In 1984, James Grunig introduced a situational theory of identifying publics for a public relations campaign. The Theory of Communication Behaviour states “communication behaviours of public can be best understood by measuring how members of public perceive situations in which they are affected by organizational consequences” (Grunig and Hunt 1984, p. 148). The theory was developed on the basis on Dewey’s definition of a public.
According to Dewey, a public is “a group of people who face a problem, recognise its existence, and organise to solve it. ” (Moss, Vercic and Warnaby 2000, p38). Grunig’s theory is in contrast to the traditional ‘domino theory’ of the communication process whereby “information is thought to lead to attitudes, which in turn lead to behaviour” (Pavlik 1987, p. 77). Grunig proposed a set of three independent variables to find out whether or not communications with different publics would be effective.
The first of three variables in the theory is problem recognition. The idea behind this concept is that unless people perceive that something needs to be done about a problem, they do not even think about the situation. The second variable is constraint recognition. This “represents the extent to which people perceive that there are constraints… in a situation that limits their freedom to plan their own behaviour” (Grunig and Hunt 1984, p. 151). The final variable is level of involvement.
The level of involvement variable is designed to distinguish whether a person will be active or passive in their communication behaviour. Grunig challenges that if a public does not recognise a problem, then how can they be in a position to communicate about it? If a public recognises a problem, they may perceive constraints that get in the way of a solution to the problem. Alternatively, if a public recognises a problem but does not see a link between themselves and the problem, they will not become involved (Harrison 2000, p. 45).
To segment publics according to this theory, “communicators must conduct research on individuals and organisations to determine if they are in any way affected by organisational behaviour. ” (Dozier, Grunig and Grunig 1995, p. 31). Grunig identified four different behaviours a public might have and then put forward that a public would either have high involvement or low involvement depending on the scores from the level of involvement variable. This gives a total of eight possible types of publics as represented in the table below.
By testing the variables with different publics, a public relations practitioner can determine whether a public has high involvement or low involvement. Problem-facing behaviour is when a public has high recognition of a problem and low constraint recognition. Constrained behaviour occurs when although a public may have high recognition of a problem; they also perceive barriers to solving that problem. Routine behaviour is where a public has both low problem recognition and low constraint recognition. Finally, fatalistic behaviour occurs when a public perceives low problem recognition and high constraint recognition.
Three basic types of public emerge in Grunig’s theory. Each of the eight behaviours is classified as active, aware or latent publics. The latent public exists when “a group is in an indeterminate situation but does not recognise the situation as problematic” (Grunig 1984 cited Pavlik 1987, p.78). An aware public is a group that recognises a problem and an active public is when a group discusses and does something about the problem (Pavlik 1987, p.78).
When planning an effective public relations campaign, the theory can be the basis of research on publics that may help a public relations practitioner to make informed decisions on the best communication strategy to use in order to reach a specific public. Grunig argues that demographic factors are often of little use in predicting or identifying individual opinions or attitudes (Pavlik 1987, p.77). This is why Grunig’s theory could be effective in identifying and targeting publics. Different communications strategies would be suitable for publics depending on whether they are active, aware or latent.
If adequate research is conducted by an organisation to identify its publics based on Grunig’s theory, a company can avoid the public’s that appear to have a low probability of information seeking and low probability of messages to be effective. This, in turn, will save the organisation time and money on targeting a latent public. However, if the low-probability public are important to the organisation then Grunig’s theory may not offer a solution of how to target them specifically. This is a weakness of the theory.
In Corporate PR, the theory could prove to be especially useful to help target specific publics a company may want to communicate their messages to. This would be particularly relevant in the areas of investor relations, staff communications and community relations. According to Harrison (2000, p.79), “corporate public relations is aimed at…the general public; investors and financial analysts; opinion leaders; the organisations own sector, including its competitors and suppliers; powerful bodies: regulators, legislators, pressure groups.”
In the area of investor relations, it is important that the PR practitioner builds a good relationship with existing and potential investors and understands their needs and motivations. By using Grunig’s theory, the PR manager can use questionnaires to establish what kind of public potential investors may be. If the potential investor is not an active public and does not look for information or try to understand information when they do receive it, then it would be better for the public relations practitioner to present a message that has style and creativity to attract the attention of that particular public (Grunig and Hunt 1984, p.159, White 1991, p.90).
Research has been completed to analyse the effectiveness of Grunig’s theory. Experimental campaigns against drunk driving by Anderson (1986 cited Pavlik 1987, p.80) sought to test the theory. Anderson found that “removing behavioural constraints will increase the odds of producing behaviour change in mass media campaigns”. Such information supports Grunig’s idea that by correctly identifying a public can help a PR practitioner tailor a suitable campaign to target them and so have a higher chance to change their behaviour or attitudes.