The new human climate: relationships
A characteristic of the late twentieth century which scholars argue will only worsen over time is "information clutter" (Thomsen, 1997). People are simply overwhelmed with the volume of information on everything, whether about sports, products, or institutions. Worse, the information is often contradictory and questionable in nature. Messages, without reinforcement, replace each other in an ever-shortening amount of time as people try to survive the clutter. Thus, delivery of information becomes less valued, simply a means to a better end mandated by what scholars call "the human climate." The human climate is relational (Schultz, Tannenbaum & Lauterborn, 1997). Information is good, but relationships are better. Only in relationships can messages stick and grow through symmetrical communication and reinforcement. A key component of symmetrical communication in "the human climate" is accountability.
Basic to the foundations of communication is source credibility and accountability for the information communicated (Infante, Rancer & Womack, 1997). Thus, if public relations will successfully adopt or survive the two-way symmetric model in the human climate, organizations active in public relations and public affairs can expect even closer scrutiny in the future than in the past (Thomsen, 1997). Naturally, uncertainty reduction theory purports that in evolving relationships, as between an institution and its publics, both in the dyad will seek knowledge about the other to reduce uncertainty—scrutiny (Littlejohn, 1996).
Thus, whereas heretofore public affairs probably has been practiced primarily as a communications activity, the emerging view of public relations and public affairs as relationship management requires that the function manage communication strategically (Ledingham & Bruning, 1998). Strategy defined is the art of devising or employing plans toward accomplishment of a goal (Woolf, 1977). Key to any discussion of communication strategy is the pivotal institutional component of what Aristotle calls ethos, or source credibility (Cooper, 1932) and, at an organizational level, what is known as institutional legitimacy (Brummer, 1991). Both are nearly synonymous, although legitimacy might be more appropriate for a larger institution.
Communications scholars define source credibility (ethos) as competency, character, and goodwill (McCroskey & Young, 1981). Hovland, Janis and Kelley (as cited in Keisler, Collins & Miller, 1969) found audiences have a greater tendency to receive messages when the communicator has a high level of credibility. As it pertains to this study, credibility is key to the importance of sharing bad news or unpopular news with the local community. One credibility study examined the relationship of attitudinal components to trust in the media (Stamm & Dube,1994). Overall, research findings universally show that source credibility relates positively to a message’s impact (Andersen & Clevenger, 1963).
More important to this study is how a source becomes perceived as credible and maintains that credibility. A study by Haas in 1981 of many previous studies led him to conclude that the superiority of high source credibility over low source credibility is a pervasive finding among researchers (as cited in Burgoon, Birk & Pfau, 1990). Sources with low credibility traits are simply not perceived as credible as sources with high credibility traits. Literature shows this to be an empirical generalization (Greenberg & Miller, 1966). Thus, an organization can become perceived as credible by demonstrating proficiency in the traits defining the construct. While credibility will be operationalized later in this paper, the conclusion can be drawn now that credibility must be earned.
Although source credibility can be viewed through a factor model, it is arguably still largely a matter of perception (Adler & Rodman, 1991). Source credibility is not something inherent in either a speaker or an organization. It is created and assigned by the recipient, as perceived (Haley, 1996). Audiences receiving messages perceive the presence or lack of credibility traits within the source, and attribute overall credibility accordingly.
Legitimacy goes deeper. Theoretical foundations of institutional legitimacy state that an institution’s community will validate it’s legitimacy with social consensus that supports the institution, giving it legal sanction, and even providing it with special privileges (Brummer, 1991). In considering strategic approaches, an institution needs to be first concerned with its legitimacy, and then with its credibility before it even considers strategic management of its communication and messages.
The construct of legitimacy dovetails with the emerging symmetrical model of public relations in a more human, relational environment. Efforts to inform and improve institutional images must address credibility and public faith (Gray, 1986). The corporation must show real concern for the individual. Government and corporations have a proven history of establishing distrust, rather than trust. Vietnam, Watergate, and the 1970’s oil embargoes are well-known examples of government and corporate failures in maintaining trust and public faith (Gray, 1986). The result is a largely cynical, alienated American public. Americans, once inclined to believe messages from government and business, have grown skeptical, distrustful, and frustrated. No small contribution to this environment has been less-than-clear communication from government and business (Heyman, 1994) and messages that are simply manipulative or untrue (Young, 1996). Therefore, in today’s environment, communication strategies must clearly support organizational legitimacy and credibility.
Because the nature and scope of the problem defined in this paper at its base affects a dyadic relationship, many theories and communication models apply to its conceptualization. Uncertainty reduction theory has already been mentioned, as have the new symmetric public relations model and organizational credibility and legitimacy. Additionally, three communication theories are key to evaluating strategic alternatives in the handling of bad news: social penetration theory, information manipulation theory, and inoculation theory. Social penetration theory shows the importance of providing increasingly-personal information in ever-greater degrees to establish a meaningful relationship. Information manipulation theory outlines four factors that are important in the release of information, as the factors can alarm receivers to purposeful or inadvertent information manipulation and/or deception. Inoculation theory purports that forthrightness by the source in delivering bad news might over time curtail negative receiver reactions to bad news, at least to some degree.
