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The Internet is a powerful medium of communication whose potential has not yet been harnessed to the fullest by public relations practitioners. In particular, the interactive applications that have been developed for use on the internet offer immense possibilities for the development of ethical, strategic, and symbiotic communication between organisations and their relevant publics. Further, in this era of globalization, these new media (often referred to as “social media”) provide organisations with the ability to communicate with a global audience around the clock easily and economically. On the other hand, organizational actions can also be closely scrutinized and challenged by a global audience now.
In the past decade, a number of studies have assessed how new media, especially web sites, have contributed to the public relations activities of a variety of organisations. Studies have examined the use of web features for public relations (eg. Wright & Hinson, 2008, 2009a, 2009b; Park and Reber, 2008; Kang and Norton, 2004; Kent, et al 2003; Taylor, et.al 2001;
Esrock & Leichty, 1998, 2000); the perceptions of public relations practitioners and users on the potential and actual effectiveness of websites for public relations purposes (eg. McAllisterSpooner, 2008; Hill & White, 2000); and the cultural and organisational factors that affect the differences in the use of websites for dialogic communication (e.g. Ingenhoff & Koelling, 2009, Pan & Xu, 2009, and Kang & Norton, 2004). Studies also have tried to develop, enhance, or critique frameworks for the use of websites for public relations using communication/organisational models and theories (e.g. Vorvoreanu, 2006, Taylor, et.al 2001, Hallahan, 2001, Kent & Taylor, 1998).
Organizations have traditionally used websites primarily for publicity purposes such as increasing awareness of their products and services. More recently, the onset of a variety of social media such as weblogs, chat rooms, social networking sites, micro-blogs, podcasts, and video sharing sites has led to varying degrees of diversification in the use of new media for public relations activities around the world. But that phenomenon is only now beginning to be studied.
Our enthusiasm for new media and their usefulness to organizations is tempered by our recognition of the Digital Divide. Norris (2001, p. 3 – 4) defined Digital Divide as the disparity in access to new media based on socio-economic factors, seen mostly between industrialized and developing countries and between the information rich (new media users) and information poor (non-users of new media) within a nation. Scholars such as Rose (2004) have contended that the gap in internet penetration may eventually disappear as proposed by the diffusion of innovations theory as market forces enable most people to access the internet using various media. However, others have focused on the gap among Internet users, or the divide between those who use and do not use the range of digital resources for personal purposes or for participation in public life (DiMaggio & Hargittai, 2001). Further, while previous perspectives on the digital divide focused on consumption and use, Schradie (2009) introduced another divide focusing on the gap in the digital production of content, which has become more relevant with the advent of Web 2.0 applications.
757 With the shift in focus from access to extent of use, the optimization of the Internet by those who already have access becomes function of individual/organization choice, skills and capabilities, and culture, as well as efficient policymaking by regulatory institutions (DiMaggio & Hargittai, 2001). Notwithstanding the Digital Divide, social media enable the aggregation, richness and porosity of information and can increase the interactivity, connectivity and networking amongst, at least, the publics who have access to these media. Availability of social media has made it easier for organisations to engage in interactive dialogic communication, which is the underpinning of building stable relationships with key stakeholders. But the Digital Divide should remind us that new media are not the panacea that a section of the elite tend to make them out to be – a point we wish to highlight at the outset, as it is very important when we view this topic from a global perspective.
This study seeks to understand: 1) how a sample of corporations and non-profit organizations are using web sites to interact with six key stakeholders; 2) whether there are key differences in the way these two types of organizations use web sites for building relationships with the six stakeholder groups; and 3) whether there has been a difference in web site usage by these organizations at two points in time —2004 and 2009 especially considering the onset of social media over the past couple of years. The next sections will review the existing literature and identify some key gaps; offer the study’s research objectives, research questions, and method used; and offer findings.
Usage of Online Media for Public Relations Much of the scholarship on new media and organisations has focused on prescribing better web design, appropriate features and content that facilitate dialogic communication, and analysis of actual use and relational outcomes across organisation types, across media, and across time. In general, one can discern three categories of literature that link new media with public relations.
The first set of studies consists of perception research regarding the potential and actual effects of theWeb as a public relations tool. Some studies have contended that public relations practitioners believe that websites display an organisation’s competitiveness, enhance its image, and increase a sense of professionalism, which has led them to set up organizational web presence (Hill & White, 2000). Others have assessed the views of CEO on the positive and negative potential of social media that encourage or hinder organisational decisions to invest on these media (PR Week/Burson-Marsteller, 2008). Among the positive perceptions of CEOs were websites as the best channel for communication during a crisis and online media as a tool for improving the organisation’s reputation. Negative perceptions of online media included lack of control over information exchanged and irrelevance to target clientele. On the other hand, scholars who have studied public relations practitioners’ perception of blogs (Wright & Hinson, 2008, 2009b) have noted that blogs help in building organizational credibility, help increase transparency, offer a low-cost way to develop relationships with stakeholders, and serve as a watchdog for traditional media. With regard to implications for employees, a study 758 commissioned by Edelman Public Relations and Intelliseek (2005) noted that social media have the potential to empower employees (p. 3).
