Pekka Aula and Leif Åberg Blistering Publicities: A New Challenge for Organizational Communication and Public Relations - PDF

Pekka Aula and Leif Åberg Blistering Publicities: A New Challenge for Organizational Communication and Public Relations Introduction The relationship between organisations and publicity has changed dramatically

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Pekka Aula and Leif Åberg Blistering Publicities: A New Challenge for Organizational Communication and Public Relations Introduction The relationship between organisations and publicity has changed dramatically during the past two decades, though in the 1990s, it was assumed that publicity could be easily managed or even controlled in certain conditions. These days we discuss publicity s unmanageability and the difficulty in influencing what people are saying or how publicity treats organisations. 1 Communication technology has recently dominated organisational publicity perspectives: first, the Internet largely as technological platform, then social networking. Early analyses of the Internet and public relations (PR) focused primarily on technology and tools: The Internet was considered to influence the organisation s communication channels and audiences, the content and form of its messages, and how it received feedback. 2 With the development of social media (e.g., Facebook, Pinterest) and other online community and networking services (e.g, Linkedin), the Internet creates meanings attached to organisations and the relationships of actors who influence the organisation s activities. Indeed, the Internet can be considered an environment of meanings 3, an arena for making sense 4 or, in the words of Professor Leif Åberg 5, a space for communities and human interaction the Authors. This article presents a work in progress and it is not to be cited without the Authors' permission. Pekka Aula and Leif Åberg are professors of Communication and Media Studies at the University of Helsinki. They can be reached at and 1 Aula & Heinonen van der Merwe et al. 2005, Ihator E.g. Aula & Mantere 2008, du Gay Aula & Vapaa Åberg 2006, 113. Alongside the publicity created primarily by traditional media (e.g., TV, radio, print media) has come emotionally sensitive digital publicity 6 characterised by continuously emerging audiences and the communications technologies and services connecting them. From this publicity is formed a complex communications environment of multiple actors in which communication is between the organisation and its audiences and interaction between audiences. 7 The concept of networked publicity highlights organisations increased visibility and strong dependence on social interaction. 8 This new publicity is ambient and contained within the organisation. From this perspective, publicity is not outside the organisation; rather, the organisation and publicity are components of the same meaning-producing communications system. 9 Thus, the organisation, traditional and new media, and physical communications networks converge into a single networked, unlimited form of publicity. Essentially, the change in publicity has forced organisations to evaluate their relationships to publicity in a novel way and influenced various communication practices, that is, how organisations form and maintain relationships. Moreover, the boundary between an organisation and its environment has further blurred. The change in publicity has affected how an organisation believes it should interact with publicity and its various actors. In this article, we analyse the dynamics of organizational publicity and changes to the understanding of PR and its practices. We argue that publicity is in constant motion and that the dynamic changes in publicity issues are complex, even chaotic. The publicity is 6 Scott & Walsham 2005, Laaksonen et al de Bussy et al Frieland, Hove & Rojas Aula 2010. never totally bland or gentle ; it is always blistering in someway or somewhere. We also argue that micro- and macro-level processes interact when organisations function in dynamic publicity fields and that communication acts (what organizations say) and functional acts (what organizations do) that appear in publicity affect the organisation s reputation. We begin by exploring companies central views about PR, after which we present our conceptualisation of the public sphere. We then condense our concept into a theory of the dynamics of publicity, then mirror the results with the idea of blistering publicity. We conclude this article by considering our theory s practical impacts on how to manage and evaluate the relationship between companies and publicity or in other words, PR in the era of blistering publicities. PR perspective on publicity Broadly speaking, two perspectives have described the relationship between organisations and publicity. According to the earlier managerial, mostly Anglo-American conceptualization, an organisation s PR representation builds, develops, and maintains interactive relationships. Accordingly, an organisation systematically manages communications to influence the opinions formed about it and to maintain common understanding and trust. In this way, PR is assessed from the perspective of strategic relationship management. 10 This approach is promoted, for example, by Professor James Grunig, the leading figure in the new publicity perspective in organisational communications. 11 He analysed traditional public theories from the organisation s perspective and identified and studied the creation and functional mechanisms of the organisation s audiences. The same concept of PR, which emphasises the role of the communications department or the person responsible for communications, appears in Professor Leif Åberg s books on communications management 12 and in the Finnish Association of 10 Hutton Grunig et al See e.g. Åberg Communications Professionals (ProComs ) 2012 Principles of Public Relations 13. The other PR perspective, which draws primarily from European traditions, emphasises the reflective nature between the organisation and publicity and focuses on audiences and public spheres. This view highlights the effects of the organisation s activities on its audiences and society, 14 with which the organisation maintains a dialogical relationship. 15 Moreover, some recent Finnish organisational communication models have stressed the communicative role of each member of the organisation to strategically managed communications. Individual members are important in creating a reputation. 