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37) frequently involved in organization’s policy- and decision-making processes.
For the first research question, descriptive statistics suggested which of the over 80 contingent variables were perceived as most influential in the public relations practice in China.
For the second research question, an exploratory factor analysis was conducted to combine the contingent variables into a matrix of influential factors and to further explore the dimensionality of the contingency matrix. For the third research question, MONOVA was used to gauge the difference in perceived influences of these contingent factors as a function of practitioners’ gender and whether they work in public relations department or in public relations firm.
Most Influential Contingent Variables on Chinese public relations practice All the contingent variables were indicated as influential (see Table 1), except for “physical placement of department in building” (M = 3.88, SD = 1.70), “gender (percentage of female upper-level staff/managers)” (M = 3.76, SD = 1.43), which were indicated as not influential. “Gender (whether the practitioner is a female or male)” was reported as neutral (M = 4.00, SD = 1.62).
Internally, the most influential contingent variables indicated by Chinese practitioners in our survey are individual-level variables as related to conflict management, such as: 1) “predisposition toward negotiations” (M = 5.09, SD = 1.16), “cognitive complexity: ability to handle complex problems” (M = 5.07, SD = 1.26), “communication competency” (M = 5.06, SD = 1.37), and “comfort level with conflict or dissonance” (M = 5.00, SD = 1.21). Other more influential internal variables were: “corporate culture” (M = 4.80, SD = 1.34), “general communication competency of PR department” (M = 4.88, SD = 1.36), potential of PR department to practice various models of public relations” (M = 4.80, SD = 1.36), and individual practitioners’ “tolerance or ability to deal with uncertainty” (M = 4.88, SD = 1.25), “comfort level with change” (M = 4.81, SD = 1.46) as well as “extent to openness to innovation” (M = 4.86, SD = 1.26).
Externally, the most influential contingent variables were those government regulation related ones, such as: 1) “government regulation” (M = 4.99, SD = 1.62), “degree of political support of business” (M = 4.99, SD = 1.55), and “degree of social support of business” (M = 4.90, SD = 1.44). Other more influential external variables included: “potentially damaging publicity” (M = 4.88, SD = 1.57), “scarring of company’s reputation in business community and in the general public” (m = 4.88, SD = 1.70), and “degree of source credibility/powerful members or connections of the external public” (M = 4.85, SD = 1.71).
Dimensionality of Influential Contingency Factors in Chinese Context The over-80 contingent variables were grouped into ten factors on two dimensions (see Table 1) through an exploratory factor analysis. Initial data reduction with Varimax provided a solution with eigen values above 1.0 and accounted for 63.49% of the variance, which offered a two-factor solution of internal dimension and external dimension. The Cronbach alpha coefficients of both internal dimension (.80) and external dimension (.86) suggested a high reliability. Under external dimension, there were five factors (see Table 1): external threats (M = 4.78, SD = 1.07; alpha =.66), industry environment (M = 4.36, SD = 1.36; alpha =.78), general political/social/environment/external culture (M = 4.90, SD = 1.29; alpha =.65), the external 472 public (M = 4.43, SD =.85; alpha =.81). Under internal dimension (see Table 1), there were six factors: organization characteristics (M = 4.44, SD =.77; alpha =.85), PR department characteristics (M = 4.49, SD =.78; alpha =.79), characteristics of dominant coalition (M = 4.64, SD =.81; alpha =.76), internal threats (M = 4.52, SD =.98; alpha =.54), and individual characteristics (M = 4.72, SD =.77; alpha =.87). Croanbach alpha coefficients suggested high reliability, accordingly. Issue under question (M = 4.53, SD = 1.08; alpha =.63) was cross-listed under both internal and external dimensions, which suggested the issue itself needs to be further divided into internal and external issues under question for further specifications.
Differences in Perceived Influences of Contingent Factors MANOVA revealed significant main effects of gender and whether the practitioner works for PR department or PR firm. In terms of gender (F[1, 89] = 9.67, p.01, par. η2 =.098), male practitioners (M = 4.78, SD =.75) tended to perceive more influence from the external public in their PR practice than female practitioners did (m = 4.22, SD =.85). Gender was also associated with the differences in the perceived influence of organization’s characteristics in public relations practice (F[1, 89] = 5.72, p.05, par. η2 =.060): Male practitioners (M = 4.68, SD =.85) tended to perceive more influence of the organization’s characteristics than female practitioners did (M = 4.28, SD =.68).
In terms of the effects of whether a practitioners works for the PR department of an organization or works for a PR firm, the only main effects lies in the perceived influence of organization’s characteristics in public relations practice (F[1, 89] = 4.31, p.05, par. η2 =.046): Practitioners working for the PR department of an organization (M = 4.54, SD =.87) tended to perceive more influence of the organization’s characteristics than practitioners working in a PR firm did (M = 4.31, SD =.62).
Interactions of the above two factors were also evident. First, there was significant interaction effects on the perceived influence of organization’s characteristics in public relations practice (F[1, 89] = 6.17, p.05, par. η2 =.065) (see Figure 1): Male practitioners working in the PR department of an organization indicated the highest influence from the organization’s characteristics on their PR practice, while practitioners of different gender perceived the influence of the client’s organization as similarly low.
Second, there was significant interaction effects on the perceived influence of organization’s characteristics in public relations practice (F[1, 89] = 8.64, p.01, par. η2 =.088) (see Figure 2): Male practitioners working in the PR department of an organization indicated the highest influence from their individual characteristics on their PR practice, while female practitioners working in a PR firm perceived higher influence of their individual characteristics on their PR practice than the male practitioners did.
