinctive enough to require recognition and a name” (p. 35).

Contemporary public relations theory, in most cases, defines a public in a similar way, although from a more applied angle: “A public encompasses any group of people who are tied together however loosely, by some common bond or interest or concern and who have consequences for an organization” (Newsom, Turk, and Kruckeberg, 2004, p. 90).

Relationship-Building Approach in Public Relations

The concept of multiple individual publics, as opposed to the general public, or the mass audience, emerged in the field of public relations with the adoption of the relationship-building approach, which, to a certain extent, replaced the communication and, arguably, public opinion manipulation approach. The idea of relationships being at the core of public relations was first advocated by Fergusoin in 1984 (as cited in Ledingham and Bruning, 2000, p. xiii). The concept was then advanced through the adoption of a relational definition of public relations in leading texts: Cutlip, Center and Broom (2000) defined public relations as “the management function that establishes and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and the publics on whom its success or failure depends” (p. 6).

Botan and Hazleton (2006) described the shift to a relationship-centered approach as a shift from a functionalist perspective to a co-creational one. The functionalist perspective, according to Botan and Hazleton, focused entirely on communication techniques and treated public relations and communication as tools to achieve some corporate interest. A co-creational approach, on the other hand, focused on publics as co-creators of meaning and emphasized the building of relationships with these publics (p. 13). Grunig (1992) underscored the importance of building relationships with publics that constrain or enhance the ability of the organization to meet its mission (as cited in Ledingham and Bruning, 2000, p. xiii). Dozier (1995), noting that the direction of an organization was affected by relationships with the key publics in its environment, “called for the use of communication as a strategic management function to help manage relationships with publics that affected the organization’s mission, goals and objectives” (as cited in Ledingham and Bruning, 2000, p. xiii). Thus, communication becomes a vehicle used by an organization to “initiate, develop, maintain and repair mutually productive relationships” (Bruning and Ledingham, 2000, p. 159).

Nevertheless, even today many practitioners continue to think of public relations as mostly publicity and media relations (Grunig and Grunig, 2006, p. 23), in which case the only public, or rather, the organization’s target audience, are people who use the mass media. Grunig and Repper (1992) observed that in many cases, there might have been historical reasons for that: if at some point an organization received unfavorable media coverage, media relations could become the only focus of public relations activities for that organization (p. 118).

However, an approach, focused entirely on media relations, comes into question when considered together with findings from mass communication research. Grunig and Grunig (2006) observed that public relations research began in the 1950s-60s as an offshoot of mass communication research. Mass communication scholars were focused on explaining the effects of mass communication, which was believed to have had a “major effect on elections, strongly influenced children, might be major contributors to crime and violence, created popular culture, influenced consumer choices, and affected decisions about war and peace” (p. 22). Most public relations practitioners saw public relations as an activity to influence the all-powerful media – through media relations and communication campaigns. However, the authors point out that research proved that the effects of media were more cognitive than behavioral: they affected what people thought about more than what they did (p. 22). These theories of media suggested that while some people learned from the media in select situations, the media were not the only solution to every public relations problem. Therefore, organizations, to achieve their goals, had to communicate with their social environment in different ways in different situations (p. 23), not just through the mass media. And, since the mass media were not the only communication medium, people who used the mass media were not the only target audience, or the only public.

Scholars point out that organizations have numerous pragmatic reasons for building relationships with their key publics. Grunig (2000) contends:

When public relations helps the organization build relationships with strategic constituencies, it saves the organization money by reducing the costs of litigation, regulation, legislation, pressure campaigns, boycotts, or lost revenue that results from bad relationships with publics – publics that become activist groups when relationships are bad. It also helps the organization make money by cultivating relationships with donors, consumers, shareholders and legislators who are needed to support organizational goals. (pp. 32-33)

In terms of community relations, which is a subset of public relations theory and practice, Ledingham and Bruning (1998) observe the linkage between organization’s support for the community and public support for the organization:

Organizational involvement in and support of the community in which it operates can engender loyalty toward the organization among key publics when that involvement is known by key publics [and] what emerges is a process in which organizations must (1) focus on relationships with their key publics, and, (2) communicate involvement of those activities and programs that build the relationship with members of their key publics. (Ledingham and Bruning, as cited in Ledingham, 2006, pp. 471-472)

Ledingham and Bruning (2004) agree:

Not only do communities represent geographic publics, they also encompass key constituencies that share a relationship with local organizations: customers, stakeholders, suppliers, employees and local governmental officials. The nature of that relationship is symbiotic. Organizations may benefit from tax incentives, favorable zoning rulings, and loyalty to the organization’s products from local citizens. Communities may also benefit thru organizational sponsorship of community activities and events, investment in community infrastructure, support for educational initiatives, and so on. (p. 527)

Grunig and Grunig (2006) argue that the practice of public relations should help an organization “interact with the social and political components of its environment, which consists of publics that affect the ability of the organization to accomplish its goals and that expect organizations to help them accomplish their own goals.” (p. 55) Grunig and Grunig contend that organizations not only solve problems for society, but also create them for society. As a result, organizations cannot be considered “autonomous units free to make money or to accomplish other goals they set for themselves. They have relationships with individuals and groups that help the organization’s goals, define what the organization is and does, and affect the success of its strategic decisions and behaviors.” (p. 55) Therefore, the reviewed arguments suggest that organizational effectiveness is determined in part by segmenting its social environment, or general public, into individual groups and identifying among them its key publics.

Segmenting the Public

The idea of segmenting a population into relevant categories or groups can be found in such fields as mass communication, public opinion, political science, sociology and anthropology. Grunig (1989), describing principles of segmentation, contends that “segments must be definable, mutually exclusive, measurable, accessible, pertinent to an organization’s mission, reachable with communications in an affordable way, and large enough to be substantial and to service economically” (p. 203). He also notes that marketing researchers have pointed out that the perfect segmentation concept would make it possible for a communication planner to study each member of a market or public and to develop a personalized marketing or communication strategy for that person. However, such microsegmentation is seldom possible, Grunig notes, even when interpersonal communication is a primary vehicle for the campaign. (p. 205)

The basic idea of segmentation is to divide a population into groups whose members are more like each other than members of other segments. For example, in the field of marketing, segmentation is defined as “the process of taking the mass market for consumer or industrial goods and breaking it up into small, more homogeneous submarkets based on relevant distinguishing characteristics.” (Michman, as cited in Grunig, 1989). In marketing, these characteristics include demographics, psychographics, values and lifestyles, geodemographic clusters of postal zip codes, geographic regions, consumer behaviors, product benefits, etc. However, it is important to note the difference between markets (i.e., segments of the mass audience according to marketing segmentation theory) and publics – segments of the general public in public relations: whereas markets are chosen by the organization, publics choose the organization for attention. According to Grunig (1989), publics “organize around issues and seek out organizations that create those issues – to gain information, seek redress or grievances, to pressure the organizations, or to seek regulation of the organizations,” (p.216) and “organizations have little choice other than to communicate with them; whereas organizations can choose to ignore markets if they wish” (Grunig and Hunt, 1984).