Social penetration theory is one of the most widely studied processes of relationship development (Littlejohn, 1996). The theory states that the more communicators know about each other, the more their relationship advances. Communication proceeds through levels, from shallow to deep. If communicators do not increase the breadth and depth of information provided, then the relationship stagnates at the superficial level. Further, as the relationship progresses through four stages held by the theory, there is an increasing propensity for the communicators to center attention on evaluative and critical feelings. Although painful, this is necessary for the relationship to advance.
According to information manipulation theory, receivers of information use four filters to judge a message’s overall appropriateness and desirability (McCornack, 1992). Receivers initially assume that the amount of information disclosed by a source is indeed the proper amount, or quantity, that should be provided per normal expectations. Further, the audience expects the quality of the information to also fall within normal expectations, and the relevance of the information to be in line with the issue at hand. Finally, audiences expect clarity from sources, meaning that messages should be clear rather than confusing.
Information manipulation theory suggests that source manipulation of these filters can result in purposeful or accidental deception in delivering information to a receiver. Receivers’ filters are simply conversational maxims that can be, and are, often violated. In developing a strategy to deliver bad news, sources run the risk of manipulating the information to lessen the message’s negativity. However, manipulation of any of the four receiver filters could alert audiences to deception, regardless of source intention, thus affecting reactions in the receiving audience worse than the bad news itself.
Options allowed by this theory are many and carry the risk of being perceived as deceptive by the receiving audience. The receiver of information can perceive deception when information deviates from any one of the four filters of conversational assumptions. The degree of deviation may be unknown to the audience. In delivering bad news, the source could intentionally diffuse the bad news by directing the audience’s attention elsewhere. Another form of deception within information manipulation theory is limiting the amount of bad news delivered. Varying the amount of bad news disclosed could directly impact the audience’s reaction to that news (McGuire, 1964).
However, an unorthodox option is to be totally forthright with bad news, not manipulating it at all. Forthrightness in itself could violate assumptions by giving the audience what may be perceived as irrelevant information. Yet, longer term forthrightness can prove to be prudent, as the bad news may indeed prove to be relevant. At such time, the source can be credited by receivers with being honest. Whether proven relevant or not, the relationship between source and receiver would be strengthened by identification of the inherent honesty and forthrightness by the source in releasing bad news, making future handling of really bad news easier for both parties. As shown, audiences have come to expect a degree of manipulation in the delivery of messages, and are adept at discerning violations of the filters advanced by information manipulation theory.
This directly leads to inoculation theory, and how it effects the audience’s reaction to bad news. Inoculation theory suggests that by delivering small doses of opposing points of view, in this case the bad news itself, the audience will build up an immunity to minimize the reaction to those points of view (Infante, Rancer & Womack, 1997).
In the application of inoculation theory, delivering bad news directly, but in small doses, may help receivers from having a severely adverse reaction later to bad news of greater importance or impact. At such a time, there would already be a defense in place in the audience’s cognitive system to help counter any hyperbole in other relational or media channels over a given subject adverse to the source or the source’s credibility and legitimacy. In fact, release of routine bad news could inoculate media channels themselves, so that upon very bad news, the channels may be more calm and objective than otherwise.
Social penetration theory, information manipulation theory, and inoculation theory all suggest that forthrightness and honesty in delivering routine bad news could have positive reactions in receiving audiences, especially in building a meaningful relationship.
The question, then, is whether to consider the release of bad news as a viable communications strategy, but in routine, as opposed to crisis, environments. There is amazingly little discussion on this topic. It seems nobody wants to play with the fire inherent in releasing bad news. Of course, imperative in either the routine or non-routine (crisis) release of bad news is the perception by the public that the institution is handling and resolving the situation that caused the bad news in the first place (Benoit, 1997). This goes back to accountability, credibility, and legitimacy. This criterion being met, what beyond fear of the unknown would prevent an organization from proactively releasing bad news as part of an everyday routine?
The rationale in this question is the premise that the open discussion of "bad news" is key to developing meaningful, lasting relationships. Any relationship based solely on good news will be superficial and subject to great weakness when a larger problem or real crisis occurs. And crises will occur. All relationships have fault lines of seismic proportion. Almost all institutions at some time face the prospect of having to face constituents or publics with unpleasant, maybe even disastrous, bad news.
Thus, the null hypothesis will be stated to reflect the status quo in the handling of bad news, and the one-tailed alternative hypotheses will reflect a positive change:
As will be discussed, the alternative hypothesis can be measured in a quasi-experiment with a pretest-posttest design using surveys as the instrument of measurement. Perhaps a change in communication strategy will truly help establish the symmetric model of public relations in an environment demanding meaningful, lasting relationships.
Comments? Contact Bill Pierro