A Critical History of Audience Engagement in Public Relations

“Audience engagement” is a buzzword in public relations but is it a new concept? Delving into the history of public relations audience engagement is embedded in the PR toolbox as both a function and a conceptual strategic component. The role of audience engagement as a PR tool has pertinent cultural implications and societal functions.

Audience engagement implies talking with rather than talking to or at an audience. This idea of symmetrical communication goes against the deception or “spin” ideologies of the public relations profession. Those negative ideologies are expressed by jaded and cynical publics, but those perspectives can even expressed by academics, such as Harry Frankfurt, writer of the poignantly named publication, On bullshit, which places communication—professional and otherwise—as generally synonymous with bullshit. Frankfurt makes this assertion, in part, from the opportunity to communication on a topic without fully understanding the topic.

This speaks to the need for audience engagement and symmetrical communication in PR. Looking backward through the evolution of communication mediums: social media, television, primitive advertising; this critical history of public relations draws out the fundamental role of audience engagement and the overarching theme of symmetrical communication.

 

Social media

 

“In reality, two way communication between PR professionals and stakeholders may be more the norm in both theory and in practice” (Coombs & Holladay, 2013, p.48), especially with the emergency of new communication mediums like blogs, Twitter, and a multitude of alternate social media platforms.

“Fads change quickly [yet] public relations practitioners have rapidly embraced social media as being at the centre of what they consider to be a new form of public relations” (Grunig, 2009, p.1). Social media amplifies the function of symmetrical communication or at least the empowerment of voices on both sides. Social media is not just passing fad. It is now embedded into the fabric of modern public relations, but does it offer a meaningful contribution?

“According to a Backbone Media (2005) survey the top five reasons why employees have created web blogs are to publish content and ideas (52%), build communities (47%), promote thought leadership (44%), get information to customers (36%) and get feedback from customers (23%)” (Wright & Hinson, 2008, p.4). Content works to engage and educate an audience, as do all the other employee reasons cited by Wright & Hinson.

The latter reason is often concerning, from a business perspective, in pursuit of symmetrical communication. Negative feedback is often a cause for concern when employers open themselves up to transparent symmetrical communication on social media. Consumer feedback, particularly negative, is still valuable though. In fact properly managed negative feedback can be converted into positive feedback (van Doorn, Lemon, Nass, Pick, Pirner & Verhoef, 2010, p.262).

 “Symmetrical communication can be seen as an ongoing process rather than a one-off event” (Roper, 2005, p. 83). When it comes to crisis communication, which has been a function of public relations since Ivy Lee at the turn of the nineteenth century, ongoing process versus one time crisis communication is a formidable strategy. As Juliet Roper explores in her discussion of symmetrical communication, when Shell was faced with a public relations disaster they instituted a “triple bottom line” to proactively mitigate the risk of future environmental disasters, which is to say that mitigating an environmental disaster is synonymous with a public relations disaster in this situation (Roper, 2005, p.80). By being proactive in their actions, and communicating those actions to their publics, they not only combat future crisis but do so with consideration of corporate communications.

Corporate communications have been the heart of some of the original public relations efforts. For example, when Ivy Lee embarked on his career in 1903 to become “one of America’s first and most prominent, practitioners of corporate public relations” (Ewen, 2008, p.74), one of his early clients was the Pennsylvania Railroad Company. In those initial corporate communications efforts, Lee offered notable advice to those railroad executives, which was as relevant in 1916 as it is today. “There was a time,” Lee cautioned a gathering of railroad executives in 1916, “when you thought that you were running a private business” (Ewen, 2008, p.74). Symmetrical communications are amplified by new communication mediums, but businesses have always needed to communicate with their publics. “Lee first conceived of public relations as a two-way function, and by 1916 he was maintaining: “Publicity in its ultimate sense means the actual relationship of a company to the people, and that relationship involves far from than saying – it involves doing” (Cutlip, 2013, p.139).  Concealed in Lee’s actionable message is another fundamental function of symmetrical communication and public relations as a whole: relationships.

