«13TH INTERNATIONAL PUBLIC RELATIONS RESEARCH CONFERENCE “Ethical Issues for Public Relations Practice in a Multicultural World” Holiday Inn ...»
Ethical Concerns During the initial contacts with the interviewees, the purposes of studies, how the data would be used, and the time required for interviews were clearly explained. If a potential interviewee was reluctant to participate, he was never persuaded. At the beginning of each interview, the aim was restated and permission for tape recording was obtained. Interviewees were assured that no information about their identities or those of their organizations would be disclosed in any form without their permission. A small souvenir was given to each interviewee 511 to show our appreciation, and an executive summary of the report was promised to be given to them upon completion of the study.
Results New Characteristics of Publics in China: Getting Connected and Empowered Nowadays companies are not facing different independent publics, but public networks.
Publics such as the government, media, community, employees, customers, investores may have influences on each other, and relationships with one particular public may affect others. Public communication is changing from point communication to network communication. Just as the participant from a Fortune 500 chemical company put it, The media can affect the community, employees and their family members. NGO and customers can also reflect information and even problems to the media, and the media can expose and exaggerate it. Suppliers can affect customers…They are all interlocked, connected, and it’s just how much they connect.
Another participant from a multinational business software company also showed the same concern. In her opinion, the media can connect with the government; the government can connect with the competitors and business partners. Sometimes it only “‘takes one hair affecting the whole body’（牵一发而动全身）, you must take all these relationships into consideration when you make decisions. You need to balance the interests.” One participant from a Chinese internet company made such a comparison: “Relationships with all publics are like an ecological chain, when there are problems…with any party, there will be influences on others, and vice versa.” Besides, the strategic publics can also connect one another in another way. There are multiple roles of each public, and there can be overlapping and exchanges of roles. For example, according to one participant, media members can also be consumers and community members;
competitors or business partners may become customers or investors one day.
When publics are connected, they become empowered. With the fast development of internet in China, it provides more opportunities for publics to connect. As one participant from a Chinese internet company stated, “from website, BBS, to blog, instant messenger, more and more convenient channels are provided to different publics. Publics can access to the media very easily.” During the year 2008, China had the world’s second largest base of internet users in the world according to the recent report of CNNIC (China Internet Network Information Center).
Most companies in China realized this new rising force, wangmin (the net public). One participant, who is a general manager of a renowned Japanese consumer electronics company
showed his concern with an example:
In the past, when consumers have problems about our products, they would not think about to complain it in public and they also didn’t have this channel. Even if they said our products were not good, it was just limited in a small circle. Few people would know it. But nowadays, everything is different. Consumers are directly connected to the media. They can post their experiences in product BBS, community BBS, or their blogs, a small problem may be exposed, or enlarged in a short second! This may have big damage to our image and reputation.
Besides technologies, there were also social reasons causing the empowerment of publics.
Since the economic revolution and opening to the world by Deng Xiaoping in 1978, China has greatly changed in the economy system, social culture and every dimension of social life in the past thirty years. With the growth of the market economy and social change, Chinese consumers 512 are gradually enlightened and empowered. Consumerism is developing in the Chinese market.
One participant from a multinational chemical company, who has more than ten years’ experience in practicing marketing and public relations remarked, If we say it was companies dominant and publics [consumers] dominated in the past, then I think…the situation is different in recent years. Consumers are having an increasingly strong sense of individualization. The government made policies that favor those “minorities” (弱势群体). Besides, with the participation of the third parties, such as NGOs and the media, I feel it’s hard to see one side dominating and the other side passively receiving.
RQ1: Types of OPRs in China According to the interviewees, most of the types of relationships commonly exist between companies and their strategic publics except for manipulative and exploitive relationships. Most of the participants (13 out of 15) alleged that they do not have exploitive or manipulative relationships with their publics. As one participant from a Chinese internet company remarked, “Publics are no fool. You can not manipulate or exploit them. Once so, no one will trust you for a second time.” Some participants thought that in the past, there might be manipulative relationships and exploitive relationships because companies were more powerful in those days.
Publics had fewer choices. But, with the development of consumerism, the empowerment of publics, the emerging third parties’ communication, and increasingly fierce market competition, it is hard for one party to manipulate the other one.
However, among the participants, two interviewees asserted that they had all types of
OPRs including manipulative and exploitive relationships. One of them further explained:
What type of relationships to develop and what strategies to use depend on different characteristics of publics, different situations, and the most important criterion, the benefits. No matter what type of OPRs to develop, for companies, they want to get benefits.
Another participant from a multinational energy company gave an example of
manipulative relationship with the media:
Several years ago, I worked for a sports company. This company invited Liu Xiang as its spokesperson. Every time after the games, we would hold the press conference for him.
Outside of the games, this was the only window through which the media could contact Liu Xiang. For me, I had the negotiation power at that time. I had to ensure the positive image of the spokesperson on the media. Therefore, I would arrange those friendly media into the press conference and exclude the unfriendly ones from the list.
