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«13TH INTERNATIONAL PUBLIC RELATIONS RESEARCH CONFERENCE “Ethical Issues for Public Relations Practice in a Multicultural World” Holiday Inn ...»

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The only guidance the theory offers is through its proscriptive variables, which prohibit either communication or more accommodative communication. However, given the exigency and dynamism of many situations along the life cycle of an issue, non-communicating may not be an alternative offered to organizations. This study aims to unearth a new set of factors called ethical variables that influence the organization’s stance by reviewing corporate social responsibility and conflict communication literature to propose drivers that influence ethical elocution in crisis communication. Responsibility is ethics manifested (Joyner & Payne, 2002). Six factors, some not addressed by the theory, were found, namely the role of public relations practitioners; role of dominant coalition; exposure of organizational business and to diversity of cultures; government influence and intervention; nature of crisis; and activism. Though the study is exploratory, it represents a major theoretical breakthrough in theory building with the aim of offering a practical approach – rather than a philosophical argument and persuasion – for practitioners to begin engaging in ethical elocation.



The contingency theory of strategic conflict management, which began as an elaboration, qualification, and extension of the value of symmetry propounded in the excellence theory, has come into its own and emerged as an empirically tested perspective. It is grounded on the premise that complexity in strategic communication is best represented by enactment of stance on a continuum, which has, at one end of the continuum, advocacy, and at the other end, accommodation. At the poles of the continuum, advocacy means arguing exclusively for one’s own case, and accommodation, means entirely giving in to the other. The organization’s stance usually lies somewhere in between “at a given time regarding a given public” (Cameron, Pang, & Jin, 2008, p. 136). Over the last 12 years since its inception, to add structure to the matrix of 87 factors that the organization could draw on to determine its stance, contingency theorists have unearthed three sets of variables. Factors that influence the organization’s stance on the continuum before it interacts with its publics are called predisposing variables (Cancel, Mitrook & Cameron, 1999). Factors that influence the organization’s position on the continuum during interaction with its publics are called situational (Cancel, Mitrook, & Cameron, 1999). Factors that prohibit organizations being accommodative with its publics are called proscriptive variables (Cameron, Cropp, & Reber, 2001).

Despite the advances made, the theory has not addressed a prevailing question: How can the theory inform organizations to communicate ethically with its publics, especially during crisis? Even though the contingency theory is a positive rather than normative theory (Pang, Jin, & Cameron, in press), hence it’s non-prescriptive stance, there is still a need to, as Yarbrough, Cameron, Sallot, & McWilliams (1998) argued, explicate and elaborate “the efficacy and ethical implications” (p. 41) of the adoption of a given stance in practice. Thus far, the only guidance the theory offers is through its proscriptive variables, which prohibit either communication or more accommodative communication when the issue at hand violates the individual’s moral conviction or the organization’s fundamental principles. However, given the exigency and dynamism of many situations along the life cycle of an issue, non-communicating may not be an alternative offered to organizations.

This study, thus, aims to unearth a new set of factors called ethical variables that influence the organization’s stance on the continuum before it interacts with its publics. To do so, this study reviews conflict communication and corporate social responsibility literature to propose exploratory factors that influence ethical elocution in crisis communication. It is argued that insights from CSR literature could provide the initial roadmap on what constitutes ethical decision making. CSR can inform ethics as one manifestation of being responsible is being ethical. Responsibility is ethics manifested (Joyner & Payne, 2002).Velasquez (1999) argued that having an ethical bearing enables an organization to act responsibly. Crandall, Parnell and Spillan (2010) argued that CSR was closely related to ethical management of crises. Insights from conflict literature would provide a moral bearing to ethical elocution, i.e., how does one manage conflict in a manner that leads to a morally acceptable resolution? Fisher-Yoshida and Wasserman (2006) argued that individual, organizational, and contextual influencers all play its roles communicating ethically in moral conflicts.

The significance of this paper is three fold. First, this represents a breakthrough – albeit exploratory in nature – attempt to further develop the theory. The contingency theory has emerged as a dominant theory in crisis communication and conflict management (Pang, 2006;

556 Pang, Jin, & Cameron, in press) and attempts to enhance its explanatory powers would further our understanding of how ethical elocution can take place between the organization and its diverse publics. Second, the theory’s initial postulations of 87 factors influencing stance movements may have been more complex than imagined. This paper aims to streamline and understand the influence of pertinent factors in ethical crisis communication. Third, given the theory’s ability to generate new insights and expand the range of knowledge through its application and rootedness in the practical world (Pang, Cropp, & Cameron, 2006), this paper seeks to add to the dialogue and provide guidance to practitioners on what factors facilitate ethical elocution during crisis particularly when practitioners should be positioned as the “ethics counsel” (Bowen, 2008, p. 271). Unlike other conceptual work that explores moral phisophies in ethics (for instance, see Bowen, 2008a), this paper aims to offer a practical approach – rather than a philosophical argument and persuasion – for practitioners to begin engaging in ethical elocation.

This paper is divided into four sections. The first chronicles its origins, its theoretical platform, and the development of the theory into clusters of variables. The second reviews the CSR and conflict literature with a view of unearthing key factors that influence ethical and moral decision making and communication. The third and final section distills the key factors from the literature by relating to the contingency theory and identifies the ethical variables are derived.

