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Literature Review Research in Online Public Relations In the last decade, various online communication tools, such as websites, blogs and SNS have been utilized for practicing public relations. Those tools allow companies to communicate with their publics around the world in a spontaneous manner, and thus brought a lot of convenience for companies’ public relations activities. In the late 90s when the Internet started to get attention with public relations field, Kent and Taylor (1998) introduced a strategic framework to facilitate relationship building with publics through the Internet. They stressed the advantages for companies using the Internet to practice dialogic communication, which defined as “any negotiated exchange of ideas and opinions” (p. 325). In addition, they introduced five principles for successful integration of dialogic public relations and the Internet, that are the dialogic loop, the generation of return visit, the usefulness of information, the intuitiveness/ease of the interface, and the rule of conservation of visitors.
Past studies have examined how public relations practitioners use online communication, and have provided many strategic implication of utilizing online communication in the public relations field. For example, several studies about websites have shown that websites can be utilized as an impression management tool and media relations tool (e.g. Connolly-Ahern & Broadway, 2007;
Esrock & Leichty, 1998; Reber & Kim, 2006; Kirat, 2007). Other research also investigated companies’ weblog usage in public relations. Those studies indicated the possibility of utilizing weblogs as a relationship management tool (e.g. Kelleher & Miller, 2006; Seltzer & Mitrook, 2007;
Sweetser & Metzgar, 2007).
Social Networking Sites Compares with websites and weblogs, SNS are a relatively new online communication media and have just started to be utilized in the public relations field. Because of this short history, there are not enough studies about SNS and how can we define SNS is still under investigations. Boyd and Ellison (2007), for example, proposed that SNS is “a web-based services that allow individuals to (1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those are made by others within the system.” According to Downes (2005), SNS is “a collection of individuals linked together by a set of relations.” Overall, SNS can be regarded as websites that facilitate communication between users. It provides a convenient interface which allows users to post their comments, pictures, and videos on their own pages, or send them to their friends. In a typical SNS, users could have their own profile page where they list their interests or background information. SNS also allow users to form and participate in “groups” where users can get information and share their interests with others. Through SNS, users can easily maintain and build networks with others.
Because SNS allow users to easily share information, connect with others, and form virtual communities, SNS offer many opportunities for companies to cultivate relationships with their publics. Recent studies of SNS in the public relations field investigated how companies are trying to use SNS to reach their publics and build relationships with them (Bortree & Seltzer, 2009; Waters, 276 Burnett, Lamm, & Lucas, 2009). However, much research related to SNS conducted in public relations study is designed to analyze SNS from the companies’ perspective, and little is known about how users use SNS to interact with companies and brands. Therefore, this study will investigate SNS from the users’ perspective.
Culture and online communication Internet is an international medium. Therefore, differences in online communication across countries and the influence of cultures on online communication need to be examined. In the field of public relations, how companies can exercise international public relations has been a major topic among both scholars and practitioners. There is an increasing support for the idea that public relations practices can be influenced by cultures, and therefore, knowing the differences of cultures is crucial to start international public relations (e.g. Curtin & Gaither, 2007). Without knowing how online communication is influenced by cultures, this might cause misunderstanding between companies and foreign publics, and prevent companies from achieving public relations goals.
A number of researcher across disciplines have conducted cross-cultural comparisons of online communications in various topics, such as website designs (Cyr, Bonanni, Bowes, & Ilsever, 2005), website contents (Okazaki & Rivas, 2002; Wurtz, 2006), e-commerce (Gong, 2009, Yun, Park, & Ha, 2008), and online avatars (Koda, Ishida, Rehm, & André, 2009). Several cultural comparison studies in online communications have been done in public relations research as well (e.g. Tian, 2006). Recently, Kang and Mastin (2008) employed Hofstede’s cultural dimensions in a comparative analysis of international tourism public relations websites in 44 countries. The study found that the differences of power distance and individualism/collectivism affect websites’ design and content. For example, countries with high power distance have complex design layouts and feature in a Q&A space, whereas countries with low power distance preferred to handle users’ inquiries in interpersonal ways, such as e-mail.
These cultural comparison studies have often used Hofstede’s (1980) and Hall’s (1976) cultural dimensions as a base for explaining differences of online communication style among cultures. Among several dimensions proposed by Hofstede and Hall, individualism/collectivism, and high/low context are the most widely used dimensions in online communication studies (e.g.
Ardichvili, Maurer, Li, Wentling, & Stuedemann, 2006; Cry et al. 2005; Ferle & Kim, 2006; Gong, 2009; Okazaki & Rivas, 2002; Wurtz, 2006). In their comparison study between the U.S. and Korea, Ferle and Kim (2006) adopted individualism/collectivism and high/low context to assess the impact of culture on people’s online behavior and communication preference. Okazaki and Rivas (2002), on the other hand, used these two dimensions to analyze Japanese multinational corporations’ online communication strategies across different countries. These studies showed that the differences of online communication styles, such as prefer to use text or image and emphasize individual or group value, can be predicted by using these two dimensions.