Heath and Coombs (2006) argued that theories are developed from best practices.
Contingency theory was developed to reflect the reality of practice. Its insights can be used to describe and inform public relations practice in the United States but also in other countries and regions. Results from Shin, Cameron and Cropp (2006)’s study among U.S. practitioners, Shin, Park and Cameron (2006)’s test of contingency theory in South Korea, as well as this current study in China indicate the validity and reliability of the contingency theory of strategic conflict management in different cultural contexts.
473 As the first quantitative test of contingency theory in China, this study provides practical and theoretical insights on the influence of each individual contingent variable perceived by Chinese public relations practitioners. By forming influential contingent factors and exploring the dimensionality of these factors using factor analysis, the results of this study suggested structural stability of the contingency matrix. Further, we tested the effects of gender and types of organizations on how practitioners perceive these influences in their public relations practice.
Dominant Influences of Individual Characteristics and Political-Social Support First, almost all the contingent variables identified by Cameron and his colleagues are influential in Chinese public relations practice. Similar to Shin, Cameron and Cropp (2006)’s findings, our survey results also indicate little influence of physical placement of PR department and gender issues such as the gender of PR managers and the surveyed individuals themselves.
Second, according to our survey respondents, among the over 80 contingent variables, the most influential ones are individual-level variables as related to conflict management. It shows Chinese practitioners’ tendency to emphasize individual contribution and influence on public relations practice. They tend to pay more attention to whether individual practitioners have the predisposition toward negotiations, whether they process the ability to handle complex problems using highly competent communication skills, as well as whether they are comfortable with conflict or dissonance. This is similar to Shin, Park and Cameron (2006)’s findings among South Korean practitioners, who also reported “individual-level variables related to the abilities or characteristics of individual professionals as most influential to their practice” (p. 184). U.S.
practitioners also indicated this “dominant influences of individual-level variables” (Shin, Cameron, & Cropp, 2006), especially the items on communication competency and the ability to handle complex problems.
Third, political and social influences seem to be very important in Chinese practitioners’ daily practice. The most influential contingent variables, according to our survey respondents, are government regulation and degree of political and social support of business. This is a unique important influence to Chinese practitioners, as these variables have not been reported as dominant influencers among U.S. or South Korean practitioners. This might be due to China’s political, economic and social systems and media frameworks, which play an important role on how public relations should be and can be conducted in China.
Fourth, there is another set of important contingent variables mixing organizational factors (i.e. related to corporate culture, general communication competency of PR department, and potential of PR department to practice various models of public relations) with individual factors (i.e. individual practitioner’s tolerance or ability to deal with uncertainty, their comfort level with change as well as extent to openness to innovation), which were also reported in Shin and her colleagues’ contingency theory studies in the U.S. and South Korea. External threats and the power of external publics are also found to be critical factors when it comes to Chinese practitioners’ decision-making.
Structural Stability of the Contingency Theory across Cultural Contexts Our findings indicate that the contingency theory of strategic conflict management serves a valuable role in continually reflecting the complex reality of public relations practice in different countries and regions as well as informing practitioners on effective strategic conflict management based on a solid understanding of internal and external influences. On one hand, as its core “It Depends” suggests, depending on the specific cultural context, there might be 474 variances in terms of which contingent variables might be most influential, which also impacts the relative power of different contingent factors. One the other hand, the general dimensionality, factors and components of the contingency theory seems to holds firm and tight based on existing survey results. The two dimensions (internal and external) as well as their factors demonstrate high reliability with the similar thematic categories rendered by Shin and her colleagues’ previous studies.
Noticeably, among the ten contingent factors, the most influential external factor is, again, general political/social/environment/external culture, followed by external threats. The most influential internal factor is individual characteristics, similar to the pattern revealed at the contingent variable level.
Interestingly, issue under question, a factor previously under “external dimension,” is cross-listed under both internal and external dimensions in this current study. Future research might consider dividing this factor into internal and external issues, which could be more specifically assigned to internal and external dimension, accordingly.
Different Contingent Factors Influence Chinese Practitioners Differently Although individual practitioners’ gender is not indicated as an influential contingent variable itself, according to our survey respondents, gender as a demographic factor has demonstrated significant effects on how male and female practitioners perceive differently the influence of the contingent factors. The power and characteristics of the external public exert more influence on male practitioners than on female practitioners. Organizational and individual characteristics are also more influential on how male practitioners practice public relations than on female practitioners. Female practitioners, on the other hand, tend to indicate less variance or change according to who they are, whom they work for, and who they need to deal with. This opens an interesting research direction to further explore how Chinese female practitioners handle public relations situations differently than male practitioners due to their different level of influence Whether a practitioner works for the PR department of an organization or works for a PR firm also impacts the influences of influence of an organization’s characteristics in public relations practice. It seems that practitioners working in a PR department are influenced more by the organization’s characteristics than those working in a PR firm, due to the different environment, nature of clients, and the work style, etc. (Wilcox et al., 2004). Further, this factor interacts with gender factor to provide more details of the influence picture: On one hand, male practitioners working in the PR department of an organization indicated the highest influence from both the organization’s characteristics and their individual characteristics; on the other hand, female practitioners working in a PR firm are more likely to be influenced by their individual characteristics. These findings provide important insights on future public relations professional training and research topics on further understanding the sources and processes of these relevant influences on public relations practice in China.