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The Relations Between the Company and the Public

The author: Rachmat Kriyantono, Ph.D (School of Communication, UB Malang)

The public is important in public relations practices. The public is the ultimate target of a public relations program. Public relations must identify how the public responds to the messages that public relations convey by understanding what the public know (cognitive), believes, and perceives about the information which it receives (Galloway & Aidoo, 2005). It is hoped that by considering the public’s needs and interests, the company is able to foster a mutual understanding with its public.

The public is “a group of people who share a common problem or goal and recognize their common interest” (Baskin, Arronoff, & Lattimore, 1997, p.11). According to Blumer (1946) & Dewey (1927) cited in Grunig (1979), the public can be characterized as a group of people concerned with a similar problem. Even though they have the same or different ideas about the problem, they recognize and become familiar with it, discuss it, and organize it to solve the issue or problem. From the definition above, it can be said that each company has its own public, which differs from other companies. For instance, the victims of the mudflow in Sidoarjo, Indonesia share a common problem regarding Lapindo Inc’s activities.  Some of them expressed their feelings through variety of media, such as personal communication, mass media or alternative media (namely, banner, pamphlet, and VCD).

From several study in the area of public relations which were conducted by experts, Leitch and Neilson (1997) found that there are two approaches to defining “public”, namely:  the strategic approach and the dialogic approach. The public in the strategic approach is placed as passive-receiver of the company’s messages. Public is viewed as audience who only receives messages because it does not have a chance to express and to argue their feelings. On the other hand, in the dialogic approach, the public is given a broad opportunity to participate actively and equally in a dialogue with the company. However, they also commented that in reality both approaches still place the organization as the driver that determines what should happen to achieve the goal rather than focus on the public’s interest. Consequently, they stated that “the public is presented as organizational artifacts or constructs” (p. 17). In other words, the company is usually a subject and the public is an object so that there is no a good relationship between the company and its public or vice versa.  

Meanwhile, the key element of making a good relationship has been considered by some experts (Grunig, 1995; Kent & Taylor, 2002; Lane, 2005; Leitch & Neilson, 1997). They discussed how the concept ‘dialogue’ should be understood. One of the popular reference models is the four models of public relations from Grunig (1995).  Through this model, Grunig gave descriptions of public relations practice in dealing with the public, namely the press agent (publicity) model, the public information model, the two-way asymmetric model, and the symmetric model.

According to Grunig, the press-agent model is a model in which communication moves one-way from the company to its public. Public relations’ communication focuses on its propaganda or a campaign through one-way communication in order to get a beneficial publicity report in the mass-media. This publicity is gained by ignoring the truth of the information in an effort to hide the negative factors from the company. In a similar way, the public information model also emphasizes one-way communication. In this model, public relations officer acts as a reporter. The aim of this model is merely to give information to the public by ignoring the process of persuasion (Grunig, 1995).

Grunig (1995) also offered other distinctive models, such as the asymmetric model and the symmetric model. Both models have similarity in giving a two-way communication channel. In the asymmetric model, although it concerns the public’s feedback, the company tries to persuade the public to adapt its behaviour in order to deal with the company goals. Information from the public is not used for modifying the company’s goals and procedures. It is also not used to persuade management to change its thinking and behaviours toward particular policies or issues. Therefore, the company is still a subject in the relationship (Grunig, 1995).

However, the two-way symmetric model appears to give a better technique in which two-way reciprocal communication takes place. In this model, both the company and the public try to establish their interests. Therefore, communication is viewed as negotiation and compromise process. It can be said that the company pays full attention to the public’s interest. In particular, management may alter its knowledge, perceptions and the way the company should proceed (Grunig, 1995).

The effectiveness of the two-way symmetrical communication was also demonstrated by some research. Specifically, there is evidence that this symmetric model has a good chance for negotiation and bargaining processes in order to gain long-term relationships. It is similar to the concept of public participation in crisis management (Chong, 2006). Wigley’s research (2003) found that two-way communication is important to build the maintenance relationship with the public such as campus police, emergency personnel, various administrators, and the media during the Oklahoma University Plane Crash. Huang (2004) surveyed 320 public relations practitioners from Taiwan’s Top 500 companies and found that there are a positive relationship between symmetrical communication and several factors of the organization’s activity such as crisis management, conflict resolving, corporate image, media publicity, and market performance.

It can be concluded that both asymmetric and symmetric models give an opportunity to provide a dialogue between the organization and its public. Despite the abundant research in the area, it will be interesting to find out how the concept of dialogue, particularly in the symmetrical communication, has been applied during the mudflow crisis.

Several studies (Kent & Taylor, 2002; Lane, 2005; Leitch & Neilson, 1997) gave attention to how dialogue should be conducted regarding the concept of two-way symmetrical communication. In public relations, according to Kent & Taylor (2002, p. 22), “Dialogue is explained as communicating about issues with the public”. It is important to note that they do not use the phrase ‘to public’ but ‘with public’. It means that both the company and the public are actually in the same position. The company should need either to give clear information or to explore information from the public and vice versa. Furthermore, Kent & Taylor gave basic principles of conducting dialogic public relations, such as mutuality, propinquity, empathy, risk, and commitment (Kent & Taylor, 2002).

With mutuality, Kent and Taylor (2002) stated that both the company and the public could not be separated. Participants should think that dialogue is the process of conversation and understanding each other. It will be achieved if they view each other as partner. With propinquity, they argued that the company should give information about policies that affect the public as well as give the public a chance to be involved in decision-making processes. Basically, the public need to express their demands to the company. Empathy can be gained if the company gives support to a climate which encourages two-way reciprocal communication. Empathy can allow the company to hear and feel the public’s needs and emotions, even if the public disagrees with the company. It can build public trust. By applying empathetic communication, Kent and Taylor said that “public relations can improve their communication by ‘walking in the shoes’ of their public”. (2002, p. 27).

Moreover, Kent and Taylor (2002) argued that there is a potential risk for conflict. This is because during dialogue, participants can express their own feelings and perceptions so that a dialogue can encourage someone’s vulnerability and unanticipated consequences. Therefore, a dialogue should be based on the commitment from the participants to obtain beneficial results for all to minimize conflict.

Before conducting two-way communication with the public, it is valuable to recognize who the public is including its attitudes, its understanding of the issue and the media that will be used to deliver messages (Lane, 2005). It is often said that knowing the audience is one of basic principles of communication that allow communicators to achieve a wider chance to build an effective result. By understanding the audience, public relations as a communicator can plan messages properly to match the audience’s or public’s need. In the long-term, proper messages will enable a good relationship to be created with their public. It can be concluded from literature such as Baskin et al. (1997), Grunig (MetGrunig, 1979), Seitel (2001), Veil, Liu, Erickson & Sellnow (2005), and Zyglidopoulos (1999) that public relations officers must consider public opinion that represents the public’s perception of the company’s activities by applying two-way communication system.

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