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Dal congresso Euprera di Lipsia: importante contributo sui nuovi pubblici


Un paper di Joao Duarte e Mafalda Eirò-Gomes.

EUPRERA/ DG PUK CONFERENCE, LEIPZIG, 2004"Public Relations and the Public Sphere: (New) Theoretical Approaches and Empirical Studies""Publics" for the Public RelationsPaper presented by Mafalda Eiró-Gomes (agomes@escs.ipl.pt) and João Duarte (jduarte@escs.ipl.pt)Leipzig, September, 20041. INTRODUCTIONTry to offer an exact and unique definition of the Public Relations concept is not an easy task. We might even say that if that it was our goal it would be impossible to accomplish. Although it is almost consensual that public relations are in a certain sense a management function that identifies, establishes and maintains mutually beneficial relations between an organization and its publics, we know that this is not the unique possible definition of Public Relations, but we are essentially interested in explaining how the notion of "publics" emerge as central in the definition sketched above. The notion of "publics" emerges as part of the very definition of Public Relations. However this notion is not exclusive of the definition presented in the line of Cutlip, Center and Broom (Cutlip et al, 1985). If we go trough several Public Relations important textbooks (Gruning and Hunt, 1984; Gruning, 1992; Seitel, 1995; Lesly, 1997; Kitchen, 1997) we are constantly confronted with definitions that, in one way or another, refer in an explicit or in a more or less implicit way to the notion of "publics". However we can go further. Notice how the notion of "publics" is also a key notion, but many times not used correctly, to explain at the level of the common sense what Public Relations is about.It was with some perplexity that we acknowledged that some negligence appears to exist, in the extent bibliography of what it can be designated as the broad Public Relations area, in what concerns the ways in which the notions of public or publics are presented. Besides, the existence of a dominant view related with Grunig and Repper's situational approach seems to have been of little help in promoting dialogue and contrasting views about these phenomena.So, our aim in this article is to offer an historical conceptualisation of the notions referred, as well as to proceed to a discussion of the contemporary different conceptual perspectives. From static groups where the different interests of the organization are projected, to key elements in the organizational dynamics that condition and serve as driving forces for Public Relations strategies, how should "public relations' publics" be conceptualised? What kind of publics do we have?  What kind of publics do we want?2. "PUBLICS", A KEY NOTIONAt this precise moment, many people all around the world are uttering the phrase "the Public" intending to refer to the most different realities. Some are using "the public" meaning an amorphous entity that supposedly supports some programmes or politics; some are using "the public" to designate a not very clear group of people for whom they are working, some may even be using the phrase to include a very, very wide group of people that includes an entire nation, or even to designate "the public" that read and discussed a well known best seller like Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code". But do this people have something in common in the way they use the phrase? Why haven't the disciplines of the Social Science's field been able to give correct guidelines as to the concept of "publics" as social colectivities?One important explanation for that ambiguity in the use of the concept may well be related with semantical problems. Besides being a noun which designates specific groups of people, "public" can also be used as an adjective, applied to particular activities or spaces, such as public television service, public schools or public life. This is often the reason why we have so many problems in understanding the every day use of the word. But another related explanation can be the fact that the concept of public has been related with other rather disputed concepts such as "publicity", "public sphere", and "public opinion". Briefly we can say we refer to "Publicity" as the act of rendering something public, seen by Kant as a universal human right that represents a moral principle in which public opinion and the doctrine of sovereignty are founded. In our paper, "Public Sphere" is understood as an imagined space of social life representing the infra-structure needed to achieve social integration through public discourse or through a market of opinions. And finally, "public opinion" is the dimension that links all the above mentioned and that allows the expression of opinions. As Splichal (1999) explains, following Ferdinand Tönnies, we should carefully distinguish between public opinion (eine öffentliche Meinung), published opinion (öffentliche Meinung) and the opinion of the public (die öffentliche Meinung). The opinion of the public is a common way of thinking, the corporative spirit of any group or association, in so far as the formation of opinion is grounded on reasoning and knowledge more than on impressions, beliefs or authority. This opinion of the public is different from both the published opinion – the opinion of an individual publicly expressed and directed to general receivers – and the public opinion – when one published opinion becomes the opinion of many, of a majority, or of an opened or closed circle. Therefore, Tönnies argues, «public opinion is a conglomerate of visions, desires, controversial intentions while the opinion