Public relations is much more a craft of best practices than of application of theory. However, PR professionals need to be able to think in broad, theoretical, and systemic ways about audiences, the PR environment, and communicating in general. Learning about communication theories helps practitioners in three key ways:
- to organize large amounts of complex information
- to explain patterns, and
- to build predictability.
Communication scholars draw theory and research from a wide diversity of fields, notably including sociology, political science, economics, organizational behaviour, gender studies, marketing, and psychology. Truthfully, there are too many theoretical concepts to absorb in the space of one semester and knowing most of these theories and models is not necessary to succeed as a PR practitioner. Nonetheless, this chapter introduces students to some of the most commonly used and conceptually valuable theories and models that support thinking about PR problems and thinking through to PR solutions.
The Shannon-Weaver Model of Communication
Communication textbooks often adopt the Shannon-Weaver model (1948)—also known as the transmission model—to represent the linear process of communication, as shown in the image below.
In this linear model, a sender encodes information and, through a transmitter, sends it to a receiver, who subsequently decodes the message. According to this model, information seems to move in a simplified, linear manner, even though the process can be complicated by noise, which is pollution added to a message during transmission, and feedback, which is information that the receiver transmits back to the sender (which can also be complicated by noise).
This is a simple and elegant model of communication that can help you visualize the process anytime you’re going to be communicating.
The first rule of communication is to know your audience and put them first. You can use this model to think about how to best encode your messages for them and and how to send it to them. You can also think about what types of interference (noise) could prevent your message from being received, understood, or accepted. Finally, you can think about what feedback you’ll look for when determining if your message was successful.
3.1. Media Influence
Early media studies focused on the use of mass media in propaganda and persuasion. However, journalists and researchers soon looked to behavioural sciences to help figure out the effect of mass media and communication on society.
Widespread fear that mass-media messages could outweigh other stabilizing cultural influences, such as family and community, led to what is known as the direct effects model. Also known as the “hypodermic needle” model, the direct effects model posits that audiences passively accept media messages and exhibit predictable reactions in response to those messages. Take note that this theoretical model has largely been debunked. The most famous example stems from the famous 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast by Orsen Wells. That broadcast was a fictional news report of an alien invasion of earth; some people believed the story to be true and panicked, but most people understood this was an entertaining and compelling work of fiction.
In 1948, Paul Lazarsfeld—along with his fellow researchers—published The People’s Choice, which challenged the direct effects model by gauging the effects of political campaigns on voter choice. Lazarsfeld et al. found that voters who consumed the most media had generally already decided for which candidate to vote, while undecided voters generally turned to family and community members to help them decide (Lazarsfeld, Berelson, & Gaudet, 1948). The study thus discredited the direct effects model and influenced a host of other media theories (Hanson, 2008). In particular, Lazarsfeld (and later Elihu Katz, with Lazarsfeld) argued for a limited effects model of media influence and a two-step flow of influence. This more nuanced theory suggested that the influence of the mass media is mediated through personal relationships and the audience’s existing knowledge (not so “hypodermic” as previous scholars had feared).
In contrast to the extreme views of the direct effects model, the agenda-setting theory of media stated that mass media determine the issues that concern the public rather than the public’s views. Under this theory, the issues that receive the most attention from media become the issues that the public discusses, debates, and demands action on. This means that the media is determining what issues and stories the public thinks about. Therefore, when the media fails to address a particular issue, it becomes marginalized in the minds of the public (Hanson, 2008). In this theory, the mass media are not very skilled at telling the public what to think, but they are very successful in telling the public what to think about. A number of criticisms have dogged agenda-setting theory, notably that agenda-setting studies are unable to prove cause and effect. Essentially, no one has truly shown that the media agenda sets the public agenda and not the other way around.