16 In her latest studies 17, Professor Elisa Juholin has accented the importance of all employees communication skills and interactive, dialogical communications. The above-mentioned PR concepts examine publicity as something separate from the organisation and as a relatively stable state existing regardless of organisations. Accordingly, an organisation s task is adjusting to prevailing publicity. PR activities focus on stakeholders or audiences with publicity influence or on relationships between the organisation and publicity actors. Basic publicity mechanisms are taken for granted, and publicity is examined instrumentally. Complexity drivers in publicity The relationship between an organisation and publicity can be approached from a reciprocal perspective: The organisation operates in public spheres and creates new types of publicity. Therefore, publicity is neither uniform nor static. Regarding changing publicity, what is important is the increased diversity that drives publicity complexity. Publicity is always in flux. Accordingly, organisations PR today can be characterised by increased diversity in 13 ProCom 2012 Principles of Public Relations: Towards the year strategic communication and blistering publicities, 14 Verčič et al. 2001, Raupp Kent and Taylor 1998, Aula and Mantere 2008, Aula and Heinonen See e.g. Juholin structure, function, content, time, and communications. According to the structural diversity of PR, an increasing number of actors are active in the interface between an organisation and publicity. In the early 1990s, organisations public spheres were easier to distinguish and describe than today. Stakeholder-based PR models were based on the idea an organisation could define and prioritise stakeholder relations and it could execute systematic, goal-oriented communications with these stakeholders. Functional diversity refers to the number and dynamics of stakeholders. Previously, the relatively few stakeholders were defined according to their roles and institutional relations, for example, decision-makers, important customers, or key journalists or investment analysts, who were treated relatively separately. Because of the Internet, organisations are faced with countless new stakeholders characterised by interest in a theme. The increased diversity of content in PR means the number of issues affecting organisations has grown and they, too, are interconnected in new ways. These issues ripple effect 18 is substantial and hard to predict; in this sense, the ripple effect resembles the butterfly effect, according to which a small change at one place in a system can effect large transformations in a later state. In practice, the ripple effect describes how a person can take content in a blog, for example, and tweet the link to others, after which it could be posted on Facebook or reported by the media issues ride on ripples. The importance of time to organisational PR has changed. The increased diversity in time in PR means that organisations are being increasingly assessed on their plans. Moreover, the Internet does not forget: Old issues live on for a long time and might reappear when they are least wanted. Moreover, diversity of communications determines organisations PR. Organisations long considered the Internet as a new channel that, utilised skilfully, provided an important addi- tion to their communications palette, for example, in the form of online shopping, online customer magazines, or social media marketing. But the Internet s more important influence is the increased interaction between stakeholders it enables. Although the concepts of Web 2.0 and social media are indeed ambiguous, organisations new communication reality results directly from the development and popularity of search engines, social media, and other online social networking services. Diversity has increased also within traditional media: The media and their audiences have fragmented. To explain this new, dynamic, diverse field of organisational communication and PR, we will outline our theory of dynamic public spheres, where dynamic public sphere refers to a communication space within which issues affecting an organisation circulate at different stages of a life cycle. These issues are significant, because they determine new and emerging audiences, how audiences relate to organisations, and how they create meanings about organisations. Our theory is based on the observation that, within dynamic public spheres, we can identify 1) emerging issues, 2) issues linked with these, 3) actors activated, and 4) their acts. Moreover, we can analyse 5) the discourses and arguments actors raise and use, 6) the nature of the public sphere like traditional media, social media, and real-time intercommunication situations, and 7) the dynamics of the public sphere regarding increasing or decreasing diversity. By identifying these, we can define our theory s key concepts. Dynamic public spheres All organisations operate in diverse public spheres and create new publicity with their actions. Iivonen and Åberg (2009) identify public spheres in two ways. First, they analyse whether actions are direct or mediated: Are the actors interacting face to face or via some media, like the Internet, television, or even newspaper columns? Second, they analyse if actions are broad or limited: How open and broad or limited and small is the group that appears publicly? The focus of public spheres is from an organisational perspective naturally, an organisation s internal publicity. 18 The Ripple effect is a concept developed by Laurel Papworth (2008). 3 Central to Iivonen s and Åberg s model is the conceptual difference between publicity and public spheres: From organisations perspectives, publicity refers to a situation in which people communicate about an issue related to the organisation. This requires that at least one person identify the issue and recognise it affects him. When this person relates the issue to others, publicity is created. Public spheres are virtual or real-world spaces in which publicities are created. In public spheres, social actors encounter each other: citizens, stakeholder representatives, experts, journalists, and nongovernmental organisations. Issues are matters affecting organisations that result, directly or indirectly, from the organisations actions. For example, they can be caused directly when an organisation discontinues activities in a certain location, or they can be caused indirectly when activists target an organisation because they believe it supports activities activists oppose. An example of the latter is when an animal rights activist group targets a fur farm or shop based on its location, lack of security, or similar considerations. Regarding dynamic public spheres, issues can be divided into emerging issues and other issues linked to emerging themes. Each issue has its own life cycle. Although the beginning of the life cycle is easily determined, its end is considerably harder to pinpoint. On one hand, the life cycle can end when an issue is completely resolved and ceases to exist. For example, in October 2011, the Finnish national broadcaster YLE reported that then-member of Parliament Hannes Manninen was among a group of fraud suspects in a case involving Finland s Slot Machine Association (RAY). Manninen and RAY denied the allegations strongly, and YLE was forced to admit it misreported the story. On the other hand, an issue s presentation can cause repercussions contrary to the intentions of the person highlighting the issue leaving the person to think, How long are you going to keep this up? The issue can reappear after long periods of time. An old issue can be revived as an emerging issue, or it can be raised again and linked with a new, emerging issue making people to wonder something like There was a similar situation three years ago, when the organisation did this or that. Actors are persons or groups who perform publicity acts. These communication acts, like a public discussion, online statement, letter to the editor, or TV show, publicise issues and actions resulting from publicity. An example of the latter is a decision to start a committee to monitor election spending or a minister s dismissal. Actors in the public sphere can be classified differently. Journalist and writer Malcolm Gladwell (2000) distinguishes between connectors, mavens (information specialists), and salesmen (persuaders). In his theory on the diffusion of innovations, Everett Rogers (1962) distinguishes between different adopter categories: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards. Actors in these models are classified according to their communication roles, which is particularly clear in Gladwell s classification. Rogers connects these roles with the diffusion of innovation while admitting the communications of different adopter categories differ considerably. Issues are always presented in a certain discourse, and arguments justify them. A discourse defines the contents, concepts, and arguments of the issue and excludes alternative methods of presentation (Hall 1999, Foucault 2005). When examining dynamic public spheres, the concept of discourse is particularly useful, because an issue presented in a specific discourse can either activate other disseminators of the discourse or create counter discourses. An argument is a reasoned claim or opinion. From the perspective of the dynamic public sphere, arguments are important because actors use them to justify an issue or discourse. Analysing arguments is important to finding counterarguments. Gladwell (2000) popularised the tipping point, which he defines as the critical moment when a certain issue begins to multiply and spread much faster than before. The issue could be a fashion trend, rumour, campaign, mobilisation, a surprising event, or any other unanticipated development. In this way, the tipping point resembles a phase transition in physics, in which a certain system changes unexpectedly or even disappears due to the influence of a previously unknown factor. 4 Gladwell presents three factors that affect the spread of issues: the law of the few, stickiness, and the power of context. The law of the few focuses on people involved in the process the connectors, mavens, and salesmen mentioned above. Stickiness compels people to pay close, sustained attention to an issue; it hits a specific group at a specific moment. The power of context refers to conditions in which issues emerge. A small issue regarding a politician may be overlooked during an election campaign, yet become a hot topic before elections. In 2009, a singer in the TV show Britain s Got Talent, Susan Boyle, rose to worldwide Internet fame overnight. The Asian tsunami catastrophe in 2004 brought actors into the limelight that were previously known only within a very limited sphere of online publicity, like the website in Finland, which was an important unofficial information source during the catastrophe. With these concepts, it is possible to describe and analyse an organisation s public sphere at a specific moment, the dynamics (i.e., changes) of the public sphere, and the state of publicity regarding the organisation s activities. In the next section, we present the main premises about potentially chaotic publicity based on the uncontrollability of issues, the instability of publicity itself, the unpredictability of organizational activities, and their consequences. Toward blistering publicities The basic principle behind our theory is that human communication directs the form and behaviour of any organization (Aula, 1999), which is the essence of any form of organizational communication and, thus, PR. This means organization and publicity are, by definition, social. Moreover, organisations and publicities are social systems that embody a high degree of systemic interdependence, which, among other things, leads to nonlinearity, emergent order creation, and other surprising dynamics (Hazy et al., 2007: 4). Thus, publicity, as a social system, is never totally predictable, and a small change at one point in time may generate disproportionate social change later. Our first premise is on loan from physics, namely, the concept of entropy: the natural direction of a system is toward disorder. In normal conditions, all systems left to themselves tend to increase disorder in direct relation to the amount of time. Entropy increases as it moves from an orderly, organised, planned state toward a more disorganised, fragmented, unplanned state. The more disorder in a system, the greater its entropy. An example of entropy is the increased disorder on a desk if you don t work to keep it tidy. According to the second premise of our theory, local organising is possible by action and communication or suitable conditions. Human systems are never left to themselves: A person can take action to return order from disorder. In the real world, you can tidy your desk. In organisational context, examples of making order include planning, organising activities, and sharing tasks. Local organising is described by the theory of self-organising systems, in which a new structure can be created without external pressure. That is, a system can be organised without conscious organising. In suitable conditions, systems can behave in a self-directed manner, which can spontaneously and radically change the system s structure and functions. 19 If the first and second premises are correct, factors that create disorder are as natural to organisations as factors that create order. This is our theory s third premise. An organisation s path toward chaos, i.e., the breaking point of the system, is as important and natural as the trend toward orde
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