of the public is a unifying force, the expression of a common will» (Op. Cit. Splichal, 1999, p.110).2.1. Different Sociological ApproachesWith regard to the definition of "publics" as special forms of human association, some of the most important contributes have come from the field of sociology. Authors like Le Bon (1895), Tarde (1904), Park (1921), Weber (1947), or Mills (1959), gave decisive contributes to the development of the concept showing that publics are, above all, special kinds of social groupings that must be differentiated from other (more primitive) forms of human association like the crowds and the masses. The crowds are understood as primitive aggregates where people loose their intellectual capabilities and become a homogeneous whole. This phenomenon was described by Le Bon (1895) as the appearance of a "collective soul" that units the crowd and explains some specific characteristics. Anonymity of the members, which generates a lack of personal responsibility; quick spread of ideas and feelings among the members, which allows quick shifts in its behaviour; power of suggestion, which explains why people in the crowds often do things that they wouldn't do by themselves (Cf. Le Bon, 1895, p.31). Crowds are also marked by a "primary reciprocity" (Park, 1921), which erases individual differences and autonomy. The masses are broader aggregates and they only became the target of academic interest in the 20th century. Mills (1959) explained that the masses have much more receivers of opinion than emitters, and the receivers take the form of collective abstracts that collect loose impressions from the media. Inside the masses, receivers cannot give any kind of effective or immediate response and they are controlled by authorities that try to restrict its capability to act and to form opinion through discussion. Blumer (Cf. Glynn at al. 1999) also contributed to the understanding of the masses reinforcing that they are heterogeneous wholes, physically spread and isolated, unable to interact with each others and to act effectively as a whole.But why are publics so different from both the crowds and the masses? What are their key distinctive features? First, publics are united in much stronger ways than simply by the "heat of the moment". According to Gabriel Tarde (1904), publics are "purely spiritual collectivities" (Cf. Tarde, 1904, p.43) united because they share ideas or wills and because they are conscious that the wills or ideas are, at the same time, widely shared. For example, readers of the same newspaper share the same desire to know the reality and this "invisible contagion" has no physical limits. On the contrary, crowds are essentially limited by environmental aspects (e.g. weather conditions). Other distinctive feature of the publics is that they allow simultaneous belonging to different publics, whereas one can only belong to one specific crowd at the same time. Publics are also different because they are more moderate, they allow internal diversity, and because their members are more able to be critical thinkers than the members of a crowd (cf. Tarde, 1904). Simultaneously, publics can be contrasted with the masses because they are self-conscious groups. In Blumer's view (Cf. Glynn et al. 1999), publics are groups of people confronted with an issue, who don't agree on the best way to deal with it, and who are able to engage in discussions about the issue. Besides, publics are groups of people that become socio-political actors, capable of acting collectively and influencing political leaders or media organizations directly through their collective actions (Weber, 1947).2.2. Publics and democratic participationSo far we have argued for a concept of publics as purely spiritual collectivities, which are able to discuss and form opinions based on reasoning and knowledge. Those opinions may become consensual and give rise to the opinion of the public, an indicator of the public's strength. The consensus inside the public is a sign of union and influences the outside perception of public's cohesion. This is to say that the achievement of the opinion of the public may well be the kind of collective action that explains the direct influence of publics over political leaders. If this is true, then publics clearly have a democratic role to play, and the discussion of what this role should be has been going on since, at least, Lippmann and Dewey. Lippmann (1922) didn't believe in the capabilities of the average citizen. He said that common people cannot be well informed about all the issues that are to be dealt in society, and that not everybody had interest for the important affairs (Lippmann, 1922, p. 173). Therefore he proposed that only a minority of well qualified and enlightened individuals should decide without the participation of the people. Dewey (1927), on the other hand, argued that the public is in the centre of the democratic process because it is affected by indirect (or public) consequences, that is, consequences from actions and decisions in which it didn't take part (Dewey, 1927, p. 16). He believed in the capabilities of the average citizen and foresaw the emancipation of the public from political domination as essential to avoid the eclipse of the public. What is central in the works of these two authors is that they were the ones that opened the field of discussion of what roles should publics play at the great society level. A complementary level of analysis of the publics is supplied by PR theory, which has tended to see publics in the context of their relations with organisations.2.3. Public Relations' PublicsWe started by explaining that the notion of "publics" is central to the definition of Public Relations and that this discipline should be credited for having the concept of "publics" at the centre of its theoretical reflection.  