Theories Used in Public Relations


Theories Used in Public Relations


Theories explain how to make public relations more effective for organization and society. Theories provide an understanding of the relationship between actions and events. PR practitioners consider several theories when they make decisions about how they can build a successful relationship with their public.

This chapter introduces four basic theories that public relations practitioners use:-

Systems theory:-

•    Systems theory is made up of interrelated parts, adapting and adjusting to changes in the political, economic and social environment in which they operate.

•    It is used to explain how public relations helps understand and manage the relationships an organization has with its stakeholders and publics who make up its environment.

•    Generally, the organization who focus on their clients, customers and other stakeholders are the part of open systems. They are open to new ideas and positive criticism.

•    We use system theory not only to examine the relationship with our external stakeholders but also to look at the internal functions and stakeholders of our organization. Based on the requirement of organizations, they decide to give the leverage to be given to unit or department.

•    In systems theory, public relation practitioners advise the dominant coalition, the primary decision makers of the organization, about problems and opportunities in the environment and help these decision makers respond to the changes.

•    In systems theory, as it is based on relationships, therefore, it is interconnected. The environment imposes constraints on the organization.

•    The decision maker’s organization mostly influences the policies of businesses. Here, the decision makers of an organization allow for the two-way flow of resources and information between the organization and environment.

•    Pat Jackson’s Lasting Contribution to Public Relations: – Any profession exists by public consent only. Public relations provides an overriding social benefit t when people have a voice. Harmony is an outcome of public relations practiced over a long time. Harmonious relationships, not just relations, fortified with trust require co-authorship.  Remind managers that their communication role is to transmit not only information but also emotions and intuition.

•    Grunig, Grunig, and Dozier state that the systems perspective emphasizes the interdependence of organizations with their environments, both internal and external to the organization.

•    We can use systems theory not only to examine relationships with our external stakeholders but also to look at the internal functions and stakeholders of our organizations. Organizations structure their employees by specific jobs and functions. Many different departments, such as accounting, legal, and public relations, make up the managerial function.

•    The monitoring of relationships is a major one for public relations people. Through systems theory, we think of public relations people as boundary spanners, straddling the edge of an organization—looking inside and outside of an organization. Public relations practitioners are the go-betweens, explaining the organization to its stakeholders and interpreting the environment to the organization. Public relations people advise the dominant coalition, the primary decision makers of the organization, about problems and opportunities in the environment and help these decision makers respond to these changes.

Situational Theory:-

•    As the term suggests, it is about identifying a group of people within the group who can influence the larger sections of society. They are the active people who have an influence on the larger people.

•    Grunig and Repper agreed that it was a good start to use the concept of stakeholders as a way of describing relationships. However, they concluded that not all people in stakeholder groups would be equally likely to communicate with an organization. They felt that public relations people could more effectively manage communications by identifying specific publics within stakeholder groups.

•    Grunig and Hunt theorized that public range from those who actively seek and process information about an organization or an issue of interest, to those publics who passively receive information. According to these researchers, three variable predict when public seek and process information about an issue: Problem Recognition, constraint recognition, and level of involvement.

•    Problem recognition – It is important for people to first recognize an issue and its potential impact on them. E.g. 3s is an organization which works in the area of sanitation. They have understood that many Indians, especially in rural areas, do not have toilet facilities.

•    Constraint recognition – Describes the way people see the problems which stand before the solutions. E.g. they have tried to identify the reasons and did connect to the access to the reason for it.

•    Level of involvement – Actually, here the organization seeks the involvement of people in the cause. E.g. they actually identify the group of people who has an high involvement with an issue and suggest the solutions to them. 3s came up with a concept of moving toilets which are highly accepted and appreciated initially by some regions but now they have major clients in all over India.

•    Using these three variables, Grunig and Hunt described responses that follow from being high or low in these dimensions. For example, those publics who have high problem recognition, low constraint recognition, and high involvement in an issue are much more likely to actively engage in communication about it.

•    The situational theory actually explains and useful to understand that public wants rather than organization choice of information to distribute. It also assumes that public will pay attention and seek out information that is in their best interests.

Theories of Persuasion and Social Influence:-

Pfau and Wan define persuasion as “the use of communication in an attempt to shape, change, and/or reinforce perception, affect (feelings), cognition (thinking) and/or behavior. Public Relations people try to persuade audiences to learn new information, to change emotions and to act in a certain way. Miller and Levine stated, “At a minimum, a successful persuasive attempt generates some type of cognitive, effective, or behavioral modification in the target.”

We will discuss two most prominent theories in theories of persuasion and social influence i.e. Social Exchange Theory and Diffusion Theory.

Social Exchange Theory:-

•    Social Exchange Theory uses the economic metaphor of costs and benefits to predict behavior.

•    This theory was propounded by John Thibaut and Harold Kelley applies to many fields of study, including interpersonal communication, public relations, and theories of organizations.

•    People always have the expectation to get their reward high and cost low. But, not at the cost of their customers. Sometimes, it is difficult for organizations to look for a long term. In that case, it is essential for public relations practitioners to let the decision maker of an organization analyze the whole range of options along with the associated costs and rewards.

•    For E.G. A company who supplies a product to their customers and understand that there is a defect in their products that has already been shipped to customers. In that situation, a company has to take a decision which helps them to save their customers and costs and give them high rewards. A public relations practitioners will analyze the whole situations and suggest the best possibilities for an organization which will help them to save huge loss in future.

Diffusion Theory:-

•    Diffusion theory is another way to look at how people accept and process information.

•    They have identified the following five steps to accept the idea of diffusion:-

1. Awareness. The individual has been exposed to the idea.

2. Interest. The idea has to arouse the individual.

3. Evaluation. The individual must consider the idea as potentially useful.

4. Trial. The individual tries out the idea on others.

5. Adoption. This represents final acceptance of the idea after having successfully passed through the four earlier stages.

•    This theory helps to reach important decisions. Here, the first importance is given to mass population than the personal contacts.

•    For E.g. an amusement park wants a maximum family to visit their parks with family. They understand that cost of their park is very high therefore they came up with a scheme for students to visit their park free along with their I- card and whosever accompany them, will get 10 % discount in their tickets.  A company wants more students to visit their park. So, in that regards, they started promoting their ideas through various colleges and send them flyers (Awareness). After sending them flyers, they have started highlighting the most interesting concepts or theme for which students should visit the place (Interest). After that, they give them possible alternatives so that they decide the best for them (Evaluation). After that, few students visit and get the nice feel of the park (Trial) and give mouth publicity to their groups and all known people. And suddenly, the find that many people have started visiting the park and it has become a huge hit (Adoption).


·         Mascarenhas Romeo S. (2016) – Corporate Communication & Public Relations published by Vipul Prakashan.

·         Corporate Communication & Public Relations (2016)  by Dr. Sanobar Hussaini published by Sheth Publishers Private Limited

· retrieved on 23rd February 2018

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