In many ways, news framing is to interpretation of an issue as agenda setting theory is to whether an issue is considered at all. How news media cover an issue and “frame” it affects the audience’s perceptions. Though there is a broad consensus that news framing is real, there is little consensus about its significance or even how to define it. However, Lecheler and de Vreese (2019) offer a broadly useful description:
…a news frame can affect an individual by stressing certain aspects of reality and pushing others into the background: The news frame has a selective function. In this way, certain issue attributes, judgments, and decisions are suggested. (p. 3)
An illustration of how framing effects work might be an instance where a homeless man accidentally burns down a building while trying to stay warm during a cold winter night. If the reporter covering the story quotes a police officer first, this is a crime story. If the reporter quotes a social worker first, this is a poverty story. If a public health official is quoted first, it’s a public health story. If the owner of the building is interviewed first, this is a story about the loss of the building. The events, of course, do not change based on the reporter’s decisions or writing, but how the readers understand the issue changes based on how the events are framed.
Uses and Gratifications Theory
Practitioners of the uses and gratifications theory study the ways the public consumes media. This theory states that consumers use the media to satisfy specific needs or desires. Many people use the internet to seek out entertainment, to find information, to communicate with like-minded individuals, or to pursue self-expression. Each of these uses gratifies a particular need and the needs determine the way in which media is used. By examining factors of different groups’ media choices, researchers can determine the motivations behind media use (Papacharissi, 2009).
Uses and gratifications theories of media are often applied to contemporary media issues. The analysis of the relationship between media and violence exemplifies this. Researchers employed the uses and gratifications theory in this case to reveal a nuanced set of circumstances surrounding violent media consumption, as individuals with aggressive tendencies were drawn to violent media (Papacharissi, 2009).
The general assumptions of the uses and gratifications theory have drawn criticism. By assuming that media fulfill a functional purpose in an individual’s life, the uses and gratifications theory implicitly justifies and reaffirms the place of media in the public sphere. Furthermore, because it focuses on personal, psychological aspects of media, the theory cannot question whether media is artificially imposed on an individual.
The cultivation analysis theory states that heavy exposure to media causes individuals to develop an illusory perception of reality based on the most repetitive and consistent messages of a particular medium. Under this theory, someone who watches a great deal of television, for example, may form a picture of reality that does not correspond to actual life. Televised acts of violence, whether those reported on news programs or portrayed on television dramas greatly outnumber violent acts that most people encounter in their daily lives. Thus, an individual who watches a great number of violent acts may come to view the world as more violent and dangerous than it actually is.
3.2. Systems and Structures
Theories in this section focus on different aspects of human society, such as class, race, gender, or employment. There is much overlap and the prominence of particular theoretical perspectives follows definite trends, experiencing rises and lulls in popularity (both in academia and society at large).
Structural functionalism is a body of theories that understand the world as a large system of interrelated parts that all work together.
Émile Durkheim explored these ideas when individualism was replacing the authority of the Catholic church in France (in the late 19th and early 20th centuries). Societies no longer had singular dominant religions that bonded them together, or even dominant ethnicities. How was society being held together? Durkheim’s answer was that social life was possible because of the trust that existed among members of society. For society to function, there must exist an unwritten moral code that people follow.
Talcott Parsons, like Durkheim before him, argued that schools existed to socialize students. He argued that schools assess children in standardized ways, with the goal being that they are judged based only on how they perform, regardless of social background. In this way, adults’ later placement in the workforce is a reflection of how much they achieved and how successful they were in their schooling. The school is functionally related to the workforce because it assigns people to their roles.
Note that structural functionalists do not believe that inequality is non-existent. On the contrary, they believe it is inherent to the broader social system. In other words, inequality exists because society needs some people to be working class and some people to be managerial class and some people to be in the governing class and so forth.
As you may imagine, structural functionalism has received many well-founded criticisms. In particular, the approach fails to account for how many ascribed traits, like socioeconomic background, gender, and race, appear to be so important in determining life outcomes. A plethora of research has provided compelling evidence that the education system does not operate on a purely meritocratic basis. However, despite its shortcomings, structural functionalism has been a useful framework for understanding how morality and norms are spread across society.
