The traditional communication theory and the effective use of social media in public relations. A critical reflection

Essay, 2012

13 Pages, Grade: 1,7

Maria M. (Author)


Critical Reflections on Public Relations

Communication is inevitable in public relations (PR) practice, because it contributes to the building of good relationships between an organisation and its stakeholders with the desired outcome of “…earning understanding and support and influencing opinion and behavior” (CIPR 2010a). PR practitioners manage relations to community, employees, consumer and other stakeholders by understanding and using communication concepts and strategies (Tench, D’Artrey and Fawkes 2009). Recently, the communication practice of PR practitioners has been challenged by the heavy influence of the revolutionary character of the internet (Casteltrione 2011). In other words, they face the challenge of adapting their communication strategies at the same pace as the new technologies and tools are developing. Especially “the rise of social media” (Bailey 2009, p. 313) provided a rich debate ground for PR practitioners, PR theorists and academics of different disciplines. Thus, in an industry where “…effective communication forms the basis of good relationship management, a process that lies at the heart of effective PR” (Grunig 1992, cited in Edwards 2006, p.144) it is vital to assess whether an understanding of traditional communication theory can contribute to the effective use of social media or not. This paper aims to address this question by utilising relevant theoretical frameworks as well as examining current developments and dominant debates within PR practice.

In order to discuss this topic, it is first necessary to define what traditional communication theory is and what role it plays within PR practice. Thus, the assumption of PR to be an interdisciplinary study constituted of humanities, sociology and communication (Pieczka 2011) appears important. Whilst humanities studies focus on the viewpoint of rhetorical and discursive approaches and sociology studies understand communication in terms of systems process by adopting systems theory, communication studies address PR from different ‘mindsets’ (Wood 2011). Human communication is explained with psychological concepts; persuasion is considered to be a goal of both mediated and direct communication; and mass communication focuses on media relations theories and media effects (Pieczka 2011). Derived from this we can conclude that communication theory can be identified as an element of PR practice. Correspondingly utilisation of social media is a technique of building media relations (Wilcox 2009), and therefore a subject of mass communication. However, these considerations do not explain which part of communication theory can be identified as traditional.

Traditional theory can be regarded as the first or beginning theory which acts as a stimulus for further theories. Taking this perspective, the Lasswell Formula appears to be such a theory. It describes a communication act in answering the questions: Who? Says What? In which channel? To whom? With which effect? (McQuail and Windahl 1993). However, this formula is a simple way to illustrate a communication process and has been criticised for omitting the elements of noise and feedback, which were added in later developments of communication theory (Harrison 2000).

In addition, Westley and McLean introduce in their conceptual model of mass communication a role of a 'gatekeeper' (McQuail and Windahl 1993). The gatekeeper is positioned between the sender of the message and its receiver and may change the original message before it reaches the receiver. This last model is essential for the PR theories, since it allows not only the journalists and editors, but also PR practitioners to take a role of intermediary between the organisation and its public (Edwards 2006). As a consequence of defining traditional as early or first, all of them can be considered as traditional communication theories. Against the backdrop of these theories, the use of social media would mean a use of a channel in order to disseminate information directly to the receiver. However, none of them regards building of relationships as the predominant goal of communication process by ignoring the possibility of an 'active audience' (Hall 1980) and by assuming an existence of only passive receiver who uncritically adapt the dominant 'frames' (Hallahan 1999) of the message. Furthermore, the element of persuasion is connoted negatively through the view of the audience, where letting free will to decide what to think about the message is being refused.

Alternatively, traditional can be understood as dominant. Hence, Grunig and Hunt (1984) outline their Excellence Paradigm and contentious four models of Public Relations from dominant systems perspective. These models are conducive to the definition of communication in PR. The first two models press agentry and public information have the nature of one-way communication and are concerned with propaganda and information dissemination; whereas two-way asymmetric and symmetric models focus on building and maintaining a relationship to publics (McQuail and Windahl 1993). The practical application of press agentry during the Nazi regime in Germany for example, 'forced' the citizens to join the party and attend the meetings with propagandistic strategies. Whilst the asymmetric two-way model suggests relationships where one party has more power than another (Stacks and Watson 2007); the symmetric two-way model represents a balanced, dialogical flow of communication with the aim of bringing real changes in both parties' ideas and behaviours (Grunig 2001). A key concept within this analysis is that a dialogical communication process regards the organisation and its stakeholders as equals. The mobile phone company T-Mobile "Life's for sharing campaign" engages with people by providing flash mobs (Woodrow 2009). By doing this, T-Mobile uses subliminal means of persuasion, which are typical for the understanding of two-way asymmetrical model, to bring people together and make them a part of the campaign.

Grunig explicitly claims that the two-way symmetrical model is most useful and 'excellent' (Hon 2007), since it focuses on relational maintenance between organisations and public (Grunig and Huang 2000). The two-way symmetrical model found many supporters (Heath and Combs 2006; Hon 2007; Rhee 2007), hence it can be identified as dominant and therefore as traditional. In this context PR practitioners help to manage the relationship and create a "dialogue of equals" (Bailey 2009, p. 300).

However, the symmetric two-way aroused criticism among proponents of critical theory provides justifiable reasons. The model lacks addressing elements of persuasion; power; and struggle (Moloney 2000; Pieczka 2006; Fawkes 2007), which are essential parts of communication process. So understanding of communication theory from critical point of view respects the persuasion as a part of social interaction in order to change public's ideas (Pieczka 2011). Therefore, it would apparently be synonymous with the two-way asymmetrical model, in which social media would be a tool through which organisation communicates with its publics and receives feedback. The role of feedback is essential for the organisation in this case (Stacks and Watson 2007), because it will be used to persuade further publics.

Whether the understanding of basic communication theories and Grunig and Hunt's (1984) four communication models of Public Relations can contribute to the effective social media use in PR practice remains questionable. At this point in the paper social media and its effectiveness require a theoretical definition, so the answer to the question can be approached. According to Wilcox (2009) social media, also called new media, is a construct of online technologies which enables people to share their opinions and perspectives online. Hogan (2009, cited in Bailey 2009, p.313) provides a broader view of the term and describes social media as " umbrella name pulling together blogs, wikis, online discussion fora or chat rooms and a host of other Internet communities". He also includes the omitted role of organisations and PR in this context and points out that organisations start to "recognise the opportunities presented by social media for targeting very specific markets and particularly youth markets" (Hogan 2009, cited in Bailey 2009, p.313). Kelleher (2007) puts it altogether by interpreting new media technologies as tools that PR practitioners and publics use to achieve the goal of relationship building. This definition indicates the importance of engagement with publics, which is essential for PR. However, not only relations are desired outcomes of online public relations, but also people's perceptions of and experiences with the online communication tools, and the according changes in people's attitudes and behaviour (Kelleher 2007).

These theoretical definitions suggest why PR practitioners should use social media in the first place. The dimension of effect in social media use as well as in the general field of PR is vital, although it faces obstacles such as the problem of measurement (Heath 1992). As discussed previously in the paper, one of the many roles of PR practitioner is to communicate between the organisation and its stakeholders with the goal of achieving mutual understanding and changes in perceptions and behaviour. In this regard it seems reasonable that PR practitioners need the skills in order to communicate with the stakeholders and since " media moves from 'buzz word' status to strategic tool..." (Eyrich, Padman and Sweetser 2008, p.412) these skills are more and more related to the online communication technology. Social media not only allows PR practitioners to reach out to and engage with their publics in conversation, but also provides a possibility to strengthen media relations by expediting the circulation of information.

According to Baym (2006, p.43) "…one of the wonderful things about computer mediated communication is that it gives us an opportunity to rethink theories of communication." Derived from this, it can be discussed whether an understanding of traditional communication theory can contribute to the effective use of social media in PR practice.

From viewpoints of early traditional communication theories, the role of social media use is much delimited. The Lasswell Formula (McQuail and Windahl 1993) is an example of one-way communication, where the message is delivered to a receiver through a channel. The channel in this case could barely be social media, because the formula itself ignores elements of noise, feedback and dialogical as well as interactive character of social media. Westley and McLean's (McQuail and Windahl 1993) conceptual model of mass communication includes these elements and an additional role of a gatekeeper. Even if the role of the gatekeeper can be occupied by a PR practitioner nowadays, by the time the model was created the role of the gatekeeper was probably meant for the mass media. Similarly, Wilcox (2009) argues that mass media was in control of the flow of information for last decades and was characterised by its centralisation in terms of hierarchical structures and one-way communication with limited space for feedback.

For PR practice it indicates that with such a limited understanding of media processes, the media relations techniques might be declared obsolete. As example the literature suggests a construct of 'Old PR' (Bailey 2009). It is unlikely that stakeholder and publics can be engaged in a conversation, since this concept focuses mainly on press relations, rather than on media relations and addresses mostly the media. Consequently, it can be concluded that understanding of traditional communication theories cannot contribute to effective social media use in PR practice.


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The traditional communication theory and the effective use of social media in public relations. A critical reflection
Queen Margaret University
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Maria M. (Author), 2012, The traditional communication theory and the effective use of social media in public relations. A critical reflection, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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