The term “public” is often used interchangeably with the notion of a target audience. However, Newsom et al. (2004) see a subtle difference between the concepts of an audience and a public:

From a public relations perspective, the term audience suggests a group of people who are recipients of something – a message or a performance. An audience is thus inherently passive. But this conflicts with the goal of public relations: which is to stimulate strong audience participation. (p. 90)

Another significant distinction is that a relationship implies a two-way communication process, for which the term public is more applicable than the term audience, which makes the term “public” more preferable in a public relations context.

Systems Theory as the Theoretical Basis for Segmentation

Segmentation of the general public is often explained with the help of systems theory. First proposed by biologist Bertalanffy in 1968, general systems theory has evolved into an academic field of its own. One of its main advantages is that “it accounts for complex behaviors of and relationships between system components.” (Witmer, 2006. p. 362) Witmer defines systems as interrelated sets of parts or components that create a unique, bounded entity. Cutlip et al. (2000) give the following definition of a system: “a set of interacting units that endures through time within an established boundary by responding and adjusting to change pressures from the environment to achieve and maintain goal states.” (p. 229) In public relations, the set of interacting units is the organization and the publics with which it interacts, or has relations: both are mutually affected and involved.

However, when applied to public relations, the general systems theory approach defines the environment in rather vague terms. Defining key publics through the process of segmenting the organization’s social environment, in a way, puts meaning into the term environment by identifying its elements whose opposition or support can affect the organization’s ability to achieve its goals. (Grunig, 2006, p. 33)

Stakeholder Approach to Segmentation

There are many approaches to segmenting the organization’s social environment; however, most of them, to some extent, can be considered to be based on the concept of stakeholders. According to Coombs (2000), “stakeholders are any person or group that has an interest, right, claim or ownership in an organization.” (p. 75) Grunig and Repper (1992) define stakeholders as “people who are linked to an organization because they and the organization have consequences for each other.” (p. 125) According to Freeman (1984), stakeholders are “any individual or group who can affect or is affected by the actions, decisions, policies, practices, or goals of the organization.” (Freeman, as cited in Grunig and Repper, 1992, p. 126) Brody (1988) offers a similar definition, according to which stakeholders are “groups or individuals whose interests coincide in one or more ways with the organization with which the public relations practitioner is dealing.” (Brody, as cited in Grunig and Repper, 1992, p. 126) Comparing these definitions to that of a public – “a public encompasses any group of people who are tied together however loosely, by some common bond or interest or concern and who have consequences for an organization” (Newsom et al., 2004) – it is reasonable to conclude that in the context of this research the terms stakeholder and public can be used interchangeably.

Publics are often divided into external – i.e., those existing outside the organization – and internal – such as employees, management, investors, etc. This categorization, however, is too broad for public relations purposes. Coombs (2000) takes a more detailed approach and distinguish between primary and secondary stakeholders: primary stakeholders, such as employees, investors, customers, suppliers, government and the community, “are those whose actions can be harmful or beneficial to an organization. Without the continued interaction of primary stakeholders, the organization would cease to exist.” (p. 75). Secondary stakeholders, or influencers, such as media, activist groups, and competitors, “are those who can affect or be affected by the actions of the organization. (p. 75) An even more definite typology has been developed by Hendrix, who identifies media, employees, members, community, government, investor, international, special and integrated marketing as the organization’s key publics, including 140 subcategories. (Newsom et al., 2004, p. 90)

Situational Approach to Segmentation

It may seem that the stakeholder approach to segmenting the social environment provides a reasonably specific way to define key publics. However, Cutlip, et al. (2000) note that whereas the organizational component in the system is clearly defined, publics are abstractions defined by the public relations manager.(p. 229) Grunig and Repper (1992) take this argument further by stating that “a public, a market, or any other segment of a population exists only because a researcher or practitioner uses a particular theoretical concept to identify it.” (p. 129)

Cutlip, et al. (2000) suggest that, according to systems theory, different publics can be defined for different situations or public relations problems. This principle is illustrated by comparing a university’s publics when the goal is to recruit students as opposed to the goal being to raise money for a new computing facility. In the first case, the publics would include college-bound high school students, their parents, high school counselors, students currently enrolled at the university and alumni. The second example would require a different definition of the current system: it would be necessary to determine what groups would be most interested in such a facility, which might include local businesses, corporate foundations that have historically funded innovative educational programs, computer hardware and software companies, and those alumni who have succeeded in computer-related careers. (p. 230)

The systems theory concept of defining different publics for different situations provides a foundation for Grunig’s situational theory of publics. Grunig and Hunt (1984) explained:

When organizations have consequences on people outside the organization, those consequences create problems for the people affected. Some people detect the consequences, [thus recognizing] a problem. They become members of a public. Thus, consequences create the conditions needed for publics to form. The presence of the publics, in turn, creates a public relations problem for the organization. (p. 144)

Grunig based his situational theory in part on Dewey’s (1927) concept that a public is a group of people who face a similar problem, recognize that the problem exists, and organize to do something about the problem. (Dewey, as cited in Grunig and Hunt, 1984, p. 145) Grunig and Hunt observed that publics that develop around problems differ in the extent to which they are aware of the problem and the extent to which they are willing to do something about the problem. (p. 147) Grunig and Hunt classified publics on their recognition of the problem itself, their perception that they can do something about the problem, and their perception that the organization’s behavior involves them. Three variables were used to explain why people engage in a behavior and communicate in the process of planning that behavior: problem recognition, level of involvement, and constraint recognition. These concepts were tied to the concept of a situation: Grunig and Hunt argued that people do not think and act in relation to broad values that they apply to all situations, but rather change their attitudes to fit a particular situation.

Signitzer and Wamser (2006) observed that Grunig’s situational theory attempts to predict “when people will think and communicate purposively about situations, when they will develop opinions and attitudes about situations, and when they will act.” (p. 449) The theory defines the following types of publics: latent publics, whose members do not detect the problem they are facing; aware publics for groups who recognize the problem; and active publics – groups that organize to discuss and do something about the problem. Grunig and Hunt (1984) also defined a group for whom none of the conditions described by Dewey applied: a nonpublic. For a nonpublic, the organization would have no consequences on the group or the group would have no consequences on the organization. (p. 145)

Public Relations and the General Public

Key publics can be identified based on a generic stakeholder approach, where members of each public are linked to the organization through their occupations, or they can be identified through the application of the situational theory, where people are grouped into publics based on their perceptions of a specific situation or problem. However, in both cases, a common thread can be identified in segmenting the general public into individual publics, which is the abandonment of the concept of the general public as a potential candidate for communication and relationship building.

