An activist group is a collection of individuals who organize around a common goal to exert pressure on a public or organization in order to influence public policy, organizational action, or social norms and values (Berry, 1984; L. A. Grunig, 1992; Smith & Ferguson, 2001). They are often referred to asspecial interest groups, pressure groups, grass roots organizations, social movements, or issue groups (L. A.Grunig, 1992). No matter what they are called, organized activists are strategic publics of organizations“ because they constrain an organization’s ability to accomplish its goals and mission” (Anderson, 1992, p.151). Frequently, however, they function as organizations that utilize public relations and strategic communications in order to achieve goals (Smith & Ferguson, 2001).
Throughout public relations research, activist organizations are viewed as a problem for other organizations. Research on activism is most often performed in order to determine how organizations can best respond (J. E. Grunig & Hunt, 1984; Karlberg, 1996, Werder, 2003, 2006). This perspective, whichmany scholars studying activism share, is captured by L. A. Grunig’s (1992) title to her chapter inExcellence in Public Relations and Communication Management: “Activism: How it limits the effectiveness of organizations and how excellent public relations departments respond” (p. 503). The findings reported in that chapter suggest that organizations need to practice two-way symmetricalcommunication with activist groups and maintain continuous communication efforts. This assertion is supported by Werder’s (2003) finding that cooperative problem-solving message strategies produced themost favorable attitudes and behavioral intentions toward an organization responding to activism.
More recently, activism has been viewed as an opportunity for organizations. L. A. Grunig, J. E.Grunig, and Dozier (2002) argue that the pressure of activist groups can actually act as a catalyst in the development of an excellent public relations department within the organization exposed to activism. And Smith and Ferguson (2001) suggest that it is in the presence of activism that public relations practitioners are able to gain legitimacy and increase their value to an organization.
Some believe that the principles of symmetrical communication, relationship building, and ethical behavior popular with excellent organizations will also benefit activist groups (J. E. Grunig, 2000, 2001),while others believe that activists’ needs, organizational structures, financial structures, and access to management and public relations expertise are vastly different from those organizations (Holtzhausen,2007). It is evident, then, why public relations scholars are increasingly encouraging a move towards research that examines the efficacy of activist groups (Dozier & Lauzen, 2000; Karlberg, 1996; Reber &Berger, 2005).
Holtzhausen (2000, 2005, 2007) identifies activist organizations as the true voices of democracythrough their advocating of different causes and guiding of organizations to adhere to the values systems of their environment. Smith and Ferguson (2001) identified two primary goals of activists. The first goal is to rectify the conditions identified by the activist organization. To accomplish this goal, activists must draw attention to the problem, position themselves as legitimate advocates, and successfully argue for their recommended resolutions to the problem (p. 294). The second goal is to maintain the organization established to pursue their purpose. In order to do this, they must maintain membership, thrive in a competitive marketplace of ideas and issues, and adjust to changes in their environment (p. 295).
Utilizing the activist perspective, Derville (2005) theorized about the communication strategiesused by radical activist organizations. She found differences among activist organizations based on their different approaches and goals. One distinction involves the degree of change sought. This determines whether an activist organization is more radical or more mainstream. Another variation she found was that radical organizations differ from mainstream ones in their use of organizational strategies. Radicals pressure their targets through acts such as humiliation, terrorism, and boycotts, while moderates focus more on using communication strategies that are reasonable and adhere to the norms of society. Derville concluded that,though some radical tactics may alienate people, they often fulfill highly strategic purposes such as to help the activist organization redefine or enhance its members’ identities, to recruit sympathizers and discourage opponent’s supporters, to provide momentum to moderate activist organizations to act on an issue, and to facilitate favorable decision-making by policy makers by making the moderate activist organizations’requests seem reasonable by comparison (p. 532).
Kovacs (2001) noted that few attempts have been made to understand the strategic use of publicrelations by activist organizations. She observed that the role of relationships and relationship building inpublic relations has become a focal point for scholars. Since relationships influence effective motivation ofpublics and increase the possibility for long-term outcomes and non-adversarial communication, Kovacsconcluded that it might be in the activist organizations’ best interest to consider more conciliatory tactics oreducational strategies.
While these studies have provided insight into the role of public relations in activist organizations,many unexplored areas related to activism still remain. This study seeks to fill a gap in this literature by studying activist communication from the perspective of an activist organization. Specifically, this study examines activist message strategies and how they influence variables related to the receiver of activist communication.
The activist message strategies examined in this study derive from the theoretical framework provided by Hazleton and Long’s (1988) public relations process model.1 Adopting a general system’stheory approach, Hazleton and Long defined public relations as a communication function of management through which organizations adapt to, alter, or maintain their environment for the purpose of achieving organizational goals (Hazleton, 1992; Hazleton & Long, 1988).