However, the enduring benefit of a functionalist view is that it asks people to view organizations and social structures in terms of their function, which further suggests that news media have a specific regulating function in society.
Writing during the industrial revolution in Europe (a time of unprecedented economic transition), Karl Marx argued that all social relations were rooted in economic relations, particularly the mode of production: the way of producing goods and services. In capitalism, workers and owners are in direct opposition. Both groups have competing interests: the workers, for example, want to command the highest wage, while the owners, in order to drive the greatest profit, want to pay the lowest possible wage.
Marx viewed society as divided into distinct classes. At the most basic level, there were owners (the bourgeoisie) and workers (the proletariat). He argued that the only way to achieve a just society was for the proletariat to achieve class consciousness—to collectively become self-aware of their class group and take control of the economy for the benefit of the working class.
An enormous amount of scholarly thinking stems from Marx, but the core idea of Marxism that endures is the notion that society is defined by what Marx called “class struggle,” an ongoing effort of the working class to elevate its standard of living and control of the economy and society and the aristocracy’s ongoing effort to hoard as much wealth and wield as much power as possible.
Hegemony: Antonio Gramsci’s contribution to Marxist theory
Marxist theory has contributed to the scholarly thinking in most social sciences and is foundational to many other theoretical models. Antonio Gramsci added clarification to Marxist theory to explain why full-scale workers’ revolutions were not common. His theory was hegemony: a fine balance between the aristocracy and the working class. In Gramsci’s thinking, so long as the risks of pursuing a revolution were greater than the relative comforts and benefits of the existing balance, workers would shy away from militant overthrow of the aristocracy. In other words, if the aristocracy paid wages that were just high enough and provided other benefits that were just good enough (such as elected parliaments and free or affordable healthcare and education), they would be safe to continue hoarding a disproportionate amount of wealth and wielding a disproportionate amount of power.
Max Weber (1868–1920) was a German sociologist who, along with Marx and Durkheim, is widely regarded as being a “founding father” of sociology. Weber’s analysis of rationalization was linked to his interest in religion and its place in society. Rationalization occurred when society became more secular; scientific knowledge began to develop and an increasing reliance on scientific and technological explanations began to emerge. Instead of being based on customs or religious belief, more and more social actions were the outcome of beliefs related to scientific thought. Rationalization paved the way for what Weber referred to as “rational-legal authority,” which is a type of political leadership that is regarded as legitimate due to being rooted in established laws (which themselves are the outcome of rationalization).
Closely related to the concepts of rationalization and rational-legal authority is bureaucracy, which is an administrative structure that follows a clear hierarchical structure and involves very specific rules and chains of command. Bureaucracies organize work in specific ways and can be frustrating because they are, by design, inflexible. (In defense of bureaucracies, they also provide important efficiencies, such as putting specialists in charge of specific functions. Few businesses of any significance could endure long if each employee was jointly responsible for accounting, human resources, legal counsel, building cleaning and maintenance, information technology, marketing, sales, manufacturing, distribution, and, not to be forgotten, public relations.)
Weber also provided a unique interpretation of the nature of social stratification. As discussed earlier, Marx indicated that there were two social classes: the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. These classes were entirely determined by the relationship that individuals had to the means of production. Max Weber, in contrast, had a more complex understanding of stratification, identifying class and status groups as the two major distributors of power within a society.
However, both Marx and Weber argued that social classes had the tendency to reproduce themselves. This tendency for reproduction is, in fact, the ultimate feature of classes. The concept of status is central to understanding how Weber understood society’s division into groups with competing interests. Weber defined status as being associated with honour and privilege, independent of class membership. According to Weber, status groups are moral communities, concerned with upholding the privilege of their members in society. Weber also argued that status groups could cut across classes and thus acted to work against class unification. As well, status groups also secure power through “social closure,” whereby they restrict rewards to those who possess certain characteristics (social or physical) (Parkin, 1982). Weber indicated that these groups would use the most convenient criteria available to exclude outsiders from their ranks. The result of this social closure would be to secure resources and advantages at the expense of other groups.