Grunig and Hunt (1984) argue that “if an organization has no consequences upon other systems in its social environment and if those systems have no consequences for the organization, there is no need for public relations.” (p. 139). For example, a public with a low probability of seeking information and a low probability that messages directed at it will be effective requires less attention: Grunig and Hunt suggest that “seldom should you waste time and money on a public relations program to reach that public. No one will be listening or acting.” (p. 158) However, when dealing with publics with high probabilities of information seeking, Grunig and Hunt suggest that an organization should be more proactive in its communication efforts. If it does not communicate with these publics, they will seek information elsewhere and base their cognitions, attitudes and behaviors on that information; besides other sources “frequently will put the organization in a bad light.” (p. 159)

Vujnovic (2004) observes that “Grunig and Hunt’s preoccupation with the threat of consequences for the organization makes them further argue that active publics are of primary concern to the organization” (p. 49) – not the general public. In fact, both – nonpublics and the general public – are considered in most contemporary public relations theory and practice as being insignificant and powerless. (Vujnovic, Kumar, and Kruckeberg, 2007). Cutlip et al. (2000), for example, declared that “there is simply no such thing” as the general public. (Cutlip et al., as cited in Leitch and Neilson, 2004, p. 130) Newsom, et al. (2005) agrees that “there is no such thing as a mass audience or public” and argues that publics should never be thought of “as undifferentiated mass.” (p. 104)

Describing information campaigns, Grunig (1989) underscores the importance of directing the campaigns to carefully selected segments of the mass audience and considers the general public to be a convenient term (Grunig and Repper, 1992, p. 118) for those who use the mass media. In his opinion, public relations activities targeted at the general public might build relationships with stakeholders only accidentally, but in most cases “they communicate with no one important to the organization [and] in the process of doing nothing, they cost the organization a great deal of money.” (p. 118) Grunig concludes that segmentation of audiences is crucial to the success of an information campaign. (Grunig, 1989, p. 200)

According to Mendelsohn (1973), publics who are most likely to respond to information messages communicated through the mass media have a prior interest in the subject presented. Therefore, information directed at this audience “requires totally different communication strategies and tactics from information that is to be disseminated to an audience that is initially indifferent.” (Mendelsohn, as cited in Grunig, 1989, p. 200) Mendelsohn argues:

At the very least, communicators who intend to use the mass media to produce information gain or attitude and behavior modification must realize that their targets do not represent a monolithic mass, although the media they may decide to utilize have the potential of reaching huge population aggregates. (p. 200)

According to Wright (1986), mass audiences are “large, heterogeneous, disconnected, and anonymous to the communicator.” (Wright, as cited in Grunig, 1989, p. 200)

Limitations of Segmenting the Public

It is important to note, that arguments about the necessity of segmenting the general public are made in reference to information campaigns – which is a type of one-way communication – not communication in general. Mendelsohn (1973, as cited in Grunig, 1989, p. 200) specifically mentions attitude and behavior modification, which is reminiscent of an early definition of public relations by Edward Bernays (1947), who championed the behaviorist approach and saw the purpose of public relations as persuasion, adjustment of public opinion and “engineering of consent” (Bernays, as cited in Grunig and Grunig, 1992, p. 288) – which is anything but two-way communication. Wright (1986, as cited in Grunig, 1989, p. 200), describing the mass audience, refers to the organization as the communicator – which, like with Mendelsohn’s assertion, again implies a strictly one-way communication model. These observations are important in the sense that the concept of segmentation of the general public is initially explained in a one-way communication setting: information campaigns, behavior modification, organization as the communicator; yet it is applied to the concept of publics, which is based on the idea of relationship-building, whereas building relationships cannot be a one-way communication process apriori. This contradiction is one of the many issues that scholars have found in regards to the concept of segmenting the general public in application to the theory and practice of public relations.

One of the fundamental problems of segmentation stems from the limitations of systems theory, which is often used to provide a theoretical foundation for identifying key publics. Witmer (2006) observes that systems theory advocates artificial delineation between systems and their environments. (p. 364) “The underlying assumption … that a system and its environment are discrete entities, discounts the recursive nature of system interactions with [the environment].” (p. 364) As an example, Witmer shows how global corporate structures may be embedded into local publics by organizational members, who may have multiple roles as consumers, employees, stockholders, etc.

Witmer (2006) observes that, in addition to the problem of defining publics as discreet entities, systems theory “does not adequately account for the creation and recreation of publics through shared experiences … or their changeability over time.” (p. 365) In relation to Grunig’s situational theory, Witmer notes, that communication between people “form communities that transcend time and space through communication technologies … and [through discussion] organize latent, closed publics or nonpublic publics into aware and active publics.” (p. 365) Grunig and Repper (1992) confirm that latent publics may become more aware and active as an issue becomes more public. As the recognition of the problem grows, perceptions of involvement increase, and perceptions of constraints decrease – publics are expected to move into the aware and the active stages.

Leitch and Neilson (2004) argued:

Publics are not fixed categories waiting to be identified but rather are constructed and reconstructed through the discourses in which they participate. Publics have their own views of themselves and their own views of the organizations with or about which they communicate. Although organizations may orchestrate the development of publics to serve organizational objectives, there is no guarantee that such publics will be content with their status as organizational artifacts or will accept the meanings that organizations have imposed on them. (p. 138)

However, the main issue with segmenting the general public and focusing on the identified key publics as opposed to the public as a whole is the abandonment of the concept of the public at large as a candidate for communication and relationship building.

Leeper (2004) argued that there is some question as to whether or not the practice of segmenting publics to better tailor a message is consistent with the idea of two-way communication, which is a prerequisite for relationship-building. (p. 101) Rakow (1989) “made the argument that such a practice still is in the ‘talking to’ mode rather than in the ‘talking with’ mode.” (Rakow, as cited in Leeper, 2004, p. 101) Rakow argued that the practice of public relations “needs to see the general public at the center of activity, directing the actions of institutions which become its object, and not the other way around.” (Rakow, as cited in Leeper, 2004, p. 101)

Leitch and Neilson (2004) noted:

It is … both unhelpful and unnecessary to abandon the public and its associated macroforms at the level of the nation-state to validate the focus of organizational relations. Rather, the concept of the public can be retained as representing one possible configuration of individuals within a framework where multiple configurations are possible. (p. 131)

Indeed, segmentation is essential for specific public relations activities or information campaigns; however, as Leitch and Neilson pointed out, “individuals are not … members of single publics but instead participate in the multiple sites of the public sphere as members of diverse publics. They may simultaneously hold a number of different subject positions within these sites and publics.” (p. 131) As an example, Leitch and Neilson argued:

The same individual may speak as a citizen in one forum, as a parent in another, and as an environmentalist in a third forum. These multiple subject positions may overlap, intersect, or conflict and always will be in a state of flux. Taken together, they provide the context within which individuals must negotiate their own public identities. Once the notion of multiplicity is accepted, it becomes clear that the zones of meaning associated with a particular public cannot be viewed in isolation. Instead, they constitute a series of threads that are woven together to form the fabric of public opinion. (Heath, 1998, as cited in Leitch and Neilson, 2004, p. 131)

The Organic Model of Public Relations

Another approach which calls into question the concept of communicating and building relationships only with strategic publics and denying the significance of the general public, is the Organic model of public relations proposed by Kruckeberg. (2006)

The Organic model is based on the idea that an organization is not centered as the hub of a social system, but rather is only an organic part of the whole social system of society, and therefore its responsibility to society is greater. (Kruckeberg, 2006, p.8) Vujnovic, Kumar, and Kruckeberg (2007) argued that, although communicative exchange is grounded in modern society’s three dominant social actors – corporations, non-governmental organizations and governments, it is not limited to these actors. Numerous publics exist simultaneously; however, the author also noted that those public’s positions are diminished by the three major actors and the media, which has a powerful role as well, since it can privilege dominant voices and marginalize other voices. (p. 2)

Starck and Kruckeberg (2003) pointed to multiple global challenges, such as “free trade, the global emergence of fledging democracies, the ever-increasing power of transnational corporations, a growing public distrust, the rapidly changing media environment, and corporate mega-mergers,” (Starck and Kruckeberg, as cited Vujnovic, Kumar, and Kruckeberg, 2007, p. 3) in faced by societies throughout the world. Therefore, Starck and Kruckeberg argued:

The power public relations practitioners must take into consideration is not simply that which is created between narrowly defined internal and external publics, but that which occurs in the societal communicative level, more specifically those relations that are created in the media spaces among nation-states, corporations and civil society. (p. 4)

Vujnovic, Kumar, and Kruckeberg (2007) argued that the organization’s responsibility must extend beyond their strategic publics; that organizations must view society itself, not just the individual strategic publics that are considered to be most threatening – “as the larger social system within which organizations must seek co-existence and harmony.” (p. 5) Therefore, society’s citizens who did not make it into strategic publics according to their perceived importance to an organization should still be considered a strategic public “solely by virtue of their membership in society.” (p. 5) The authors conclude their argument by emphasizing that nonpublics and the general public are today’s most challenging and arguably most important publics and require the fullest attention of the field of public relations. (p. 5)

Public Relations and Community

The concept of the Organic model is closely related to Kruckeberg and Starck’s Community-building theory of public relations. The Community-building model redefines the purpose of public relations as that of restoring the sense of community in society – thus, providing the grounds for the Organic model’s argument about the organization’s role as a member of the whole social system of society.

Kruckeberg and Starck (1988) observed that “public relations today … operates from much the same perspective as it did before the term was even used:” (p. 20)

Organizations want to survive and prosper. Adverse public opinion – especially in a free and democratic society – can threaten such survival and prosperity, while positive public opinion can help assure [it]. Therefore, public relations practitioners attempt to develop and maintain positive public opinion, or at least to neutralize negative public opinion… To accomplish this, they use persuasion … in an attempt to influence both the emotional and rational factors contributing to public opinion formation….or assure a good environment for the … client. Such attempts include a simplistic concern for altruistic good citizenship, a concern with the dynamics of public opinion formation and change within a highly behaviorist conceptual framework … and a simple, usually nontheoretically-grounded, emphasis on the techniques of involvement with the organization’s various publics. (pp. 20-21)

The authors argue that such practice is an attempt to remedy symptoms and not deal with basic social problems which directly affect the organization’s relationships with the various elements of society. In the authors’ opinion, one of such basic social problems of society is the loss of small town community in the XIX century resulting from new means of communication and transportation. (Kruckeberg and Starck, 1988) Dewey (1927) observed that “the Great Society created by steam and electricity may be a society but it is no community.” (p. 98) Quandt (1970) reflecting on the works of Dewey and other communitarian scholars, offered the following description of the breakdown of traditional community:

A social organization based on family, neighborhood, and small-town solidarity was being replaced by one based on more impersonal and tenuous ties of the market place .… So far technological changes had produced… the Great Society – an urban, industrial order whose size and complexity precluded a sense of belonging…. In such a social order … relationships tended to be superficial, the restraints imposed by public opinion weak, the common cause with one’s neighbor lacking. (pp. 17-19)

Kruckeberg and Starck (1988) argued that “most of the concerns of public relations practitioners today simply did not exist before the loss of community [and] it was this loss of community that provided impetus for the development of modern public relations.” (p. 43) The authors concluded that public relations, while being commonly practiced as persuasive communication to obtain a vested goal on behalf of a client, is “better defined and practiced as the active attempt to restore and maintain the sense of community.” (p. xi)

Communication as the Link between Community and Public Relations

The connection between the concept of community and the field of public relations is communication. Scholars of the Chicago School of Social Thought (a group of sociologists, which consisted mostly of professors at the University of Chicago) considered that community existed through its members sharing attitudes, opinions, knowledge and information – i.e., through communication. Dewey (1927) observed that there was “more that a verbal tie between the words common, community and communication:” (Dewey, as cited in Quandt, 1970, p. 25)

Men live in a community in virtue of the things which they have in common; and communication is the way in which they come to possess things in common. What they must have in common are aims, beliefs, aspirations, knowledge – a common understanding – like-mindedness the sociologists say. Such things cannot be passed physically form one to another, like bricks, they cannot be shared as persons would share a pie… Consensus demands communication. (p. 25)

Dewey (1927) noted that “by fostering personal communication, the community center would bridge the barriers of class and race, creating sympathy among men who might otherwise segregate themselves into mutually exclusive groups.” (Dewey, as cited in Quandt, 1970, p. 49) He believed in the power of communication to restore community characterized by mutual identification and shared values. He saw personal face-to-face communication, discussion of ideas, as being “the ultimate context within which knowledge is to be understood” (Carey,1989, p.80) and the main prerequisite for community: “Ideas which are not communicated, shared and reborn in expression are but soliloquy … broken and imperfect thought.” (Dewey, 1927, p. 218) Quandt (1970) observed that, according to communitarian scholars, sharing of ideas and sentiments, the exchange of opinion, and the transmission of knowledge could correct the imbalance of the physical integration of modern society and its moral unity: (p. 23)

Communication carried such weight because of their assumption that society was not a loose collection of self-sufficient individuals, but an organic whole made up of interrelated parts … The common values which unified the social organism were created by the mutual exchange of ideas and attitudes. (p. 23)

