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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 adherents of social media frequently cite the ability to use blogs, Twitter, discussion groups and other such tools as a means of “having a conversation with your customers.” The term “customer” implies a marketing-centric focus, rather than a strictly public relations one, but the Excellence project work suggests that two-way, symmetrical communications will bring about the best results. Is social media a manifestation of Excellence, or merely another channel for the distribution of messages? In particular, public relations outreach to bloggers (distinct from marketing outreach) is touted as an alternative to outreach to the mainstream media.

This paper will explore current literature on social media use in public relations generally, and apply Excellence and other theories to attempt to explain social media’s potential impact on business communications through a content analysis. This is envisioned as a foundation for other research, informing the creation of a qualitative assessment to be conducted in 2010 and eventually, a quantitative survey.

This research also could apply to internal communication use of social media, as data becomes available.

912 Summary Perhaps every social media guru, whether self-described or otherwise, sees blogging, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and such tools as the embodiment of the Cluetrain Manifesto. The Cluetrain’s first thesis is “Markets are conversations,” (Levine, et. al., 2000, p xxi) and social media would seem to be this article come true.

Social media is a means to allow conversation – real people having real dialogue. As marketers have begun using the tools, some organizations have thoroughly embraced this dictum;

organizational Twitter accounts have names attached to them, rather than a faceless logo.

Facebook pages are rife with dialogue from a real person monitoring and responding to friends’ postings. Corporate blogs have names and faces, just like the people who comment upon them.

In this paper, the authors examine what is in social media, rather than what should be.

Specifically, we examine the Twitter and blogging activity of companies from a variety of sectors, with special attention to whether the content of tweets, blog postings and comments represent particular PR theories. Social media is being studied, and marketing theories may be revealing in that study as well, but this paper does not include either marketing theories or any emerging theories of social media itself.

The paper is intended as the first of three in a project to better understand social media from a public relations perspective and provide the outline of best practices from a theoretical foundation.

Brief Review of the Literature Excellence Theory In public relations theory literature, the Excellence Theory, offering a two-way, symmetrical model of interaction, seems a good fit for social media if we extrapolate Excellence’s largely internal focus to the publics accessing the organization via social media.

“The study showed that the value of public relations comes from the relationships that organizations develop and maintain with publics. It also showed that the quality of relationships results more from the behavior of the organization than from the messages that communicators disseminate.” (Grunig, Grunig, Dozier in Botan/Hazelton, 2006, p. 55) The participative ideal of social media is made real by organizational behavior: involvement in social media activities. Therefore, relationship-building through social media should result in more favorable disposition for the organization in question.

“…communicators can develop relationship more effectively when they communicate with publics symmetrically rather than asymmetrically. Symmetrical communication is especially important inside the organization, where it helps to build a participative culture that, in turn, increases employee satisfaction with the organization.” (p. 55) Adopting the view that social media is a tool for bringing external publics closer to the organization leads to declaring that creating a participative culture among those publics will have similar effects. Symmetrical communication with external publics should result in higher levels of satisfaction there.

Symmetrical communication implies a willingness on the part of the organization to change if their publics want them to change. This element is a sticking point for organizational adoption of Excellence, as conducting communication activities in pursuit of organizational goals is an article of communicator faith.

Social media adherents, however, will point out that gathering information from publics and adjusting plans accordingly is a traditional element in strategic communication planning anyway.

913 The remaining principles of Excellence do not apply as clearly, given their focus on structure, managerial capacity, diversity and integration under a single executive.

Relationship Theory According to relationship theory, practitioners use relationship strategies to initiate and maintain long-term relationship outcomes with strategic publics (J. E. Grunig and Huang, 2000; Hon and J.E. Grunig, 1999). Four relationship outcomes include satisfaction, trust, commitment, and control mutuality (Hon and J.E. Grunig, 1999). These relationship outcomes help organizations be more effective in achieving such long-term organizational goals and objectives (Hon, 1997;

Hon and J.E. Grunig, 1999).

Relationship maintenance strategies, also referred to as relationship cultivation strategies (Broom, Casey, & Ritchey, 1997; Ki and Hon, 2009), are those tactics used by practitioners to produce relationship outcomes (J. E. Grunig and Huang, 2000; Hon and J. E. Grunig, 1999). The social media tactics and messaging used by public relations professionals can be conceptualized as relationship maintenance strategies. From a theoretical perspective, provided there are actual two-way communication and an honest attempt on the part of the organizational communicator to reach out and engage publics, social media strategies should result in increased satisfaction, trust, commitment, and control mutuality Theories regarding persuasion Pfau and Wan (in Botan/Hazelton 2006) argue that “persuasion continues to be an integral function of public relations.” (p. 112) They point out that “well-crafted messages force attention, affect beliefs, and ultimately, exert influence.” In this way of thinking, language matters quite a lot – information provision acting as the means to change thinking and behavior.

Pfau and Wan might look at social media and see a message delivery vehicle augmented by a means for feedback, and ideally suited to persuade. The social media purist rebels at this thought, steeped in the idea of participation for its own sake, saying “it’s all about the conversation.” (as of 3 February 2010, there were 9.5 million incidences of that phrase resulting from a Google search.) Krugman’s argument “that receiver involvement dictated how people process communication” (p. 113), and James Grunig’s observation that such involvement “determines whether people will seek out and actively process public relations messages...” (p. 113) links the demand for two-way communication to the concept of attaining PR objectives.

The Society for New Communication Research found that the biggest barriers to making social media work was “not technology-related or getting funding, but getting people involved in the community (51%), finding enough time to manage the community (45%), and attracting people to the community (34%).” The interaction among community members contributed the most to community success. (SNCR 2008) With most public relations messaging flowing forth without a means of publics involvement, preconceptions and learned decision rules (heuristics) will also influence understanding. If social media helps organizations create a more active and participative culture, messages should “stick” more effectively. (See discussions re: Chaiken on the Heuristic Systemic Model and Petty and Cacioppo on the Elaboration Likelihood Model, briefly noted in Botan/Hazelton 2006, pp. 113Therefore, if involvement and participation are so critical, we would expect to find two-way communication regularly among social media activities.

914 Medium Theory, which holds that “independent of the particular content communicated, media forms manifest unique symbol systems that shape both what is communicated and how it is received...” (p. 117) gained attention for its application to television advertising, and it could be applied to social media as well.

Chaudhuri and Buck (1995, cited in Botan/Hazelton 2006) said that television’s ability to transmit emotion helps viewers “create an emotional bond with the brand.” In their research, they contrast television and print, seeing print as more content oriented and television more source oriented.

Which of these would apply to social media? It’s possible that the viewing of messages (albeit in word form) is more similar to television viewing than to print reading, and therefore better able to foster emotional connection and participation than more passive media.

Conversely, if content is more important than medium, Rhetorical Theory can apply. Heath


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