Feminist theory is concerned with how gender produces differences in society, whether it concerns access to education, treatment in the workplace, or representation in legislatures. Feminist theory and feminism in general has undergone tremendous shifts since its beginning in the late nineteenth century, compared to how it is popularly understood in academic research today. There are three general “waves” that are associated with feminism (Gaskell, 2009).
First wave feminism is associated with the women’s rights and suffrage movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The concern of feminists of this generation was to achieve equal rights to men. Second wave feminism, which occurred in the 1960s and extended into the early 1990s, focused on women’s equality, financial independence, access to work, and sexual harassment.
Having emerged in the early 1990s, third wave feminism is what is most commonly (but not exclusively) associated with feminism today. Also known as critical feminism, third wave feminism is largely a response to the White middle-class focus of second wave feminism. Not only concerned with gender, third wave feminist scholarship also focuses on the intersection of race and class in producing inequality.
Often dubbed postmodern feminism, the critical feminist scholarship of third wave feminism frequently scrutinizes the meaning surrounding gender and how power relations play themselves out in subtle ways. Many self-identified postmodern feminists draw on the work of Michel Foucault, a theorist associated with discourse analysis (and poststructuralism). Discourse refers to the way that a certain topic is talked about—the words, images, and emotions that are used when talking about something. Postmodern feminists who use a Foucauldian approach would be interested in examining how language is used to maintain gendered power relationships.
3.3. Society and Culture
Pluralism sees democratic society as having a diverse range of interest groups, such as industry, small business, unions…. Journalists tend to project the world through a pluralistic lens. One result of this is that we tend to understand news stories with a tribal or guild-like structure.
As an example, when there’s a tragedy in a particular ethnocultural community, news media may interview a connected spiritual leader, as if that person spoke for their entire community—or tribe, one could say. In the same story, a mayor could be quoted, presenting this quote as “the view of government” in the story.
Discussed briefly above, Michel Foucault was a 20th century historian and philosopher. He promoted the idea that people all have lasting understandings of social issues that persist across society; media is hugely influential in defining those discourses that we share over time. Public discourse is the ongoing and evolving consensus and acceptable deviation from that consensus that can be associated with our shared understanding of various issues.
Marshall McLuhan’s Influence on Media Studies
During the early 1960s, University of Toronto professor Marshall McLuhan wrote two books that had an enormous effect on the history of media studies. Published in 1962 and 1964, respectively, the Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media both traced the history of media technology and illustrated the ways these innovations had changed both individual behaviour and the wider culture. Understanding Media introduced a phrase that McLuhan has become known for: “The medium is the message.” This notion represented a novel take on attitudes toward media—that the media themselves are instrumental in shaping human and cultural experience.
His bold statements about media gained McLuhan a great deal of attention as both his supporters and critics responded to his utopian views about the ways media could transform 20th-century life. McLuhan spoke of a media-inspired “global village” at a time when Cold War paranoia was at its peak and the Vietnam War was a hotly debated subject. McLuhan became a pop culture icon, mentioned frequently in the television sketch-comedy program Laugh-In, sitting as a guest for late-night talk show host Johnny Carson, and appearing as himself in Woody Allen’s film Annie Hall.
Analysis of McLuhan’s work has, interestingly, not changed very much since his works were published. His supporters point to the hopes and achievements of digital technology. The current critique of McLuhan, however, is a bit more revealing of the state of modern media scholars who criticize McLuhan’s lack of methodological rigor and theoretical framework.
Despite his lack of scholarly diligence, McLuhan had a great deal of influence on media studies. Professors at Fordham University have formed an association of McLuhan-influenced scholars. McLuhan’s other great achievement is the popularization of the concept of media studies. His work brought the idea of media effects into the public arena and created a new way for the public to consider the influence of media on culture (Stille, 2000).