Carey (1989) developed this argument by considering communication to be “a symbolic process whereby reality is produced, maintained, repaired and transformed.” (p. 23) He concluded that “communication through language and other symbolic forms comprises the ambiance of human existence.” (p. 24)

Kruckeberg and Starck (1988) suggested that public relations came about to “fill a social vacuum created by the disappearance of community,” (p. 43) that it helped fulfill “the need for people to be put back in touch with their changing environment.” (p. 43) The authors based their argument on the premise that since public relations practitioners were communication professionals, they were ideally suited for the task of helping restore community in modern society. They suggested that public relations practitioners could help in the following ways:

Take an active part in helping community members become aware of and interested in common ends …. help individuals in the community maintain their existence as individuals and promote their worth as persons … help individuals overcome alienation, help members of the community to know one another … help develop person-to-person relationships. They can help bring about a sharing of personal experiences among members of the community. (pp. 65-66)

In their more recent work, the authors reaffirmed their views by proposing that “community building can be proactively encouraged and nurtured by corporations with the guidance and primary leadership of these organization’s public relations practitioners.” (Starck and Kruckeberg, 2004, p. 59)

A Historical Overview of Public Relations, its Purpose and Focus

Kruckeberg and Starck (1988) maintained that the role of public relations practitioners was not just to serve their clients, but also society at large. Following on this premise, public relations, indeed, could have filled, to a certain extent, the information and communication void that appeared as a result of the loss of community. Nevertheless, a brief overview of the history of public relations will clearly demonstrate that public relations filled this void with persuasive communication and favorable information on behalf of a client, and that the primary purpose of the field in practice was and, arguably, still is, influencing public opinion through the use of mass media.

Although historians and authors of textbooks sometimes trace the roots of the profession to the 17th century, when press agentry was used to promote settlements on the East Coast of America (Zoch and Molleda, 2006, p. 279), most scholars agree that public relations appeared as a profession in the late 1800s. Zoch and Molleda trace its beginning to the founding of the Publicity Bureau in the mid 1900 and the firm’s work for Harvard University, the railroads and AT&T. (pp. 279-280) Kruckeberg and Starck (1988) contend that the birth of contemporary public relations was prompted by the reaction against the muckrakers - investigative journalists who used publicity to attack business: “Business people began asking themselves whether traditional policies of secrecy were really the wisest course. If publicity was being used so effectively to attack business, why could it not be used equally well to explain and defend it?” (p. 6) Ledingham and Bruning (2000) agree that the field began to emerge as a powerful corporate tool in the early 20th century. Industrial and business leaders sought to prevent governmental interference by hiring experts in public relations to shape public opinion through the use of mass media. These experts were usually journalists – often referred to as “journalists in residence” – who provided advice on ways to get an organization’s name in the press. (pp. xi-xii)

Lippmann (1922), in his analysis of the concept of public opinion, pointed out that leaders in business and politics were “compelled often to choose even at the best between the equally cogent though conflicting ideals of safety for the institution and candor to [their] public,” and had to decide what facts and in what setting would be made available to the public. (p. 158) Lippmann suggested that the underlying reason for the existence of the press agent, or public relations, was the knowledge of how to create consent:

The enormous discretion as to what facts and what impressions shall be reported is steadily convincing every organized group of people that whether it wishes to secure publicity or avoid it, the exercise of discretion cannot be left to the reporter. It is safer to hire a press agent who stands between the group and the newspapers .… Many of the direct channels to news have been closed and the information for the public is first filtered thru publicity agents. The great corporations have them, the banks have them, the railroads have them, all the organizations of business and of social and political activity have them, and they are the media through which news comes. (pp. 217-218)

Lippmann (1922) explained that “the publicity man” made his own choice of facts for the newspapers to print, thus saving the reporter much trouble by presenting him a clear picture of a situation. Yet, that picture was “the one he [wished] the public to see. He [was] a censor and propagandist, responsible only to his employers, and to the whole truth responsible only as it accords with the employer’s conception of his own interests.” (p. 218)

Grunig' and Hunt (1984), in their influential theory of four models of public relations, which traces the evolution of public relations from a one-way asymmetrical to a two-way symmetrical communication model, offered a slightly different viewpoint, describing the early practice of public relations, also known as “the public be fooled” (Goldman, as cited in Grunig and Grunig, 1992, p. 286), as press-agentry/publicity, or a one-way asymmetric model, which implies unbalanced, one-way communication between the organization and its audience. Grunig and Grunig (1992) considered the practice of hiring a “journalist in residence” to be the next stage in the development of public relations, which is the public information model. They noted, that although these journalists, hired as public relations counsel, included only favorable information in their handouts, the information was generally truthful. (p. 288) However, Ledingham and Bruning (2000) argued that “the dominance of the field … by former journalists reinforced the notion of manipulation of the mass media and generating favorable publicity as the central focus of public relations practice.” (p. xii) Cutlip (1994) quotes an early practitioner: “I was in the publicity business. I was a press agent. Very simply, my job was to get the client’s name in the paper.” (Cutlip, as cited in Ledingham and Bruning, 2000, p. xii) Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that the goal of early public relations was influencing public opinion through the use of mass media.

Beginning with the Creel Committee during World War I public relations practitioners began to incorporate into their work behavioral and social sciences; “the foremost of these practitioners was Edward Bernays.” (Grunig and Grunig, 1992, p. 288) The approach was based on gathering information about the organization’s target audience and applying it to achieve the organization’s communication goals. Bernays’s definition of public relations stated that “public relations is an attempt, by information, persuasion, and adjustment, to engineer public support for an activity, case, movement or institution.” (Bernays, 1955, pp. 3-4) The theories of this approach introduced by Bernays were based on propaganda, persuasion and “engineering of consent” – which, again, can be described as manipulation of public opinion through the use of mass media.

The two-way symmetrical model, proposed by Grunig and Grunig (1992) implies the use of research to gather information about the organization’s publics to facilitate understanding and communication rather than to identify messages most likely to persuade or motivate publics. In this model, understanding, rather than persuasion, is the principal objective of public relations. (p. 289)

However, most scholars, including Grunig and Grunig (1992, p. 305), agree that today’s public relation is still focused primarily on media relations and publicity. Kruckeberg and Starck (1988) argued that public relations was most commonly practiced today as persuasive communication to obtain a vested goal on behalf of a client. Ledingham and Bruning (2000) observed that, although some scholars argue that the role of “journalist in residence” has been replaced by that of the “expert prescriber” – a public relations counselor who advises the client on matters of public policy (Broom and Dozier, 1986, as cited in Ledingham and Bruning, 2000, p. xii), in reality, organizations “still view public relations primarily as a means of generating favorable publicity. Their rationale for public relations is found not in the management of reciprocal relationships between an organization and its publics, but rather in ‘the credibility attached to information that has been examined by reporters through third party endorsement by the media.’” (p. xii) Finally, Grunig and Grunig (1992) discovered that, contrary to their expectations, press-agentry – the first model of public relations – was still the most common form of public relations in practice (p. 305).