A growing number of more recent studies have studied users’ perceived effectiveness of a variety of online social media. McAllister-Spooner (2008) studied the perception of college student users on the effectiveness of university websites using Vorvoreanu's (2003) userexperience model. Kelleher (2006) examined how blogs could create a conversational human voice and relational commitment, which were found to positively correlate with relational outcomes such as trust, satisfaction, and commitment. Wright & Hinson's (2008, 2009a) studies have found that public relations practitioners believe that the emergence of different social media has improved the way organizations communicate with internal and external publics. PR Week/Burson-Marsteller (2008) surveyed CEOs to assess their perception on the effectiveness of blogs and other social media in communicating with stakeholders, and on its impact of building relationships, reputation, and improving sales, among others. The study found that CEOs were divided about the effectiveness of using social media to reach stakeholders with 29% agreeing that social media are extremely effective as a communication tool while an equal number disagreed. Significantly, a large proportion (43%) believed that social media are only somewhat effective.
A second category of studies reevaluates the relevance of traditional public relations and suggests ways of using new media to enhance public relations practice. Kent and Taylor (1998) offered five dialogical principles relevant to the design and use of websites to enhance organisational relationship building practices. They noted that “without a dialogic loop in webbed communication, Internet public relations become [sic] nothing more than a new monologic communication medium, or a new marketing technology” (p. 325). Ryan (2003) emphasized that features that enable two-way communication are important components of a website and argued that dialogic online communication would force communicators to constantly refine, redevelop, and redesign products and services to meet changing customer demands. Phillips (2001) and Holtz (1999) discussed how to utilize specific internet applications (such as search engines, hyperlink libraries, webcasts, email, and newsgroups) to monitor and reach different audiences online. Hallahan (2001) examined the nature and value of usability research and provided an extensive list of ‘elements of an effective website based on usability principles.’ Despite some differences in the perspectives and strategies advanced, studies offering an
alternative method of conducting public relations seem to point to three relevant themes:
usability, interactivity, and dialogic communication. Dialogic communication, especially in the context of online communications, is more than an understanding of procedural rules or the development of feedback mechanisms. It includes the delivery of trustworthy information and a full understanding and disclosure of identities and online networks (Cozier & Witmer, 2007;
Phillip & Young, 2009). Jo & Kim (2003) posited that interactivity by means of innovativeness of websites and multimedia functions do not increase publics’ perception of involvement and relationship-building. This implies that superficial appearance and technological gimmicks in web sites have much lower return on investment (ROI) in terms of relational outcomes.
759 Studies have also challenged some fundamental assumptions about traditional public relations activities. The interactive features of the internet differ from traditional public relations tools, which called for much more effort on the part of organizations to engage in two-way communication (Cutlip et al., 2006; Oliver, 2001; Smith, 2002). Interactivity offers organisations different ways of analyzing and improving relationships by facilitating two-way feedback from the public. Phillips and Young (2009) posited that one of the dominant schools of thought in public relations scholarship (the Excellence Theory proposed by J. Grunig and his associates) characterizes the vector of communication as being between an organisation and its publics and is concerned with the “symmetry” of this action. However, Phillips and Young argued that in the context of new media, “the significant discourse is that which surrounds the organisation, product or service” enabled and aggregated across social networks (pp. 247-248).
Perspectives on how new media change the discourse of public relations have not been widely tested and deserve further study.
The third category consists of empirical studies, mostly using content analysis, that test the use of models for harnessing new media for public relations. A series of studies by Kent, Taylor and White (e.g. 2001, 2003) investigated the websites of environmental non-profit organisations in terms of the five dialogic principles in online communication that they advanced in 1998. Kang and Norton (2004) and Ingenhoff and Koelling (2009) used Kent & Taylor’s (1998) dialogic principles to study whether non-profit organisations use websites sufficiently enough to meet organisational relationship-building goals. Esrock and Leichty (1998, 2000) conducted a content analysis of messages and structural features of websites of Fortune 500 companies in terms of corporate responsibility and relationship-building respectively, and found minimal “meaningful, two way interaction between organisations and their publics” and that one-way corporate communication was very prominent in the use of web sites (p. 317). Park & Reber (2008) also conducted a content analysis of web sites and contended that Fortune 500 companies can do more to harness this medium to promote dialogue with stakeholders. Recent studies have extended this line of inquiry to Web 2.0 by investigating the usability, interactivity, and dialogic characteristics of organisations’ weblogs (Seltzer & Mitrook, 2007; Xifra & Huertas 2008).
Even though the opportunities for using the Internet for public relations activities have expanded, scholarship about online public relations is still evolving. A number of studies show that practitioners do not always maximise the interactive features of the Internet (Naudé, Froneman, & Atwood, 2004, Kang & Norton, 2004). Low interactivity in organisations’ web sites was found by some studies (Kent, et.al 2001, 2003; Kenix, 2007; Stein, 2007; Ingenhoff & Koelling, 2009) while others (Bortree & Seltzer, 2009, Waters, et. al., 2009) observed that organisations have used the dialogic and relationship-building abilities afforded by social media such as Facebook minimally.
Kent (2008) noted that “most organisations have not figured out how to use their Web sites except to sell things” (p. 39), and that while blogs have incredible potential as research, framing, and persuasion tools, their utility as a public relations tool is currently limited (pp. 1, 38-39). Jo and Kim (2003, p. 216) mentioned that while the Web is believed to facilitate better communication with a variety of publics, a number of content analysis studies (Hill & White, 2000; Ho, 1997) indicated that most content materials online are generally associated with 760 marketing activities to promote a favorable corporate image or for ‘promotional purposes.’ Park & Reber (2008) and Kent (2008) noted that organisations may be aware of the interactive capability of the web, but unclear about how to employ its dialogic features for relationship building. In sum, although the past decade has seen a significant increase in the research studying new media and organizations, there are also important gaps.
Gaps in Literature on Online Public Relations