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Opening the PR Dialogue

Published on May 9, 2018, at 9:58 a.m.
by Skylar Spencer.

After three years of research, the Commission on Public Relations Education released a report, titled “A Common Vision: Fast Forward to Public Relations Future State.” The report’s major recommendations for undergraduate education in public relations include writing, ethics and theory.

“Speed is essential” — public relations practitioners and educators must be able to foresee, master and mirror the emerging and predicted skills and knowledge that build on the foundation of PR.

Bridging this gap between the current and emerging practices may seem complex, but the report urged practitioners to recognize the importance of theory, as “a work in progress as the practice of public relations evolves continuously.”

With that in mind, how can we fast forward our knowledge and skills — from writing and content development to working with data and analytics — to anticipate the future of public relations?

Igniting the futurist mindset, let’s explore the opportunities and pitfalls of the theory of dialogic communication in public relations, specifically in terms of interacting and engaging publics ethically online.

Toward a theory of dialogic communication
Published over 20 year ago, Michael L. Kent, Ph.D., and Maureen Taylor, Ph.D., proposed a theoretical framework to facilitate relationship building with publics. Titled “Building Dialogic Relationships Through the World Wide Web,” Kent and Taylor’s research suggested the following:

“Dialogic communication in this essay refers to any negotiated exchange of ideas and opinions. Dialogic denotes a communicative give and take and is guided by two principles. First, individuals who engage in dialogue do not necessarily have to agree — quite often they vehemently disagree — however, what they share is a willingness to try to reach mutually satisfying positions. Second, dialogic communication is about intersubjectivity, and not objective truth, or subjectivity. Because of the nature of dialogic communication and its emphasis on a process of negotiated communication, it is considered to be an especially ethical way of conducting public dialogue and public relations.”

Taylor, director of the School of Advertising and Public Relations at the University of Tennessee and Kent’s research partner, said the theory emerged out of ethics and communication, and was then repurposed for public relations.

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The theory has evolved since its inception and is now widely studied in the context of social media. Despite its potential, however, scholarship has found that dialogic communication has been underused by professionals in today’s digital environment.

Opportunities and pitfalls
Tina McCorkindale, Ph.D., APR, president and CEO of the Institute for Public Relations, said that the problem with the theory of dialogic communication is that we’re applying it the wrong way.

“When we talk about social media and dialogic, we have these categories, and people have looked at blog engagement and whether it’s engaging, but the loop — like almost the conversational loop — it just needs some refining when we’re applying it to other things that aren’t websites,” McCorkindale said. “The overall theory is there, but the way we’re measuring it is not there in our field.”

Likewise, when asked about the opportunities and challenges of dialogic communication today, Taylor explained that “the potential for dialogue is theoretically there, but it’s not fulfilled.”

Taylor went into detail: “Dialogue is an orientation — that’s the first and most important part. Even if you have a two-way communication, if both parties do not come to the interaction with positive regard for the other and a willingness to change, even two-way communication doesn’t reach the standard of dialogue. One of the reasons Michael and I stopped doing research on websites was that we discovered they’re not dialogic because the orientation to the other isn’t there.”

Another study focused on understanding dialogue and engagement suggested an additional example: “Despite their relationship-building potential, organizations continue to use social and digital tools to share information in one direction and miss opportunities to effectively leverage interactive tools to build relationships … Companies initiate discussion by asking questions and including interactive features — like online games and polls — on websites and social media networks, yet few organizations complete the dialogical loop by consistently responding to questions and concerns posted online.”

In terms of dialogic communication, this example inherently suggests another important factor that’s not being utilized: listening. According to McCorkindale, social listening and responding in real time is where the future of dialogue is headed.

“When you’re listening and then you’re replying because of what’s happening in real time — that to me is true dialogue,” McCorkindale said. “Anticipation is going to be the sort of next phase of this theory.”

McCorkindale referred to an interesting study done by Jim Macnamara on “Creating an ‘Architecture of Listening’ in Organizations.” Macnamara initially expected to find considerable listening taking place within PR departments, given the explicit focus on two-way communication, engagement, dialogue and relationships in PR theory. To his surprise, “this facet of the research was a great disappointment,” suggesting the following key finding:

“Research shows that organization public communication is overwhelmingly comprised of organizational speaking to disseminate organizations’ messages using a transmissional or broadcast model. Analysis shows that, on average, around 80 percent of organizational resources devoted to public communication are focused on speaking (i.e., distributing the organization’s information and messages).”

Expanding the PR toolkit through dialogue
Although this theory is still developing — and not all interactions need to be dialogic, Taylor urged emerging professionals to have a “toolkit of conceptual frameworks.”

“I think the future of public relations isn’t in media relations, and it isn’t in social media; it’s helping organizations anticipate societal expectations and then use their research — which is why we always make you [students] take a research class — to help the organization change and adapt before the societal expectations forces them to change. So it’s like an early warning system. Good public relations listens … The future of public relations is having people who use social media as one tool of many to listen so they can still communicate, but they listened, and they use it to help the organization internally to adjust and change.”

As we fast forward to the future, the Commission on Public Relations Education highlighted another critical recommendation in its report: the need for an “ongoing dialogue and partnership among practitioners and educators.”

Perhaps this is where the cultivation of new skills begins — through a sustained dialogue among industry, practitioners and educators. Technology doesn’t stand still, and PR professionals must utilize every tool to keep up.

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