Thus, it is easy to conclude that, despite the existence of theories, according to which the profession is based on two-way communication and mutual understanding, in practice, public relations, rather than restoring community, is still, to a large degree, centered on influencing public opinion through the use of mass media.

Public Relations Applied to the Concept of Modern Community

Nevertheless, Starck and Kruckeberg (2004), in the later works, reaffirmed their Community-building theory and, noting that today’s communication technologies allow for new forms of community to exist, which are based on occupational criteria and allow for a higher level of participation, argued that “enlightened public relations practitioners who philosophically subscribe to and have a theoretical understanding of Community-building can exploit modern means of communication to build and enhance a desirable sense of community.” (pp. 51-52) The authors observed that today’s society and communities within society are far more complex than in the past, and make adjustments to the concepts of the Chicago School of Social Thought, thus bridging the social and historical context of the past with modern reality and providing theoretical grounding for the concept of a restored, yet transformed community.

According to the Chicago School, an individual can belong only to one community. (Kruckeberg, Starck, and Vujnovic, 2006, p. 488). Kruckeberg et al. contended that today it is possible to belong to many different communities due to modern communication technology. The authors acknowledged that, although the early work of the Chicago School of Social Thought and the related work of Kruckeberg and Starck (1988) support the idea that the sense of community was lost because of transportation and communication technology, “new communication technologies have shown promise for an ever-increasing capacity for communicative interactivity, and therefore for the individuals greater participation in the community.” (p. 489) Therefore, while new communication technologies a century ago may have contributed to the loss of communities, “the potential exists today for a sense of community to reevolve through the ease of community participation that is now available.” (p. 489)

Kruckeberg et al. (2006) agreed with the Chicago School that membership in the community is defined in part by the community and in part by the individual; with the individual’s level of participation determining his true community membership. The authors emphasized that, while participation requires communication, “other community members must recognize and accept the individual’s membership in the community.” (p. 489)

Yet another assertion of the Chicago School was that “people in a community occupy a definable geographical area.” (Kruckeberg et al., 2006, p. 489) Geographic proximity, indeed, used to be essential to community:

The medieval village, the colonial town of New England, and the American country town of the nineteenth century had required direct intercourse and personal acquaintance with the whole round of life for a sense of belonging to flourish … The size of the city-state which Aristotle prescribed did not exceed the range of human voice, for the good state was one in which the citizen identified with the whole and dealt knowledgeably with all aspects of public affairs. (Quandt, 1970, p. 53)

However, Quandt noted that small size was no longer a requirement for community:

In the modern world, the printed word replaced speech as the architect of the common will and an enlightened public opinion … Howe suggested that the press might convert the American city into a larger version of those ancient and medieval cities which evoked such loyalty from their citizens. (p. 53)

In this regard, Kruckeberg and Starck (1988) noted:

In [public relations], a community is most often thought of as a city or area where the organization is physically located. Employees, customers, stockholders, suppliers and many other key “publics” of the organization may be located within the same “geographic public.” Therefore, practitioners will sometimes describe the community in community public relations as all those who do not have a direct financial interest in the organization, although these members of the geographic public might have a considerable secondary financial interest. (pp. 23-24)

Community relations is defined as an organization’s “planned, active and continuing participation with and within a community to maintain and enhance its environment to the benefit of both the institution and the community. (Peak, 1998, as cited in Ledingham and Bruning, 2004, p. 527) However, Kruckeberg and Starck argued that a community in traditional community relations might be more accurately called a “geographic public.” Public relations practitioners “are simply utilizing persuasive communication to obtain a vested goal for their client, and this goal is directed towards a geographic public.” (p. 26)

Kruckeberg et al. (2006) argued that several public relations concepts need to be revisited, such as the concept of the nonpublic, which cannot exist within the global community because of everyone’s importance within the community and therefore everyone’s membership in at least one of the organization’s publics. “In this context, the long-discredited general public is given new meaning – indeed ultimate importance, if society is the organization’s most important stakeholder.” (p. 494)

Other scholars make similar arguments in regards to the organization’s role in the new community. Grunig and White (1992) suggested that “public relations should play an idealistic role in society by serving the public interest, increasing mutual understanding, and encouraging debate and dialogue.” (as cited in Leeper, 2004, p. 102) Leeper (2004) noted that “recognizing community as the context within which organizations operate, and recognizing the importance to organizations of establishing strong communities, is a good backdrop for realizing [this] idealistic role of public relations.” (p. 102) Wilson (2004) notes that participation in a community is both a right and a responsibility. She observes that the modern corporation and its pr are different from what they have been to date. “Business approaches that have focused predominantly on profit and have formed relationships with internal and external publics for primarily manipulative purposes are doomed to fail in today’s evolving business ecosystems. Probably with rare exceptions, corporate success in the 21st century will be based on the quality of the relationships built…emphasizing communities of mutual support and cooperation.” (p. 524)

Vujnovic et al. (2007) concluded that “without the recognition of nonpublics and the general public, public relations in its theory and practice can only be hypocritical in its attempts at relationship building and can only remain inadequate in its efforts at community building.” (p. 6)

Public Relations and Communication

Kruckeberg and Starck (1988) emphasize the role of new communication technologies in restoring the sense of community. This concept comes directly from the writings of Dewey (1927) and other scholars of the Chicago School. Quandt (1970) observed that in the notion of communication, new communication technology was of equal importance to face-to-face relationships; that it was “a phenomenon which overcame the limits of geography, multiplied the frequency and variety of contacts, and gave access to a nearly endless supply of information and opinion.” (p. 51) The technological advances which were the underlying reasons for these ideas, included:

the telegraph of the 1840s which speeded up newspaper reporting; the rotary press of the 1870s which accelerated the printing of newspapers; the improvements of papermaking and bookbinding which made possible the production of inexpensive books in the 1840s; the telephone, patented in 1876; and finally, the motion picture, launched as a commercial enterprise in 1906; and the radio, given its first commercial station in 1920. (Quandt, 1970, p. 20)

Quandt concludes that for communitarians these inventions contained “the unprecedented promise of making the nation a neighborhood.” (p. 20)

In a similar way, Kruckeberg and Starck (1988) hoped that public relations practitioners will shift their focus from influencing public opinion to applying their professional communication skills and new communication technologies to the process of restoring community in modern society. Kruckeberg and Starck’s ideas are based on a logically flawless assumption: community exists through communication, public relations practitioners are professional communicators, therefore, public relations can and should help restore community. However, this assumption implies, to a certain extent, that community members are not capable (or are less capable) of restoring community through communication on their own, without the help of communication professionals. This theme brings up the famous debate between Walter Lippmann and John Dewey about the role of communication and the public itself in the shaping of public opinion.