This study also adopts individualism/collectivism and high/low context to examine how culture could influence people’s communication style in SNS. Individualism/collectivism is a cultural dimension which explains how people in different cultures manage relationship with others (Hickson & Pugh, 2001). Thus, it is especially appropriate to use this dimension for this study since SNS is all about socializing with others. High/low context is another cultural dimension which reflects the influence of culture on people’s relationship management strategy (Hickson & Pugh, 2001). Especially, high/low context explains whether one culture prefers direct or indirect communications and text-based or symbol-based messages (Mooij, 2005). This dimension can help us to assess the differences in writing style of massages in SNS, and therefore is a relevant cultural dimension for this study.
277 Individualism/collectivism and High/low Context Communication Individualism/collectivism is one of the cultural dimensions proposed by Hofstede (1980). In an individualistic culture, people are “I” conscious. The ties between individuals are loose, and people tend to be independent. Because individuals in this type of culture regard their individual value as the most important, they don’t hesitate to express their private opinion. In addition, there is less mutual obligation in individualistic cultures, and accomplishing personal goals are more important than in-group goals. The division between the private space and the public domain are strict, and therefore people tend to avoid asking personal questions and hesitate to share their own personal information with others, especially someone they are not familiar with (Ferle and Kim, 2006; Hickson & Pugh, 2003; Hofstede, 1980; Mooij, 2005).
In a collectivistic culture, on the other hand, people are likely to be interdependent. The emphasis is on belonging and the idea is to be a good member. The priority is given to relationship with people, and therefore in-group goals are more important than personal goals in collectivistic culture. Because of this interdependence, the identity of individuals in this type of culture is based on the social system. When people in collectivistic culture introduce themselves to others, they tend to provide many background information about themselves since these information are important to show who they are. In addition, the distinctions between the private space and the public space are blurred in this culture. Thus people in collectivistic culture feel more comfortable about sharing private information with others than people in individualistic culture (Ferle & Kim, 2006; Hickson & Pugh, 2003; Hofstede, 1980; Mooij, 2005).
Hall (1976) proposed high context and low context as a framework to help understanding the differences of communication style among cultures. In high context cultures, people prefer to use indirect and vague messages. Meaning of a message is not always explicitly manifested, but rather most of the information are hidden in the context or internalized in the person. Thus, time is needed to program messages in high context cultures. Moreover, individuals in this type of culture prefer to use visual information. Symbols are often utilized in high context cultures since symbols convey shared meaning in a society. In low context culture, direct and straightforward expression is preferred. Messages are more likely to be informative in nature in order to ensure that the listener receives the message exactly as it was sent. People in low context culture prefer explicit verbal message rather than symbols since visually oriented communication brings ambiguity (Ferle & Kim, 2006; Wurtz, 2006; Mooij, 2005).
Japan and the U.S. are different in both individualism/collectivism and high/low context communication. In Hofstede’s (1980) study, Japan and other Asian countries score low in individualistic index, and therefore are classified as collectivistic culture. Japan scores 46 in individualism index whereas the U.S. scores 91 which is the highest number among all countries in his study. In addition, Japan has been described as high context culture, while the U.S. has been classified as low-context culture in previous studies (Hall & Hall 1990; Mooij, 2005). Given the differences of cultural values between Japan and the U.S., the following research question is presented.
RQ1: What are the differences between Mixi and Facebook in terms of how users use these two SNS to communicate each other?
Particularly this study proposes two hypotheses about how individualism/collectivism and high/low context communication affect people’s communication styles in SNS. In the context of SNS, the differences of individualistic and collectivistic cultures could be manifested in users’ behaviors of disclosing personal information. As it was discussed above, sharing background information, such as where they are living, is a way for showing who they are in collectivistic cultures. Therefore, SNS users in collectivistic cultures would more likely to disclose their personal information than those in individualistic cultures.
H1: Mixi users will share information about themselves more than Facebook users.
278 If the communication in SNS has influence from high and low context cultural value, there should be more visually oriented information, such as photographs and emoticons, in high context culture countries than low context culture countries. In fact, several studies have showed this pattern in online communications (Ferle and Kim, 2006; Wurtz, 2006). Therefore the hypothesis related to high and low context culture value is;
H2: Comments in Mixi will have more visually oriented information than those in Facebook.
Method To answer the stated research question and hypotheses, a content analysis was conducted of comments gathered from online communities existing on Mixi and Facebook. After taking nationality and familiarity of brands in both countries into consideration, communities for three car brands, Lexus (TOYOTA), Cadillac (GM), and BMW were chosen for this study. There are two types of communities on Facebook; Facebook Groups and Facebook Pages. They are similar in nature, however, they are slightly different in terms of functionalities and how they are used.
Facebook Groups are similar to a typical virtual community where people who have similar interests become the members of the groups and share information with each other online. Facebook Pages, on the other hand, are used more as a place for disseminating information from the creator of the page to “fans” which refers to people who joined the page. The creators of brands’ Facebook Pages are often the staff of the companies who are dedicated to manage the pages. In this study, only Facebook Groups are used for analysis since these are more equivalent with online communities existing on Mixi, and therefore are more appropriate to be compared.
The study firstly analyzed the functionality the communities offer to users (e.g., places to put comments and links of outside information) in order to find overall interface differences between the two SNS. In addition, the study will analyze comments that appear on discussion boards (and “walls” for Facebook) in order to find whether there are differences between Mixi users and Facebook users in terms of the use of visually oriented information, disclosing their personal information, and what types of comments they write in SNS online communities.