We now try to summarize some of the most important contributions to the PR discussion about publics, trying to prove that they are not limited to the well know situational theory of publics and go well beyond considering publics only as part of the organisational environment.The situational proposition (Grunig and Repper, 1992) or theory of publics begins by explaining that not all stakeholders (those who affect or are affected by organization's action and policies) become publics. According to this theory, Stakeholders can evolve from latent to aware and, finally, to active publics if and when they recognize a problem (problem recognition); they perceive themselves as involved in that problem (high level of involvement); and they feel they can do something about the problem (low level of constraints recognition). The Situational Theory then presents the idea that publics seek issues in unsolved organisational problems and that there are different profiles of publics with different levels of interest in public issues. Apathetic publics are non participative by nature and never get involved in public issues; single issue publics only become involved in a small set of issues that affect specific groups; all issue publics become involved in almost every public issue; and hot issue publics only become involved in issues that are widely publicized and affect almost everybody.The apparent lack of discussion and of alternative views to this dominant conception makes it possible to briefly summarize some of the most important critiques. There is the claim that the situational proposition is excessively organization-centred (Vasquez and Maureen, 2001) and that it defines publics as reactive entities whose response is only associated with problem-facing situations (Botan and Soto, 1998). Others (e.g. Moffit, 1994) say that the public-organization relation is not situational but continuous, and that the situational proposition forgets the internal functioning of publics and the political aspect of its action (Chay-Nemeth, 2001). The fact that the dominant view neglects the "non-publics" or "inactive-publics" as entities that prefer low-level interactions with organizations is also pointed by some (e.g. Hallahan, 2000). However, amongst all critiques, one of the most interesting contribute has come from authors working on the impact of new technologies in public relations. Cozier & Witmer (2001) identify two major theoretical limitations to the situational proposition. First, "the assumption that an organization and its publics are discrete entities situates publics as possessions of the focal organization" (Cozier & Witmer, 2001, p.617), and explains why many PR professionals tend to talk about organization X's publics or even, issue Y's publics. Secondly, the authors explain that the situational theory "neglects publics or stakeholders that emerge around a sense of shared experiences or re-creation of experiences" (Cozier & Witmer, 2001, p.617). This is the case of many and many more communities that develop in interactive meeting spaces such as newsgroups, listservs, web-logs, or even electronic bulletin boards because they share interests. Besides identifying theoretical limitations, Cozier & Witmer also clearly explain their view of how an alternative public's theory should be built:«a theory of publics needs to move away from considering a public's cognition as information processing, from equating a public's seeking of issues, and from situating motives in a public's action or position on issues in the public arena.» (Cozier & Witmer, 2001, p.617)3. TOWARDS AN INTEGRATIVE MODEL OF "PUBLICS"In this paper we now propose an integrative framework of Public Relations' "Publics", trying to overcome limitations described by PR researchers and arguing that the concept should be (re)positioned at the core of PR Research Agenda. This framework also positions the publics as central elements of the public sphere and stresses their value for democratic societies. We propose to look at the concept at three different levels because we believe that many of the problems associated with the "publics" have to do with people looking to the reality of publics from different points of analysis. These levels are inspired by General Systems Theory and include the macro, the meso and the micro level. The macro level, the broadest, leads us to consider publics as greater forms of human association, not necessarily incarnated in specific groups. This level also tries to assess publics' relations with general society. At the intermediary or meso level we should speak of publics as specific collectivities and study them in the context of the relations they establish with the organisations that integrate their environment.  