The Melbourne Mandate, which has been endorsed by 160,000 public relations professionals, highlights the need to “build a culture of listening and engagement” (Halff, Gregory & Valin, 2012). Engaging an audience and listening to them is imperative in communication with them, which places audience engagement at the heart of symmetrical communication and also at the heart of a widely endorsed definition of the practice of public relations. Conversely, some may argue that the motives of public relations create a situation where asymmetrical communication is unconsciously favoured over symmetrical communication, but that perspective amplifies the importance of audience engagement because it helps execute symmetrical communication ethically and effectively.

 

Television

 

“On October 21, 1984, President Ronald Reagan and his challenger, former Vice President Walter Mondale, held the second of two nationally televised presidential debates” (Lieberman, M.D., 2013, p.5). During this debate the response of the studio audience played a significant role in the reception of the candidates on television sets throughout the nation. “The presence of the soundbites and audience reactions also affected perceptions of each candidate’s personal character” (Fein, Goethals, & Kugler, 2007, p. 173). The role of the collective public on public opinion as facilitated by television, the new communications medium preceding social media, is evident in this example.

Audience engagement can be used to commercial ends in regards to television. Product placement is “the paid inclusion of branded products or brand identifiers, through audio and/or visual means, within mass media programming” (Karrh, 1998, p. 33). The development of product placement capitalized on the ability of television to foster audience engagement. “Connectedness, or the intensity of the relationship that viewers develop with television programs and the characters” (Scott & Craig-Lees, 2010, p. 41) plays a role in the effectiveness of relationships and reaffirms the role of relationship building in audience engagement and public relations.

Parasocial bonds are the one-sided relationships between the audience and TV personalities. Initially when the relationships were first identified, they focused on news anchors as the TV personalities (Horton & Wohl, 1956), but there are many relationships that can be characterized by this parasocial nature. The role of parasocial relationships is important in the discussion of audience engagement with TV, but relationships, in their various forms, have been established as essential before (and after) the communication medium of TV was popularized.

 

Advertising at the turn of the nineteenth century

 

Ivy Lee was mentioned earlier in this discourse as a public relations pioneer. Drawing again on his early influence, there is connection to be made between audience engagement and public relations in a more primitive form, before parasocial bonds were defined or the birth of the blogosphere. In the 1920’s Ivy Lee was working for General Mills’ where he was responsible for the birth of Betty Crocker (Cutlip, 2013, p.139). Crocker was created by Lee’s team to sell flour. “Until the 1920s flour, an essential staple in diets, was sold generally as “flour,” often in barrels. Housewives were obviously the target audience” (Cutlip, 2013, p.139). When met with the task of reaching this target audience, Lee drew on parasocial bonds that would be easy for his audience to connect with, yet this was approximately thirty years before Horton and Wohl defined such relationships.

“The Lee staff developed the idea that the best way to communicate with the nation’s housewives was through a “typical” housewife, thus was born “Betty Crocker” whose image lives today in food pages and on supermarket shelves” (Cutlip, 2013, p.139). This ideology of creating a relatable character to convey the message is effective because people seek validation from peers. When viewers at home heard the response of the audience during the 1984 presidential debate, they were influenced by Reagan’s validation from their own peers, resulting in a skewed opinion.

Advancing beyond the studio audience role in 1984, there is an even greater influence on collective public opinion given the massive social media audience. Consider 2012, during Barrack Obama and Mitt Romney’s presidential debate when “Romney directly challenged government funding for public broadcasting. He specifically mentioned the character Big Bird from Sesame Street” (Denton, 2014, p. 48). This comment turned into a social media phenomenon. Upon Romney’s Sesame Street statement, “there were several similar hashtags, including #bigbird2012, #bigbird and #savebigbird that appeared simultaneously in users’ tweets” (Lin, Margolin, Keegan, Baronchelli & Lazer, 2013, p.4). These became popular quickly due to the “substantial portions of the audience are monitoring or participating in social media while simultaneously watching the live debate” (Lin, Margolin, Keegan, Baronchelli & Lazer, 2013, p.4). This offers real-time validation or deconstruction of viewer opinions via the influence of social media behavior “as users try to confirm a statement or alternatively improvise humorous responses to mock it” (Lin, Margolin, Keegan, Baronchelli & Lazer, 2013, p.4). The 2012 example is an amplified version of the influence of the studio audience in 1984.

