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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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Abstract

This study wishes to explore a gap between the dialogic potential of the Internet and its actual utilization by Israeli businesses and nonprofit associations. It embraces the co-creational perspective from public relations theory since it emphasizes the importance of dialogue and twoway communication to organization–public relationship building (Botan & Taylor, 2004). In this study we suggest that the inclusion of interactive features in an organizational Web site is like a promise that creates expectations among individuals that their communication will receive a quick and relevant response; therefore, sites that offer interactivity but do not support it, in addition to not behaving ethically, arouse resentment for failing to honor the implied communication contract (Leichty & Esrock, 2001).

This study is based on a field experiment that explored the actual responsiveness rates of 1200 businesses and nonprofit associations to an online request for information sent to them by an individual member of a public. The study relies on the findings of a previous study (Avidar,

2009) that content analyzed the Web sites of the same 1200 businesses and nonprofit associations, while the current study asks whether organizations that insert more dialogic elements into their Web sites are also more responsive to external queries. The findings reveal that nonprofit associations are more responsive than businesses, and that the response time is distributed in a heavy-tailed distribution. In addition, businesses and nonprofit associations that score higher on dialogic elements are also more responsive than others, and nonprofit associations that insert Web 2.0 elements into their Web sites are more responsive than nonprofit associations that do not insert such elements into their Web sites.

31

Introduction

This study embraces the co-creational perspective from public relations theory (Botan & Taylor, 2004) since it emphasizes the importance of dialogue and two-way communication to organization–public relationship building. It also tries to reveal a gap between the dialogic potential of the Internet and its actual utilization by businesses and nonprofit associations.

The author of this study places the burden of relationship building on organizations. Since research suggests that individual-to-firm relationships are perceived as distant, with the parties hardly knowing each other, and as one-time transactional encounters (Iacobucci & Ostrom, 1996), we contend that it is up to organizations to enhance individuals’ perceptions of their mutual relationships and to move to closer interpersonal and symmetric relationships.

The initiative for conducting this study is rooted in the existing, awkward situation:

although increasingly sophisticated online technology enables organizations to communicate with various publics easily and directly, many organizations fail to utilize the interactive and dialogic potential of the Internet and stay unresponsive or non-interactive. It seems that organizations, in their neglect, forget that “... every interaction leaves an impression in the mind of your customer—the interaction either enhances the relationship, or it erodes the relationship” (eGain Communications Corp., 2001).

Theoretical background The co-creational approach The co-creational approach that emerged during the last two decades of the 20th century put organizational–public relationships at the center of public relations research (Botan & Taylor, 2004). The co-creational perspective emphasizes the important role of communication in enabling publics to become co-creators of meanings. This perspective uses research in order to advance understanding between groups and organizations while it uses communication as a means of helping to negotiate changes in these relationships.

One of the co-creational theories is the dialogic communication approach that added to the organization–public relationship building the notion of dialogue and “dialogic communication” as the theoretical frame guiding the relationship-building between organizations and publics (Taylor, Kent, & White, 2001). The term “dialogue” appeared in public relations literature over four decades ago (Sullivan, 1965), but Pearson (1989) was the first to present dialogue as a theoretical approach to public relations. He considered dialogue to be the most ethical form to conduct public relations, arguing that public relations should be seen as a tool for conducting an interpersonal dialectic, and that the important thing was to have a dialogic system rather than a monologist policy: “Dialogue is a precondition for any legitimate corporate conduct that affects a public of that organization” (Pearson, 1989, p. 128).

Botan (1997) explained that traditional approaches to public relations saw the public as a secondary actor that had to meet the organization’s policy and marketing needs, whereas a dialogue lifted the public up to the status of a communication equal.

The dialogic communication approach suggests that in order to create effective organization–communication channels, organizations must be willing to communicate with publics in honest and ethical ways (Taylor et al., 2001). Unlike the symmetrical approach (Grunig, 1989), the dialogic communication approach does not focus on conflict-solving; rather, it encourages participants to speak their voices, air different opinions, and exchange ideas.

Dialogic communication looks at the presentation of differences, with struggle and conflict being perceived as natural states (Deetz, 2001). Therefore, the aim of dialogic communication is to reveal existing problems, conflicts, and disagreements and to address them without the 32 compulsion to reach an agreement. According to Kent & Taylor (1998), two principles guide dialogic communication: the importance of reaching for mutually satisfying positions rather than agreeing with the other’s opinion; and the primacy of inter-subjectivity instead of objective truth or subjectivity. They also argued that whereas two-way symmetrical communication can be seen as a process, dialogue is a product, and dialogic communication is a particular relational interaction in which a relationship already exists (Kent & Taylor, 1998). In recent years, as the relational approach has gained popularity, it seems that the concept of “dialogue” has been joining and even replacing the concept of symmetry as an organizing principle in public relations theory (Taylor et al., 2001). Kent, Taylor and McAllister-Spooner (2008) suggested that the development of dialogic public relations theory and practice would continue to grow in the next decade.

Responsiveness Stromer-Galley (2004) described responsiveness as “when the receiver takes on the role of the sender and replies in some way to the original message source” (p. 117). According to Davis (1982), responsiveness may be thought of as the probability to which each partner responds to the other, the proportion of relevant responses, and responses that match the demand for appropriate elaboration that the speaker intended to elicit. She argued that four factors affect responsiveness in an interaction: attention to the other partner, accuracy of understanding of one another’s communication, possession of adequate response repertoires, and motivation to be responsive. The first three factors contribute to one’s capacity for responsiveness, while motivation is a choice that is affected by the rewards of being responsive (Davis, 1982).



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