Although we do not adopt the view that publics "belong" to organisations, we find of great utility to look at publics as entities that interact in organisational systems. At the micro level we try to understand publics as groups formed by people with special characteristics and we emphasise the human and personal development dimension of the publics.A short example can be useful in explaining how these three levels work. At the macro level we can recognize that environmental activists are a fundamental public for environment related issues and, in a certain sense, they are very useful to all of us because they defend the general interest and the common good. This broad group of people who share environmental consciousness can also be understood at the meso level through the behaviour of specific environmentalist associations either in broad term as in specific or organisation-related issues. For instance, Greenpeace's behaviour in Shell's Brent Sparr case in 1995 or WWF's strategies and programmes on international forestry ("Forest for Life"). Finally, at the micro level, we can still look at the members of any of these collectivities trying to figure out their internal functioning mechanisms and their personal characteristics.3.1. Four central axes of discussionBotan and Soto (1998) tried to synthesize the central axes of discussion used by PR scholars to study the concept of "publics" and they identified four sets of central questions including definition, segmentation, function and process.  "Definition" designates the fundamental set of questions that ask what publics are. "Segmentation" addresses the need to significantly differentiate publics. The group of questions under "Function" are the ones that allow us to study what different roles publics play in society. And finally, the axe of the "Process" includes efforts to discover how do different publics form themselves and respond in certain ways. In an integrative model, the macro, meso and micro levels should be used to carefully analyse each one of these axes, crossing different propositions and integrating them. Nevertheless, in this paper, we will only be concerned with definition and function. These are the two central axes for a broad understanding of Public Relations' Publics, and they also servo to show how this integrative model should be developed.3.1.1. DefinitionDifferent approaches to the concept have led to different definitions, amongst which the mass perspective, that goes back to Dewey (1927), according to which a public is formed by those who are affected by the consequences of actions and decisions in which they didn't take part. Publics are associated with permanent states of consciousness and with a strong interest in public issues. Another perspective, such as the situational, believes that publics are not characterized by permanent states of mind, but they are aroused by specific situations which represent problems and motivate them to act.So, at the macro level, publics can be defined as intellectual groupings, whose members share ideas and opinions, even without being in direct interaction. This is the level which allows us to speak, for instance, of ecologist publics in general, from whom we regularly expect a certain type of action and communication. Nevertheless, these "great publics", as Tönnies called them, only become effective when groups of people, mobilized by certain types of events, feel capable and willing to make judgments about such events. This is when we start speaking about the micro level where publics can be defined as social collectivities different form both the crowds and the masses, and made by groups of people with personal characteristics in common. Publics are formed by well informed people, able to build their own agenda, in relation to which they have above the average information. Members of a public involve themselves in behaviours and discussion by using their critical capabilities and deal with internal and external pressure to achieve the "opinion of the public". As reality sharing communities, publics also share frameworks used to categorize experiences and have similar psychological and rhetorical needs. This is why stories told inside the publics are so important for member's involvement and commitment (Hansford and Smalley, 2004).However, as PR literature demonstrates, there is also a meso level which tends to integrate publics in organisational systems, as part of their environment. This vision has lead to some behaviourist definitions of publics as entities that circle around a specific organisation and whose relevance is limited to the issues and problems in which publics can constrain organisational action. Nevertheless, a correct meso level definition entails recognising that publics exist no matter what wills and desires an organisation may have concerning them. They are autonomous entities, they define their own agenda of issues according to their interests, and this agenda may affect different organisations, persons, groups, or political parties.3.1.2. FunctionAs we have said, to understand public's function one must look at the various levels of analysis. Insofar as publics are characterised by their critical capabilities and their free will, they are able to exercise direct influence over political leaders through collective action. But there also exist different more dependent, instrumental, disruptive, and polemic publics. These different publics have very distinct functions, but, if we limit ourselves to the ideal type of publics we have been presenting in this paper, we can make generic claims about publics' functions.At the macro level we should consider publics' importance to the strengthening of the public sphere and the so-called civil society. As Splichal (1999) mentions, democracy's legitimacy is guaranteed through the participation of publics in the political process. And by allowing the political participation of large sectors of society in public affairs, publics improve the extent to which political process are representative. Publics frequently demand a better and more adequate control of organisations' public consequences and keep a close scrutiny over political powers. In all these dimensions, publics have a pivotal role in shaping decisions and promoting the balance of different interests, often representing the less powerful and allowing those that do not have and active