–  –  –

From Models of practice to practicing dynamic Stances Much of the literature on effective strategic communication had been built on Grunig and Grunig’s (1992) and Grunig and Hunt’s (1984) excellence theory. Four models of excellence

have been posited:

Press Agentry/Publicity model: Here, the organization is only interested in  making its ethos and products known, even at the expense of half-truths;

Public Information model: Predominantly characterized by one-way transfer of  information from the organization to the publics, the aim is to provide information in a journalistic form;

Two-way asymmetric model: Instead of a rigid transference of information, the  organization uses surveys and polls to persuade the publics to accept its point of view;

Two-way symmetric model: Here, the organization is more amenable to  developing a dialogue with the publics. Communication flows both ways between the organization and the public and both sides are prepared to change their stances, with the aims of resolving the crisis in a professional, ethical and effective way.

The two-way symmetrical model has been positioned as normative theory, which stated how organizations should be practicing strategic communication that was regarded as the most ethical and effective manner (Grunig & Grunig, 1992; Grunig, 1996).

The contingency theory, however, saw a different reality. Cancel, Cameron, Sallot and Mitrook (1997) argued that strategic communication was more accurately portrayed along a continuum. Because strategic communication, particularly conflict management, was so complex and subtle, understanding it from any of the four models, particularly the two-way symmetrical model, would be far too limiting and rigid (Cameron, Cropp, & Reber, 2001, p. 245).

557 The organizational response to the strategic communication dilemma at hand, according to the contingency theory, which has, at one end of the continuum, advocacy, and at the other end, accommodation, was, thus, “It Depends”. The theory offered a matrix of 87 factors (see appendix 1), arranged thematically, that the organization could draw on to determine their stance.

Between advocacy, which means arguing for one’s own case, and accommodation, which means giving in, was a wide range of operational stances that influenced strategic communication strategies and these entailed “different degrees of advocacy and accommodation.” (Cancel, Cameron, Sallot, & Mitrook, 1997, p. 37). Along this continuum, the theory argued that any of the 87 factors, culled from strategic communication literature, excellence theory, observations, and grounded theory (Cameron, 1999, p. 31), could affect the location of an organization on that continuum “at a given time regarding a given public” (Cancel, Mitrook, & Cameron, 1999 p.

172; Yarbrough, Cameron, Sallot, & McWilliams, 1998, p. 40).

Pure ----------------------------------------------------- Pure Advocacy Accommodation The theory sought to understand the dynamics, within and without the organization that could affect an organization’s stance. By understanding these dynamics, it elaborated, specified the conditions, factors, and forces that under-girded such a stance.

Identifying Factors that influence adoption of Stance Among the 87 variables, practitioners argued that there were some that featured more prominently than the others. There were factors that influenced the organization’s position on the continuum before it interacts with a public; and there were variables that influenced the organization’s position on the continuum during interaction with its publics. The former have been categorized as predisposing variables, while the latter, situational variables. Some of the well-supported predisposing factors Cancel, Mitrook and Cameron (1999) found included: (1) The size of the organization; (2) Corporate culture; (3) Business exposure; (4) Public relations access to dominant coalition; (5) Dominant coalition enlightenment; (6) Individual characteristics of key individuals, like the CEO. These factors were supported in the conflict literature. For instance, organizational culture had been found to be a key factor in ensuring the formulation of a sound crisis plan and excellent crisis management (Marra, 1998). Situational variables were factors that were most likely to influence how an organization related to a public by effecting shifts from a predisposed accommodative or adversarial stance along the continuum during an interaction. Some of the supported situational factors included: (1) Urgency of the situation; (2) Characteristics of the other public; (3) Potential or obvious threats; (4) Potential costs or benefit for the organization from choosing the various stances (Cancel, Mitrook, & Cameron, 1999).

The classification of the factors into two categories was by no means an attempt to order the importance of one over the other in a given situation. The situational variables could determine the eventual degree of accommodation an organization takes by “effecting shifts from a predisposed accommodative or adversarial stance along the continuum during an interaction with the external public” (Yarbrough, Cameron, Sallot, & McWilliams, 1998, p. 43). At the same time, an organization may not move from its predisposed stance if the situational variables are not compelling nor powerful enough to influence the position or if the opportunity costs of the situational variables do not lead to any visible benefits (Cameron, Cropp & Reber, 2001).

558 Consequently, both predisposing and situational factors could move the organization toward increased accommodation or advocacy. What was important in determining where the organization situates on the continuum involved the “weighing of many factors found in the theory” (Yarbrough, Cameron, Sallot & McWilliams, 1998, p. 50). Notably, the factors explain movement either way along the continuum.

Ethical and Moral Parameters: Need to identify a New Set of Ethical Variables

Even as the contingency theorists were able to explain the complexity, contextual, and even the conundrum of a dialogic process, they had yet to answer one central question, which was whether communication could still take place with a morally repugnant public. In a subsequent test of the theory, Cameron, Cropp and Reber (2001) found that there were occasions when accommodation was not possible at all, due to moral, legal, and regulatory reasons. These were labeled proscriptive variables. Six were identified: (1) When there was moral conviction that an accommodative or dialogic stance towards a public may be inherently unethical; (2) when there was a need to maintain moral neutrality in the face of contending publics; (3) when legal constraints curtailed accommodation; (4) when there were regulatory restraints; (5) when senior management prohibited an accommodative stance; and lastly, (6) when the issue became a jurisdictional concern within the organization and resolution of the issue took on a constrained and complex process of negotiation. The proscriptive variables “did not necessarily drive increased or extreme advocacy, but did preclude compromise or even communication with a given public” (p. 253), argued Cameron, Cropp and Reber (2001).

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