Debate on Public Opinion Applied to Public Relations

Carey (1989) observed that in earlier writings on mass media the central problematic was freedom. Freedom “guaranteed the availability of perfect information,” and perfect information guaranteed that people would be rational in choosing the most effective means to their individual ends, and if so, “in a manner never quite explained, the social good will result.” Therefore, “once freedom was secured against these forces, truth and social progress were guaranteed.” (pp. 75-76) Lippmann changed this problematic by arguing that a free system of communication would not guarantee “perfect information” due to the nature of news and the audience itself. (Carey, p. 76) Lippmann (1925) considered the public to be incapable of understanding and acting upon the complex nature of facts because there was too much to learn, too much info to keep track of, because “the citizen gives but a little of his time to public affairs, has but a casual interest in facts and but a poor appetite for theory,” (pp. 24-25) and because “[the citizen] cannot know all about everything all the time, and while he is watching one thing, a thousand others undergo great changes.” (p. 25) Lippmann concluded:

The individual man does not have opinions on all public affairs. He does not know how to direct public affairs. He does not know what is happening, why it is happening, what ought to happen …There is not the least reason for thinking … that the compounding of individual ignorances in masses of people can produce a continuing directing force in public affairs. (p. 39)

The solution, offered by Lippmann, is to leave public affairs to “men of quality,” to the experts and elites, and have the mass media repackage the information in simple terms for the general public, which will react to this information emotionally and will align itself with one of the sides in the debate.

Likewise, although not to the same extent, Kruckeberg and Starck (1988) suggested that communication should be left to the experts – i.e., public relations practitioners, who are experienced in communication. Other public relations scholars take this argument further. Kent and Taylor (1998), for example, in discussing the building of dialogic communication with publics through the Internet, suggest that organizations must leave communication through email to those who have been specially trained for that:

There is a danger that organizational members who may be technically proficient …may not be skilled in addressing public concerns. Dialogic public relations on the Internet requires the same professionalism and communication skills as it required from public relations specialists who use the more traditional media of print and broadcast. Although direct access to key members of an organization might represent the most dialogic and egalitarian means of providing publics with access to an organization, such an approach might create more public relations problems than it solves. One way to avoid such problems is to designate particular individuals on the public relations staff as Internet contacts. These individuals can be trained to answer questions, explain organizational policy and have the communication skills necessary to handle difficult questions or public concerns. (p. 327)

Clearly, there is a close resemblance between the two arguments, and, although Lippmann (1925) discusses the public’s inability to understand the complexity of facts to shape an educated opinion, whereas public relations scholars question the public’s ability to communicate independently, both cases are dealing with the idea of delegating a social activity, practiced by members of the public in everyday life, to a select group of experts specially trained to handle this activity.

Carey (1989) observed that Lippmann viewed the public as a second-order spectator: experts observed reality and represented it in simple terms for the mass audience.

Dewey (1927) cautioned that “a class of experts is inevitably so removed from common interests as to become a class with private interests and private knowledge” (p. 207) (“The man who wears the shoe knows best that it pinches and where it pinches, even if the expert shoemaker is the best judge of how it can be fixed.” (p. 207)) He argued that the public was a participant in reality’s “actual making.” Dewey argued that the knowledge needed to be involved in politics, was to be generated by the interaction of citizens and experts. Lippmann (1925) believed that the public was not able to participate in the process of democracy and was essentially “a phantom,” or nonexistent. Dewey, however, hoped the public would regain a sense of self. The solution was communication: “Till the Great Society is converted into a Great Community, the Public will remain in eclipse. Communication alone can create a great community.” (Dewey, p. 142)

In public relations, a similar argument can be made in favor of the community being restored through the communication efforts of the public itself. However, according to my knowledge, such an argument has not been made in public relations literature. On the contrary, as it has been already noted, the general public is considered in most contemporary public relations theory and practice as being insignificant and powerless (Vujnovic et al., 2007), or even nonexistent (Cutlip et al., 2000). This is unfortunate, yet understandable: an acknowledgement of the public’s ability to communicate independently ultimately questions the role of the “communication experts” in society.

Conversation as a Requirement for Community

Kruckeberg and Starck (1988) argued that public relations came to being as a result of the loss of community. This statement can be supported with an argument that the concept of influencing public opinion simply could not have coexisted in the same context together with traditional community and became possible only after traditional community was lost. Dewey (1927) referred to “remote and invisible organizations” that significantly affected local communities: “the local communities without intent or forecast found their affairs conditioned by remote and invisible organizations. The scope of the latter’s activities was so vast … that it is no exaggeration to speak of ‘a new age of human relationships.’” (p. 98) However, these kinds of organizations simply did not exist in traditional community. Instead, these “remote and invisible organizations” were local and quite visible members of the community. Wiebe (1967), describing America of the nineteenth century, calls it “a society of island communities” (p. xiii) where communication was carried out in personal, informal way. Face-to-face communication, with everyone in the community knowing each other, and common problems being discussed and solved at the town meeting made facilitating communication on behalf of a community member – whether an individual, or a business – both unnecessary and, arguably, impossible: community members “facilitated communication” on their own – through the means of conversation. “Engineering public consent” by sending different messages to different members of the community would have been impossible due to the simple fact that there were no secrets in the small town community.

Certainly, these communities are in the past and cannot/will not be restored. Dewey (1927) and the other communitarian scholars proposed to restore the values of traditional community through communication, specifically – new communication technologies. However, a closer look at Dewey’s arguments will demonstrate that the mass media did not have the ability and the necessary characteristics to fulfill its purpose. Dewey saw the essential need, “the main problem of The Public,” to be the improvement of the methods and conditions of debate and discussion, with the improvement depending upon “freeing and perfecting the processes of inquiry and dissemination of their conclusions.” (p. 209) Dewey considered conversation to be the ultimate context within which knowledge is to be understood:

Conversation has a vital import lacking in the fixed and frozen words of written speech…. Ideas which are not communicated, shared and reborn in expression are but soliloquy, broken and imperfect thought… Publication is partial and the public which results is partially informed and formed until the meanings it purveys pass from mouth to mouth. There is no limit to the intellectual endowment which may proceed from the flow of social intelligence when it circulates by word of mouth from one to another in the communications of the local community. That and only that gives reality to public opinion.(Dewey, as cited in Carey, 1989, p. 79)

Communication technology failed to satisfy this requirement simply because it did not provide the means for a true discussion. It is reasonable to suggest that, until recently, the mass media has been a one-way communication venue, with the exception of letters to the editor and similar features allowing minor feedback from the audience. Even if processes of globalization, referred to by Vujnovic et al. (2007), have caused a type of global community to be created, Vujnovic et al. noted that governments, non-governmental organizations and corporations are still the main actors in the society’s communicative exchange, with mass media being the venue – which leads to a conclusion that it is not a true community, since only three of its most powerful members are allowed to communicate. Therefore, Dewey’s (1927) ideas about restoring community with the help of communication technology remain idealistic, or even naïve, and unattainable – just like the arguments of public relations scholars who defend the importance of the general public, which, according to the presented argumentation, has no significant voice in modern mass media, cannot communicate independently, and, therefore, cannot have any significant consequences for the organization.