voice to present their points of view. This is only possible because, as Park (1921) noted, publics' action has to do with rational reflection and not blind obedience to a leader. And when we speak about the media, we must realize that publics very often combat what Mills (1959) called the negative effects of the mass media when they "guide our own experiences" (p.76). Insofar as they challenge the status quo, publics launch into the public sphere information that often improves the quality of public debate and decision-making processes.At the meso level, publics influence organisational politics and procedures. Whether economic, governmental or non-governmental organisations, they're all aware of how important publics are in claiming that they assume their social responsibility. As communicative entities, publics form their own communication channels and spaces of discussion. It is frequent to see publics trying to develop alternative public spheres when organisations try to impose their views about certain issues on the "mainstream" public sphere. Such alternative public spheres, built around web logs, e-mail discussion groups, list servs, etc., are less controlled and allow members to freely express their opinions, discuss them and reach the power of the opinion of the public.At the micro level, public allow their members to fulfil part of their social needs of democratic engagement by letting them take part in organisations and collectively express their opinions. In fact, by uniting the voice of many, publics generate critical mass and obtain dramatically better results that the results of and aggregate of individual actions. By their own nature, publics promote equality and debate, valuing individual differences as constitutive of publics' dynamic. 4. SOME IDEAS FOR DISCUSSIONHaving portrayed publics as political forms of organisation (Dewey, 1927, p.35), with an enduring character that makes them entirely different actors from the crowds and the masses, who only play in collective life as mere spectators; having said that publics have the capability to produce collective and significantly oriented action (Weber, 1947) and that publics are "communicatively constructed social phenomenon" (Vasquez and Taylor, 2001, p.140), we should know return to the concepts of publicity, public sphere and public opinion in order to see how they can help us explain a little more about publics' nature.4.1. PublicityWith the help of the new technologies, publics have a better, and more efficient, control over their publicity. It is true that publicity is not always wanted and that bringing something to the public knowledge is only a specific phase of publics' action. Publicity should be understood not as an end in itself but as a means to influence the course of action. This means that publics only publicize their positions whenever they want. For example, lurkers may want to stay invisible until they have built their alliances or until they have reach the power of "the opinion of the public".4.2. Public SphereThe publics are often creators of alternative media or public spheres, which must be acknowledged by PR professionals. In the cyberspace, publics can nowadays create or develop their own discussion groups via e-mail, web-logs, mobile-phone, etc. which are used to discuss and to obtain or enlarge consensus, or, as Tarde (1904) would say, to develop "simultaneous consciousness". These publics are more than ever aware of the power of alternative media and bring new challenges to PR monitoring and they demand that we redirect more of our research budget to monitor smaller public spheres. However, we must keep in mind that there are limits to what we have access, and for democracy's sake it should remain that way. The existence of certain privacy and concealment must be acknowledged, and PR professionals should be responsible and respect the private dimension of the.4.3. Public OpinionWe see publics as spaces opened to the discussion of different points of view, and where different public opinions emerge (Park, 1921) both as a result of critical debate over published opinions, and as a consequence of publics' debates. Moreover, as groups with virtually as many emitters as receivers of opinion, publics tend to privilege dialogue and equality, avoiding the creation of authoritative power structures (Mills, 1959). The formation of the opinion of the public is enlarged and symmetrical, and the realization of that opinion through collective action is encouraged.5. CONCLUSIONIn this paper we tried to present the framework of an integrative model for the study of Public Relations' Publics. We begun by explaining that the concept of "publics" is very much controversial and its clarification is an essential first step. We proposed to differentiate publics from other forms of human association like the crowds and the masses and we showed what are publics' most important features in a sociological point of view. But we also tried to demonstrate that Public Relations Theory is, perhaps, the discipline where the concept of "publics" should be given the centrality it deserves, since the concept of "publics" is constitutive to the very definition of what PR are and what they do. Our contribute for the development of an integrative model for the study of Public Relations' publics was the presentation of a framework that crosses three levels of analysis (Macro, Meso, and Micro) with four central axes for the study of publics (Definition, Function, Segmentation, Process). We also exemplified how this framework works by detailing the definition and the function dimensions. 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