What does this have to do with Betty Crocker? Lee’s target audience is influenced by the messaging of a relatable character, which speaks to parasocial implications, but also the validation of seeing an identifiable character doing what they do, thereby validating them—and doing so with General Mills’ products. Reflecting on how an audience of a presidential debate is influenced by peers, there is a connection to how the target audience was influenced by Lee’s Betty Crocker promotional campaign in the 1920’s. The engagement of the audience is carried out in many mediums and through various tactics. It has been a fundamental part of public relations from its formal inception in the days of Ivy Lee and is clearly still relevant in the social media ramifications of the 2012 presidential campaign.    

Without audience engagement as a function of public relations strategy from the turn of the nineteenth century to the present, public relations would be much less relevant to business, society, and not have the critical role it currently occupies. Symmetrical communication, social media, the medium of television, early advertising campaigns—public relations throughout its history illustrates that audience engagement is more than a current buzz word, but rather a formerly unidentified component that has existed throughout the history of public relations. 

 

Citations

Coombs, W. T., & Holladay, S. J. (2013). It’s not just PR: Public relations in society. John Wiley & Sons.

Cutlip, S. M. (2013). The unseen power: Public relations: A history. Routledge.

Denton, R. E. (2014). The 2012 presidential campaign: A communication perspective. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Ewen, S. (2008). PR!: a social history of spin. Basic Books.

Fein, S., Goethals, G. R., & Kugler, M. B. (2007). Social influence on political judgments: The case of presidential debates. Political Psychology28(2), 165-192.

Frankfurt, H. (2005). On bullshit. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Grunig, J. E. (2009). Paradigms of global public relations in an age of digitalisation. PRism6(2), 1-19.

Halff, J. G., Tisch, D., Gregory, A., & Valin, J. (2012). Melbourne Mandate-key document defining the direction of the global PR industry and endorsed by 160 000 professionals. Research Collection Lee Kong Chian School of Business. 

Horton, D., & Wohl, R. R. (1956). Mass communication and para-social interaction: Observations on intimacy at a distance. Psychiatry19(3), 215-229.

Karrh, J. A. (1998). Brand placement: A review. Journal of Current Issues and Research in Advertising, 20(2), 31–48.

Lieberman, M. D. (2013). Social: Why our brains are wired to connect. Oxford University Press.

Lin, Y. R., Margolin, D., Keegan, B., Baronchelli, A., & Lazer, D. (2013). # Bigbirds Never Die: Understanding Social Dynamics of Emergent Hashtag.arXiv preprint arXiv:1303.7144.

Roper, J. (2005). Symmetrical communication: excellent public relations or a strategy for hegemony?. Journal of Public Relations Research17(1), 69-86.

Scott, J., & Craig-Lees, M. (2010). Audience engagement and its effects on product placement recognition. Journal of Promotion Management16(1-2), 39-58.

van Doorn, J., Lemon, K. N., Mittal, V., Nass, S., Pick, D., Pirner, P., & Verhoef, P. C. (2010). Customer engagement behavior: theoretical foundations and research directions. Journal of Service Research13(3), 253-266.            

van Leuven, J., & Slater, M. (1991). How publics, public relations, and the media shape the public opinion process. Public Relations Research Annual, 3, 165.

Wright, D. K., & Hinson, M. D. (2008). How blogs and social media are changing public relations and the way it is practiced. Public Relations Journal2(2), 1-21.

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