3.4. Evolutionary Models
Grunig and Hunt (1984) developed four models of public relations that describe the field’s various management and organizational practices. These models serve as guidelines to create programs, strategies, and tactics.
In the press agentry model (a.k.a. publicity model), communications professionals broadcast overtly persuasive messages to motivate audiences, often with imprecise or macro-level-only targeting. In this model, accuracy is not important and organizations do not seek audience feedback or conduct audience analysis research. It is a one-way asymmetrical form of communication, evolving from 19th century showmanship (see P.T. Barnum). The principal goal is to generate publicity (and not even necessarily positive publicity) to change audience behaviour, with no intention of being responsive.
The public information model moves away from the manipulative tactics used in the press agentry model and presents more accurate information. However, the communication pattern is still one-way. Practitioners do not conduct audience analysis research to guide their strategies or tactics. Some press releases and newsletters are created based on this model, when audiences are not necessarily targeted or researched beforehand. This model is fashioned after early 20th century journalism; the primary vehicle for this model is distribution through the mainstream media.
The two-way asymmetrical model presents a more research-driven method of communicating with key audiences. Here, communicators conduct research to better understand the audience’s attitudes and behaviours, which informs careful planning of the communicator’s strategy, message, and tactics. While the communicator draws information from the audience, that is only to the benefit of their employer/client; the model is asymmetrical and not designed to mutually benefit the audience. The two-way asymmetrical model is particularly popular in advertising and consumer marketing: fields that are specifically interested in increasing an organization’s profits.
Finally, the two-way symmetrical model positions the communicator almost as a skilled mediator or facilitator between their employer/client and the audience(s), with a heavy emphasis on dialogue and problem solving. Reputation management and relationship building are core goals of the process. The term “symmetrical” is used because the model attempts to create a mutually beneficial situation. Unlike the other models, two-way symmetrical PR will result in organizations changing to meet stakeholder needs or wants. As with all communication, there is still a persuasive element to the model.
While there are countless other theories and models in the study of communication and public relations, the above serve as a valuable primer for PR practitioners who, as is indicated in the word, are practitioners, not theorists. This knowledge is valuable, but it does not define the craft of public relations.
Gaskell, J. (2009). Feminist approaches to the sociology of education in Canada. In C. Levine-Rasky (Ed.), Canadian Perspectives on the Sociology of Education. Oxford University Press.
Grunig, J. & Hunt, T. (1984). Managing public relations. Wadsworth.
Hanson, R. (2008). Mass communication: Living in a media world. CQ Press.
Lazarsfeld, P.F., Berelson, B., & Gaudet, H. (1948). The people’s choice: How the voter makes up his mind in a presidential campaign. Columbia University Press. https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.276929/mode/2up
Lecheler, S. & de Vreese, C.H. (2019). News framing effects. Routeledge. https://library.oapen.org/viewer/web/viewer.html?file=/bitstream/handle/20.500.12657/46163/9781351802567.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
Papacharissi, Z. (2009). Uses and gratifications. In D. Stacks & M. Salwen (Eds.), An integrated approach to communication theory and research. Routledge.
Parkin, F. (1982). Max Weber (key sociologists). Routledge.
Stille, A. (2000, October 14). Marshall McLuhan is back from the dustbin of history; With the internet, his ideas again seem ahead of their time. New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2000/10/14/arts/marshall-mcluhan-back-dustbin-history-with-internet-his-ideas-again-seem-ahead.html
Parts of this chapter were adapted from Understanding Media and Culture, published by the University of Minnesota, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 International License.
Parts of this chapter were adapted from Professional Writing Today: A Functional Approach, by Sam Schechter, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Parts of this chapter were adapted from Sociology of Education in Canada, by Karen L. Robson, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.
Parts of this chapter were adapted from Writing for Strategic Communications Industries, by Jasmine Roberts, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.