«SPEAKING OF FAITH: PUBLIC RELATIONS PRACTICE AMONG RELIGION COMMUNICATORS IN THE UNITED STATES Committee: Dominic L. Lasorsa, Co-Supervisor Ronald ...»
Nevertheless, overall survey results in this study do not support that longstanding hack claim. RCC members gave slightly stronger support (M=2.71)—although still a neutral rating—to statements about the press agentry/publicity model than they did to the public information model. The factor analysis loaded three of the four press agentry/publicity measures into factors. Two were grouped with a measure from the twoway asymmetrical model. That factor emphasized persuasion through publicity. The other joined the lone public information measure in a two-item factor emphasizing the quest for positive news coverage. Both factors fit a promotional stereotype of public relations. That approach, which seeks to influence people, is consistent with the flack orientation— especially as represented by promoter P.T. Barnum.
Furthermore, religion communicators supported statements about the two-way symmetrical model (M=3.62). They tended to support statements about the two-way asymmetrical model (M=3.49). The two-way asymmetrical model represents the flack approach to public relations that Edward L. Bernays used. The two-way symmetrical model represents the management-oriented approach advocated by Grunig (1992) and Grunig, Grunig and Dozier (2002). Those findings provide additional evidence that RCC members may really be more flacks than they would like to admit.
Future research should explore how closely daily religion communication practice does or does not match language in the survey responses used in this study. Low reliability coefficients among RCC responses indicate that the longstanding Excellence survey statements may not describe how religion communicators understand public relations. That may be particularly true in today’s fast-changing environment of social media. Results from this study suggest that RCC members may acknowledge and favor Excellence concepts—especially research-based two-way communication. But they may or may not put those principles into practice. In fact, RCC respondents do not report the research expertise needed to carry out two-way symmetrical or asymmetrical public relations.
Depth-interview, participant-observation or case-study approaches may be more appropriate methods than survey research to probe questions about actual daily practices.
The most unexpected findings in this study are the persistent mismatches between faith group leaders and communicators concerning expectations. RCC members clearly do not know what their supervisors expect from them or their departments. That does not speak too well for the public relations competencies of religion communicators. Senior leaders should be a priority public for them and their departments. Furthermore, communicators have little excuse for not knowing what their leaders want or consider important. Proximity alone should provide such intelligence. Thirty-six percent of survey respondents said they were on their organization’s senior management team (“dominant coalition”). Two-thirds said they reported directly to their organization’s chief executive.
With that type of direct access, how could communicators consistently not know what their bosses think?
These results are not like the roles ambiguity reported by Dozier (1992). He found the expectations of supervisors sometimes at odds with communicators’ professional expectations learned through formal education or participation in professional organizations. But RCC members and faith group leaders independently gave basically the same responses to 16 statements about public relations practices (r=.99, p.05). When asked to predict how their leaders would respond to the 16 statements, however, communicators overestimated support for the press agentry/publicity and public information models. Furthermore they underestimated support for the two-way symmetrical and asymmetrical models. Communicators thought faith group leaders would consider attendance at events a primary indicator of public relations success, publicity the purpose of public relations and getting good news coverage the primary objective of communication work. Top executives generally disagreed with those ideas and were much more interested in researched-based efforts to establish relationships.
These priorities were in line with what Grunig, Grunig and Dozier (2002) reported for secular chief executives.
But faith group leaders were clearer about what they expected from communicators than secular top executives in Grunig, Grunig and Dozier (2002). Secular leaders identified five roles within the manager-technician categories: manager, technician, media relations specialist, senior manager and organizational representative. The manager role was an amalgam of the expert prescriber, communication facilitator and problem-solver functions identified by Broom (1982). But manager duties included senior manager and organizational representative subcategories. The technician dealt solely with internal communication tasks, such as writing, taking photographs and editing. Media relations was a separate technical function. Secular executives considered it more important than internal communication (Grunig, Grunig & Dozier, 2002).
Faith group leaders, too, said they wanted their communicators to be managers more than technicians. Specifically, top religious executives were looking for expert prescribers (although leaders may view that role differently from communicators) and problem-solving facilitators. Such communicators would diagnose communication problems, point out needs for systematic communication planning, plan and recommend courses of action, outline alternative approaches, keep management involved in communications decisions, make communication policy decisions, and take responsibility for the success or failure of the communication effort. Top executives did not expect communicators to spend much time taking pictures or editing materials written by others for grammar and spelling.
Like secular executives, faith group leaders valued two technical tasks related to media relations. Religious leaders gave high marks to maintaining contacts with reporters and keeping the leaders informed about what news media were reporting about the organization.
Religion communicators and leaders generally agreed about the way public relations contributed to strategic planning, issue management, major initiatives, routine operations and information gathering for management decision making. But communicators generally rated their contributions lower than their supervisors did. On only 1 of 10 measures (routine operations) did RCC members say their departments made major contributions to the organization. Communicators rated their contributions as “average” on six measures: responses to major social issues, major initiatives, judgments based on experience, strategic planning, contacts with knowledgeable people outside the organization, and informal approaches to information gathering. Leaders, on the other hand, said public relations made major contributions compared to other organizational departments on the first five of those six measures. Leaders rated informal approaches to information gathering as average. Furthermore, executives said public relations made average contributions in three additional areas: specific research to answer specific questions, formal approaches to gathering information for use in decision making, and regularly conducted and routine research activities. Communicators said they made minor contributions to formal information gathering and routine research.
