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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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Public relations practice in China has been a fast-growing research topic area since the early 1990s (Chen & Culbertson, 1992; Chen, 2003; Chen & Culbertson, 2003; Culbertson & Chen, 1996). The main research areas explored include: relationship management (Hung, C. F. & Chen, Y. R., 2009; Hung, 2004, 2005; Ni, 2007), reputation management (Zhang & Cameron, 2003), government affairs (Chen, 2003; Chen, 2004; Zhang, E. & Benoit, W. L., 2009; Zhang & Cameron, 2004; Chen, 2007), consumer relations (Maynard & Tian, 2004; Wang, 2006; Wang & Wang, 2007), corporate social responsibility (Tang, L. & Li, H., 2009; Wang, J. & Chaudhri, V., 2009), and crisis communication (Chen, N., 2009; Li, H. & Tang, 2009; Liu, X, Chang, Z., & Zhao, P., 2009; Jin, Pang & Cameron, 2007; Wu, 2007). By far the main public relations theoretical frameworks evidenced in those studies are Grunig’s Excellence Model, image repair theory, strategic issues management, and contingency theory.

While most of the public relations theoretical frameworks have been tested in multicultural contexts, the contingency theory of strategic conflict management has yet to be fully explored (except for Shin, Park, & Cameron (2006)’s study using contingent factors to model PR practice in South Korea) in terms of 1) whether the contingency factor matrix holds in a Chinese PR practice context and 2) how the situational factors and predispositional factors influence conflict stance movements in dealing with a given Chinese public at a given time. In addition, based on Xue and Yu’s (2009) review of Chinese PR literature, the perspective of viewing public relations as strategic conflict management is still uncharted territory, although research has suggested the challenges and complexities in managing conflicts in China.

Therefore, to apply the conflict management theoretical framework to Chinese PR practice modeling and advance the knowledge of key PR practice issues in a multicultural setting, this study focuses on testing the contingency theory on Chinese PR practitioners’ strategic conflict management decision-making processes, using a survey of public relations practitioners across China. By identifying which contingent factors Chinese PR practitioners perceive as influential in their practice, this study aims at quantitatively testing the validity of the contingency theory. The results will facilitate researchers and practitioners with new perspectives for examining Chinese PR practice and provide practical insights about how to strategically identify and combine the most influential factors in effective and ethical conflict management in China.

Literature Review

The Contingency Theory of Strategic Conflict Management The contingency theory of strategic conflict management argues that strategic communication could be examined through a continuum whereby organizations practice a variety of stances at a given time for a given public depending on the circumstance, which is a “sense-making effort to ground a theory of accommodation in practitioner experience, to challenge certain aspects of the excellence theory…”(Yarbrough, Cameron, Sallot, & McWilliams, 1998, p. 53) and an attempt to provide as realistic and grounded a description of how intuitive, nuanced, and textured public relations have been practiced (Cancel, Mitrook, & Cameron, 1999; Cameron, Pang, & Jin, 2008).

Cameron and his colleagues examined how organizations practiced a variety of strategic communication stances at one point in time, how those stances changed, sometimes almost 468 instantaneously, and what influenced the change in stance (Cancel, Cameron, Sallot, & Mitrook, 1997). The organizational response to the strategic communication dilemma at hand, according to the contingency theory, which has, at one end of the continuum, pure advocacy, and at the other end, pure accommodation, was, thus, “It Depends”. The theory offered a matrix of 87 contingent variables, 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 variables 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).

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) Strategic communication to dominant coalition; (5) Dominant coalition enlightenment; (6) Individual characteristics of key individuals, like the CEO. 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).

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.

Understanding the Influences of Contingent Factors

–  –  –

Cameron (2003) further set out to test the construct of five thematic variables through scale building on 91 top public relations practitioners. The five thematic variables were external threats, external public characteristics, organizational characteristics, public relations department characteristics, and dominant coalition characteristics. The authors found that the scales supported “the theoretical soundness of contingency and the previous qualitative testing of contingency constructs” (p. 443).

To further understand the contingent factors that impact stance. Shin, Cameron and Cropp (2006) conducted a national survey of public relations practitioners on the perceived importance of contingent factors and the influence in their daily public relations practice.

Practitioners agreed that contingency theory did reflect their reality and organization-related characteristics were found to be most influential. Shin, Cameron and Cropp (2006) quantitatively tested all contingent variables and grouped them into 12 factors on two dimensions: 1) internal factors, including organization’s characteristics, PR department characteristics, management characteristics and individual characteristics; and 2) external factors, comprised of external threats, industry environment, political/social/cultural environment, and external publics.