Then she further explained her logic:
Perhaps this is kind of a manipulative relationship. But from the perspective of the company, this is just a communication skill. Sometimes you need to have a strong attitude, and to be aggressive. Perhaps the tactics or skills are manipulative, but it’s for the good of the company. However, if you always manipulate or exploit the publics, the relationships will not last long.
“Different types of relationships are at different levels of companies. Some are at the strategic level, some are at the basic level and some are at the tactical level. They are situational,” the participant, a general manager from a multinational auto company also remarked.
RQ2: Types of OPRs and Strategic Resources 513 When talking about different types of OPRs as strategic organizational resource, most participants thought that communal relationships, exchange relationships and covenantal relationships are strategic resources that can generate tangible and intangible benefits for companies. These types of OPRs also fall into the win-win zone of OPRs developed by Hung (2002, 2005).
Communal relationships According to the interviewees, most participants asserted that they had communal relationships with the publics, and they can bring them long term benefits. One participant from
a Japanese consumer electronic company said:
Sometimes we don’t expect any return, such as what we did to help the victims in the Wenchuan 12 earthquake in May, 2008. We donated money to help those who were suffering. This is the social responsibility for us….But although we don’t ask for any return, this (communal relationship) can still help improve our reputation …and benefit our brands.
Another participant from a multinational energy company also agreed:
Our relationships with the community are communal. We can not expect any return from them in a short time. This is just like doing CSR. You can not say that you did communal service today, and tomorrow they will buy your products. Communal relationships are to build the positive images. For example, we are an energy source company, and the publics usually think we are detrimental to the environment. Then we promote the concept of “carbon release.” Do you think this will benefit our own business? Maybe. But what we are trying to do here is to blazon a sense of environment protection. The public will think that we are a responsible and friendly company.
Although most participants acknowledged that they had communal relationships, some of them thought that one-sided communal relationships seldom existed in the business world. As one participant from a multinational chemical company said, Every company has its purposes when communicating with each public, some salient and some hidden. Even if they are the NGOs, like Green Peace, they need the recognition from the publics and the social donations to live on. For companies, they need the revenue to return to shareholders. Communication or Relationships with each public are built on the basis of benefits. Tangible benefits are like selling products and earning money. Intangible benefits are like the survival right, competitive advantage, etc. If you are against by the publics, you can not stand, not to say develop. Therefore, I don’t think there are pure communal relationships.
Another participant from a Chinese internet company showed the similar opinion. In his opinion, building relationships with each public has its different purposes. Government relations are to get the product approval from the government. Building Relationships with the media is to disseminate the corporate voices and reduce negative media coverage. Good relationships with employees are to get good performance. Then he concluded, “I don’t think pure communal The Wenchuan earthquake, also know as the Great Sichuan earthquake was a deadly 12
relationships exist in companies; I think they do exist in the human society, for example, between friends.” There seemed to be some conflicts among different interviewees’ opinions on communal relationships. However, similar to Hung’s (2002) findings, almost all participants thought that gaining benefits was the ultimate goal for companies to develop OPRs. Communal relationships, realized or not, can bring benefits for companies and contribute to their survival in future, thus are organizational resources.
Exchange relationships Exchange relationships were acclaimed to be the most common relationships between companies and different publics from the interviews. Some companies directly described them as win-win OPRs as suggested in Hung (2005). They thought exchange relationships are the most dependable and lasting OPRs because they go with the benefit-oriented nature of enterprises. “Every company wants to earn money. If they are not mutual beneficial, the relationships can not be continued,” one participant from a Chinese internet company remarked.
Several participants gave sufficient evidence on why they thought exchange relationships were strategic organizational resources for companies. For example, one participant from a multinational telecommunications company talked about how both parties benefited from the
exchange relationship between the government and the company:
At the beginning, we don’t have the research center built in Hangzhou. But the Hangzhou government gave us many favorable benefits on policies and other aspects, such as helping us furnish our offices, tax refund, and low renting. Then our company built the research center here. Over the past years, our research center continued to expand, from 60 employees to 500 employees. We provided job opportunities, led the local industry, and helped local economic development. This is how we both benefitted.
Another participant from a Chinese top telecommunication company (Hong Kong) described the
exchange relationships with the media. She said:
For the media, they need to write story or a report, so they need to get the information from us. For financial analysts, they need information to write their own analysts report.
Also, we need them to pass our voices and to make our company look good to the publics. Basically, we need each other.
Therefore, as long as the exchange relationships are going on, there must be exchange of benefits and satisfaction of mutual needs. “It must be a win-win relationship,” concluded a participant from a multinational chemical company.
Covenantal relationships As discussed earlier, covenantal relationships mean both sides commit to a common good by open exchanges and the norm of reciprocity. The two parties may discuss on a common issue and one side is always to listen and provide responses. According to the interviewees, covenantal relationships do exist, and were also recognized as win-win OPRs (Hung, 2005).
Companies can benefit from covenantal relationships which are regarded as strategic resources.
One participant, a general manager from a multinational auto company gave an example illustrating the covenantal relationships with the publics in China when this auto company first
entered China in 1996: