The model of contingent organization-public relationship : reconciling contingency and relationship management theory
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[ACCESS RESTRICTED TO THE UNIVERSITY OF MISSOURI AT AUTHOR'S REQUEST.] Organization-public relationship, as a key concept of public relations, has been extensively examined by global scholars. In 1984, Ferguson first pointed out this term by stating that “the unit of study should not be the organization, nor the public, nor the communication process. Rather, the unit of study should be the relationships between organizations and their publics.” (abstract). In turns, Ledingham and Bruning (1998, 2000) provided a tentative definition of OPR and developed the relationship management theory as the conceptualization, which assumed that the aim of building a positive organization-public relationship (OPR) was to build mutual benefits. While in reality, the measurement of OPR could be complex: not only cooperation, competitions or conflicts co-existed between two parties, and dyadic or multiple parties at one time should be considered, but also proscriptions such as legal and moral factors constituted as contingencies of OPRs. Much of the existing studies analyzed OPR without monitoring it longitudinally or presenting the variation of relationship dynamically. Introduced in 1997, the contingency theory of conflict management, as another important approach in the field of public relations held a realistic view to track the dynamic stances and focused on dimensions that affected these stances on communication tactics. This theory was widely applied in interdisciplinary areas such as health and crisis communication for organizational strategic thinking, but was never applied to test the relationship between organizations and their publics. However, knowing what matters enables the organization to understand what cause the changes of relationships. The relationship management theory and contingency theory of conflict management can be integrated closely. Few studies, if any, have attempted to analyze OPR by bridging the gap between the above mentioned theories. This research is arguably the first attempt integrating contingency theory and relationship management theory and expanding knowledge on how each affects the other. Two dominant approaches in the field of public relations, bolstered by a tapestry of literature from cross-disciplinary fields, are brought together to conceptualize a model of Contingent Organization-Public Relationship (COPR). To generate the theoretical robustness of COPR and test its practical applicability, a social mediated crisis occurring in contemporary China was theoretically sampled and data were collected through mixed methods research including both content analyses and in-depth interviews. Quantitatively, content analyses of 338 RCSC’s press releases and 4,003 media coverage and 136,754 public posts during the time range between June, 2011 and August, 2014 provided a natural history of the application of contingent organization-public relationship (COPR) in a social mediated crisis context. Qualitative interviews also offered rich and in-depth information on the perception of stances and relationships from each party in the relationship. Findings concluded that COPR addressed the dynamic and contingent multi-party relationships. The relationship between the RCSC and online publics moved from the highly conflictual side to the neutral side, and changed back to the original competitive types of relationships (i.e., competing and evading relationships). A similar trend of the change of relationship was also found between the RCSC and media. Cooperating relationship was seldom found during the three stages of the crisis, which supported the argument that both parties in crises maintain conflictual relationships for self-interests and may adopt strategies to achieve mutual benefits. Evidence also showed that several unique contingent variables in the Chinese context such as the powerful public-led agenda, heavily censored media landscape, and distrust towards the society as a whole played significant roles in determining an organization’s stance and strategies employed. Overall, this study concluded by arguing that the contingent OPR (COPR) could exist and helped to explain the dynamic process between at least two parties who are in the state of cooperation, competition, or conflict, and consider to maximize their own interests beforehand. By synthesizing both approaches of relationship management theory and contingency theory of accommodation, the concept of COPR was forged to describe the information flow between an organization and one or more publics who are in the status ranging from mutually beneficial to highly conflictual. COPR accounts for this range and for the dynamism of ongoing relationship.
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