To model generic public relations practice in South Korea, Shin, Park and Cameron (2006) conducted a survey to identify which contingent variables Korean public relations practitioners perceived as influential to their practice. Individual-level variables related to the abilities or characteristics of individual professionals were reported as most influential to their practice, such as practitioners’ predisposition towards altruism, ability to handle complex problems, communication competency, information use, and personal ethics. The degree of top management’s support for public relations was also reported as influential. Potentially damaging publicity was rated as critical to the public relations function. Shin, Park and Cameron (2006) further found that practitioners at the management level perceived organizational level variables as influential while the staff level indicated PR department variables as dominant to their practice. Also, practitioners mainly functions in government relations tended to acknowledge more influence of organizational variables.

To further test the validity and reliability of the contingency theory in Chinese context, this study aims to explore whether the contingency factor matrix holds in public relations in China and how the influences of contingent variables and their dimensionality might vary accordingly. In addition, based on Xue and Yu’s (2009) review of Chinese public relations literature, the perspective of viewing public relations as strategic conflict management is still uncharted territory, although research has suggested the challenges and complexities in managing conflicts in China. To apply the conflict management theoretical framework to Chinese PR practice modeling and advance the knowledge of key practice issues in a multicultural setting, this study focuses on testing the contingency theory on Chinese public relations practitioners’ strategic conflict management decision-making processes, using a survey of public relations practitioners across China. Also, factors such as gender (Aldoory & Toth,

2004) and whether practitioners working for a PR department or PR firm can also impact their public relations practice (Wilcox et al., 2004), which suggests that it would be theoretically meaningful to gauge their effects on how Chinese practitioners might perceive the contingent

factors’ influence differently. Thus, the following research questions are posited:

–  –  –

RQ2: Which contingent variables are combined as influential contingent factors in public relations practice in China?

RQ3: Are there any differences of the influences of these contingent factors as a function of practitioners’ gender and whether they work in PR departments or in PR firms?

–  –  –

The survey instrument was adapted from the survey Shin, Cameron and Cropp (2006) conducted on U.S. practitioners. More than 80 contingent factors identified by Cameron and his colleagues were listed and respondents were asked to evaluate how influential each factor is to their PR practice, using a 1-7 scale, with1 as not influential and 7 as very influential. The original English version of the questionnaire was translated and pilot-tested by Chinese practitioners. The online survey was launched on www.nquestion.com, a Chinese professional online survey service provider.

Practitioners were recruited using snowball sampling technique, due to the difficulty of obtaining access to existing practitioner membership directory9. According to Katz (2006), snowball sampling is “nonprobability method for developing a research sample where existing study subjects recruit future subjects from among their acquaintances.” As Katz (2006) mentioned, snowball sampling technique is often used “in cases where a sampling frame is hard to establish and it is assumed that cases are affiliated through links that can be exploited to locate other respondents based on existing ones.” In this study, without any sampling frame to draw random sample from, the first author emailed her Chinese public relations contacts and invite them to recruit their acquaintances and further share the survey link to other practitioners they know.

This online survey was conducted among Chinese public relations practitioners from November to December 2009, which yielded 94 total usable responses. Of the 94 Chinese practitioners participating in the online survey, 60% were female (n = 56), and 40% were male (n = 38). The range of the respondents’ age was 22-45, with an average age of 30. About 52% of the respondents had bachelor’s degrees and 26% had master’s degree. Half of them (51%) majored in areas other than journalism, public relations, advertising and business/marketing (n = 51), while 11% majored in journalism (n = 10), 9% majored in advertising (n = 8), 4% majored in public relations (n = 4), and 22 % majored in business or marketing (n = 21).

Most (40%) of the respondents worked for Chinese corporations (n = 38), 9 % worked for PR agency or firm (headquarters in China) (n = 8), 16% worked for PR agency of firm (headquarters overseas) (n = 15), 10% worked for multinational corporations (n = 9), 7% worked for non-profit organization ( n = 7), 10% worked for government (n = 9), 3% worked for university or other higher education institute (n = 3), and 5% worked for other types of organization (n = 5). In terms of the current main public relations practice area, 14% of the respondents worked in media relations (n = 13), 15% worked in consumer relations (n = 14), 25% worked in investor relations (n = 23), 21% worked in government relations (n = 20), 5% worked in community relations (n = 5), 15% worked in interest groups relations (n = 14), and 5% worked in other areas (n = 5). The range of the respondents’ public relations experience was 1The first author’s requests of obtaining access to existing national practitioner directory was denied by the public relations professional association due to various concerns.

471 16, with an average 3 years of experience in public relations. About 40% of the respondents (n =



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