However, that would change dramatically, if only the public were given the means for conversation.

The Blogosphere as the Restored Community

Starck and Kruckeberg (2004) observed that “a technological global society can retain very few secrets, just as there were no secrets in the American villages of the 1800s.” (p. 52) Such a statement, arguably, implies the existence of a global community, which has to exist through communication, since it has been shown that community and communication are, to a certain extent, inseparable.

It is widely accepted that the Internet has been instrumental in creating the new global community. Bell (2001) summarized this opinion by observing that “globalization [has] opened up the whole world as a potential source of community” (p. 96) with the Internet being key to this global community through providing members with new ways to belong. However, Bell also believes that communication is not the cornerstone of the new global community. For example, discussing the contemporary meaning of community, the author argues that the new “imagined community” is held together by its members believing in it and sharing cultural practice rather than face-to-face interaction. (p. 95) Nevertheless, other scholars emphasize the unique communication possibilities offered by the Internet. Rheingold (1999), elaborating on the type of activities individuals carry out online, demonstrates, beyond any doubt, the communicative nature of these activities:

In cyberspace we chat and argue, engage in intellectual intercourse, perform acts of commerce, exchange knowledge, share emotional support, make plans, brainstorm, gossip, feud, fall in love, find friends and lose them, play games and metagames, flirt, create a little high art and a lot of idle talk. We do everything people do when they get together, but we do it with words on computer screens, leaving our bodies behind. (Rheingold, as cited in Bell, p. 98)

Wijnia (2003), in reference to Berners-Lee’s view of the purpose of the World Wide Web (WWW), notes that “the WWW should be a place in which everyone can speak for him or herself without the boundaries that are set by traditional media.” (p. 1) The boundaries, in this context, can be understood in terms of the media being the gatekeepers of not information, but conversation. The best venue for conversation on the Internet today is, arguably, the blogosphere - a term referring to the collective network of blogs. A blog is a type of website, usually frequently updated, with its content arranged chronologically. The conversation carried out through blogs is facilitated by blog authors referring to each other’s posts through contextual links and discussing them directly through comments. Wijnia observes that blogs “could contribute to a new form of democracy in which consensus is no longer built by the mass media through broadcasting, but a process of conversations between people to reach consensus.” (p. 1) According to Hendrickson (2007), “blogging in many ways has returned to individuals and small groups the power to affect public discourse.” (p. 188)

Discussing the blogosphere’s phenomenon and its relation to traditional media is beyond the scope of this research. However, I will argue that new communication technologies, represented by the blogosphere, through facilitating a public forum for people from different groups, communities and nations, who previously could not have discussed matters of common interest due to location constraints, have given the public the means for conversation – in a way proving Dewey’s (1927) assertion that the “Great Community” can be attained with the help of communication technology. I will not elaborate on whether a sense of community has been restored or not, for that is not the point of this study. Instead, I will argue that the general public is emerging from its “eclipse” (Dewey, 1927) and is ready to be heard and cause significant consequences for organizations who choose to focus their public relations efforts on their perceived strategic publics and disregard the presence and significance of the public at large.

Summary of Reviewed Literature

The literature review has demonstrated that, although there has been much debate about the nature of public relations, there is a common thread which can be identified in most theories, which is the concept of segmenting the population, or the mass audience, into individual groups, or publics, targeting communication only at those publics which may have negative consequences for an organization.

The concept of a public, while originating from the field of political science, is defined in public relations as a group of people tied together by a common bond or interest or concern and who have consequences for an organization. The concept of multiple individual publics, as opposed to the general public, appeared in public relations with the adoption of the relationship-building approach, which was proposed as an alternative to the traditional communication and, according to many scholars, public opinion manipulation approach. According to this new philosophy, public relations was meant to establish and maintain mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and its key publics.

There are numerous ways in which the public at large can be divided into smaller publics. In public relations, two main approaches have been identified: the stakeholder approach, where members of each public are linked to the organization through their occupations; and the situational approach, where people are grouped into publics based on their perceptions of a specific situation or problem. However, in both cases, a common thread can be identified, which is the abandonment of the concept of the public at large, or the general public, as a potential candidate for communication and relationship building. This public is considered insignificant, powerless and even nonexistent in regards to public relations.

This concept has been criticized by many scholars, who found that the organization and its social environment cannot be segmented into discrete entities and the perceived publics are not fixed categories. Kruckeberg and Vujnovic proposed an Organic model of public relations which supports the concept and significance of nonpublics and the existence of the general public and suggests that the organization is not the center, but rather an organic part of the whole social system of society.

The concept of the Organic model is closely related to Kruckeberg and Starck’s (1988) Community-building theory of public relations. The authors argue that public relations should shift its focus from persuasive communication on behalf of a client to serving the society as well as the client and help restore and maintain the sense of community. And, although a historical overview of the profession has demonstrated that public relations is still centered on influencing public opinion through the use of mass media, Vujnovic et al. (2007) argued that “without the recognition of nonpublics and the general public, public relations in its theory and practice can only be hypocritical in its attempts at relationship building and can only remain inadequate in its efforts at community building.” (p. 6)

The connection between the concept of community and the field of public relations is communication: community exists through its members sharing attitudes, opinions, knowledge and information – i.e., through communication. Therefore, according to Kruckeberg and Starck (1988), public relations practitioners, being communication professionals, should use their communication skills to help restore community. However, this assumption implies that community members are not capable of restoring community through communication on their own, which brings up the famous debate between Walter Lippmann and John Dewey about the role of communication and the public itself in the shaping of public opinion. Similar to Lippmann’s (1922) argument, public relations scholars have suggested that communication should be left to communication professionals. However, just like Dewey (1927) defended the public’s ability to make decisions in regards to public affairs, an argument can be made in favor of the community being restored through the communication efforts of the public itself. Unfortunately, such an argument has not been made. Instead, the general public is considered in most contemporary public relations theory and practice as being insignificant and powerless.

It has been shown that community exists not just through communication, but through conversation. Conversation has not been supported by the mass media; however, new communication technologies provide such a possibility through the blogosphere. This study will argue that the general public may cause significant consequences for organizations who choose to focus their public relations efforts on their perceived strategic publics and disregard the presence and significance of the public at large.

 
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