These perception mismatches suggest new a research question: Why don’t religion communicators know what their bosses expect? That question deserves further investigation. Future research should also probe how faith group leaders understand the relationship of the six tasks related to the expert-prescriber role. A low Cronbach’s alpha for that scale among leaders in this study suggests they do not see the tasks all relating to a single, unified role. Depth interviews with faith group executives might reveal their thinking in more detail.
Findings from this study could not show any connection between Excellence Public Relations Theory and Church-Sect Theory among religion communicators or faith group leaders. The research design was too limited and the measures clearly too crude to detect if any overlapping dynamic existed.
The logic of Church-Sect Theory suggests denominations that accept their social environment (meeting the Johnson (1963) definition of “church”) would be likely to rely on two-way symmetrical relationships with groups in society. Mainline Protestant denominations meet Johnson’s description of church. That’s because scholars see them accommodating secular values more than other U.S, faith groups to lower tensions with society (Carroll & Roof, 1993; Finke & Stark, 2001, 2005; Johnson, 1963; McKinney, 1998; Michaelsen & Roof, 1986; Niebuhr, 1929; Roof & McKinney, 1987; Stark & Bainbridge, 1985; Stark & Finke, 2000; Wuthnow, 1988). In fact, mainline movements have been shown not only to accept social influences. Their call to mission—like many other Christian groups—motivates them to try to influence society (Stark & Bainbridge, 1985). As such, mainline Protestant denominations would seem to need two-way symmetrical communication “to protect and enhance their self-interests” (Grunig, Grunig & Dozier, 2002, p. 321). Therefore, mainline Protestant denominations would appear to be more likely candidates than other faith groups for regularly using two-way symmetrical public relations.
But contrary to the relationships proposed in H1, RCC members from mainline Protestant denominations were no more likely to agree with survey statements about twoway symmetrical public relations than communicators from other faith groups. In fact, results showed no differences in responses about the two-way symmetrical model between mainline and non-mainline groups. Composite means for the model were— contrary to H1 and what Church-Sect Theory would seem to predict—3.61 for mainline communicators and 3.62 for non-mainline communicators. Mainline communicators were, consistent with H1, less likely than non-mainline communicators to agree with survey statements about the other three models. But composite means for the two-way asymmetrical, press agentry/publicity and public information models were all pretty close.
The response pool may have been a factor. Respondents were mostly from centrist faith groups on the church-sect continuum. More than 60% of participants were mainline Protestants or Roman Catholics. Communicators from extreme groups—either Christian or non-Christian—were not strongly represented. All “other” faith groups in the H1 analysis showed higher tension with secular values than mainline Protestants (Stark & Finke, 2000). But no one from a far right- or left-wing Christian, Islamic, Jewish or other faith group replied to the survey. As a result, in this collection of religion communicators, faith group—and whether that group was classified as a church or sect—did not influence how individual practitioners responded to the 16 statements measuring public relations models. Religion communicators showed a general consensus about those statements.
Among faith group leaders, responses did follow the patterns predicted in H2.
Mainline executives had slightly higher composite mean scores than those from other faith groups for statements about two-way symmetrical public relations (M=3.44 mainline, M=3.41 non-mainline). Mainline leaders had lower composite mean scores than those from other groups for the other three models (M=3.06 mainline, M=3.31 nonmainline for two-way asymmetrical; M=2.56 mainline, M=3.06 non-mainline for press agentry/publicity; M=2.42 mainline, M=2.46 non-mainline for public information). But none of the differences were significant at the p.05 level and could, therefore, be the result of chance. Again, faith group did not really influence whether religion executives said they agreed or disagreed with the 16 statements about public relations practices.
In one sense, those results are surprising. Church-Sect Theory and the two-way symmetrical approach to public relations from Excellence Theory appear to be related.
Church-Sect Theory provides a useful way to explain Christian denominationalism, predict how faith groups might respond to social issues and analyze religious interactions—by both individuals and groups—with cultural forces. Excellence Public Relations Theory offers another way to explain and predict how organizations interact at the individual, organizational and program levels with groups in society. The two-way symmetrical approach mirrors the interactive dynamic in Church-Sect Theory.
Identifying a connection between these two theories would have been fascinating— especially because of the ethical implication. Such a connection could have opened new theory-building doors as well.
In another sense, however, finding no connection in this study is not surprising.
Grunig’s four statements about two-way symmetrical public relations were not designed to reflect the dynamic predicted by Church-Sect Theory. Trying to make them do that was an intellectual stretch. Therefore, learning that they did not show the church-sect dynamic was no shock.
The 16 statements in this study about public relations models measured only how much religion communicators agreed or disagreed with various descriptions of work. As noted earlier, responses did not indicate if RCC members actually practiced public relations in the ways described. Indeed, emphasis on technical roles and claims of little research expertise in other parts of this analysis gave strong evidence that RCC members did not practice either two-way approach. They did not report the ability to carry out symmetrical or asymmetrical tasks. Furthermore, low reliability coefficients for the four models and a factor analysis showed that religion communicators did not link the 16 statements about public relations practices the same ways that Excellence scholars did.
The resulting factors emphasized persuasion and publicity more than the relationship building implied by the two-way symmetrical model.