Experimental Analysis of Activist Message Strategy Effect on Receiver Variables
It is a fundamental mistake to see the enemy as a set of targets. The enemy in war is a group of people. Some of them will have to be killed. Others will have to be captured or driven into hiding. The overwhelming majority, however, have to be persuaded.— Frederick Kagan
Public relations scholarship traditionally has taken an organization-centered rather than a communication-centered approach to understanding the communication behavior of organizations. Public relations has been viewed as a management function primarily influenced by factors related to the organization, and the organization generally has been the unit of analysis (J. E. Grunig, 1989a, 1992, 2001;J. E. Grunig & L. A. Grunig, 1992; J. E. Grunig & Hunt, 1984, J. E. Grunig & White, 1992). In a communication-centered approach, the unit of analysis is the strategic communication between source and receiver, and public relations is positioned as “a dynamic process influenced by the situational interaction of source, message, and receiver variables” (Werder, 2005, p. 218). While source variables have been examined at length, there has been minimal public relations research that focuses on message and receiver variables. This has lead to a “limited understanding of public relations strategy use in organizations and the effectiveness of strategies in achieving organizational goals” (Werder, 2005, p. 219).
Public relations scholarship also has given little attention to research related to activist organizations. An activist group is “two or more individuals who organize in order to influence another public or publics through action that may include education, compromise, persuasion, pressure tactics, orforce” (L. A. Grunig, J. E. Grunig, & Dozier, 2002, p. 446). Activist organizations are referred to by different names; however, their fundamental feature is that they are organized and use strategic communication to achieve organizational goals (Smith & Ferguson, 2001).
Scholarly interest in activist organizations has grown, “but it has not kept up with the increasing importance of activists on public policy and advocacy efforts” (Aldoory & Sha, 2007, p. 352). Generally, research on activism has been limited to explaining, predicting, and responding to the behavior of activist groups (Anderson, 1992; L. A. Grunig, 1992; Guiniven, 2002; Murphy & Dee, 1992; Smith & Ferguson,2001; Taylor, Vasquez & Doorley, 2003; Werder, 2003, 2006). In fact, research on activism is most often performed to determine how organizations can best respond when targeted by activists. However, “activists are not just publics of an organization” (Aldoory & Sha, 2007, p. 352); they often are organized entities. As such, activist groups face many of the same challenges as other organizations (Smith & Ferguson, 2001). In particular, they must strategically use communication to achieve their goals.
This study attempts to contribute to current theory-driven research in public relations by examining activist messaging from a communication-centered perspective. Specifically, this study seeks to further understanding of activist communication by examining the effect of activist message strategies on receiver variables. The communication effects of seven activist message strategies derived from Hazleton andLong’s (1988) public relations process model were examined using J.E. Grunig’s (1997) situational theoryof publics and Fishbein and Ajzen’s (1975) theory of reasoned action in an effort to discover the message strategies most effective in making publics more active—a primary goal of activist organizations.