Dimensions of public relations activity : an exploratory study
The subject of this thesis is the emerging academic area of public relations (PR) (Hazleton and Botan, 1989: 13), which remains theoretically undeveloped and lacks empirical substantiation (Pasadeos et A, 1999). The phenomenon of PR activity incorporating -- all the people, institutions and activities that determine, constitute or result from PR work-- has exercised a growing influence upon society in general and the business world in particular (Cutlip, 1994; Ewen, 1996). The thesis seeks to contribute to the examination of a poorly researched phenomenon through a holistic approach by emphasising the importance of the whole and the interdependence of its parts. Given the limited understanding of public relations, it was assumed that a more substantial contribution could be achieved through a general preliminary understanding of the complex phenomenon, rather than by focusing on separate parts without the knowledge of which parts are the most important. Following a review of the relevant literature, a preliminary study was conducted through 15 exploratory interviews, and this led to the identification of core characteristics associated with PR activity. These informed the construction of the research instrument for the main survey, which explored three units of analysis: PR practitioner, PR consultancy and PR industry. The holistic approach was achieved by using three units of analysis, instead of one, thereby facilitating the study of the phenomenon from a variety of angles. The population under study consisted of PR practitioners managing external consultancies in England. A total of 297 valid questionnaires (representing a 29.7% response rate) were analysed through exploratory factor analysis (EFA) in order to examine the component structure of the data. Nine scales of measurement were tested through confirmatory factor analysis (CFA), with maximum likelihood estimation using LISREL 8.3 (Joreskog et al, 1999). The final constructs revealed composite reliability and convergent and nomological validity, which verified unidimensionality (Bollen, 1989). Eleven significant correlations among the nine latent constructs were found and analysed. Finally, 16 follow-up interviews were undertaken in order to assess the external validity of the new constructs and to help interpret their correlations. The main academic contributions of the research are: the identification of dimensions of PR activity, the operationalisation of its constituent elements, and the preliminary understanding of their co-existence. Three dimensions of PR activity are identified: practitioner, consultancy and industry forces. A PR practitioner is someone who practises the occupation of public relations. A PR consultancy is a company that gives expert advice on the particular subject of PR in exchange for payment. The PR industry consists of all the people and activities involved in providing the particular service of PR, and its forces consist of all the structural elements of the PR industry that affect those people and activities. Nine constructs relating to the three dimensions are identified. At the practitioner dimension, the constructs are managerial PR and permanence in job. At the consultancy dimension, the constructs are strategic needs from clients, and size. At the industry forces dimension, the constructs are industry standard, trade body contribution, quality of PR graduates, importance of qualifications, and competition. Researchers are encouraged to incorporate this study's new valid and reliable measures, the new empirically-based findings, and research directions in the future investigation of PR. Further refinement of both conceptual and measurement issues is suggested. The findings have important implications for both PR theory and practice (consultants, professional associations, academics and the industry as a whole). Additional guidelines are provided to stimulate future discussion and reveal potentially fruitful streams of research in the field. The study contributes to practice by identifying some of the main contemporaneous challenges: for the PR industry forces, the evolution towards a semi-professionalising occupation; for the PR consultancy, the satisfaction of client corporations' strategic needs; for the individual practitioner, the acquisition of new skills motivated by an ongoing evolution of PR from a tactical function to a strategic function. It is suggested that this natural transition period can be quickened in proportion to the ability of individual practitioners to unite and act as a unified community in order to achieve advances in public relations.