Public relations (PR) is a strategic management function responsible for cultivation of good relations between an organization and its strategic constituencies (stakeholders and publics). The ultimate goal of public relations is social harmony. The co-orientation model of public relations assumes that organizations prefer harmony to conflict and that they can use communication for that purpose.
The co-orientation model of PR originates in psychological balance theory, which is a motivational theory of attitude change. Heider (1946) proposed the consistency motive that helps people toward psychological balance. Links between people, and an object or idea can be favorable or unfavorable, and people rationalize and adjust their attitudes and/or behaviors to achieve internal balance. Two friends should both like or dislike a third person; if not, each of them suffers a psychological imbalance that can be overcome by one of them changing their attitude toward the third person. If that change of attitude does not occur, friendship suffers and a psychological balance can be restored by breaking the friendship. Now they still do not value the third person in a similar manner, but they do not like each other anyway, so this is no longer problematic.
Newcomb (1953; 1956) developed the balance model by introducing the idea that people use communication as a tool to resolve an imbalance: our friends who like each other should be able to communicate their differences in perception of the third person and in that process of communication find a compromise or perhaps one of them changes their opinion. This is a symmetry theory where communication leads to more interpersonal similarity: if the two friends like each other, they will try to be similar and they will use communication to resolve disagreements.
Co-orientation entered PR via the interpersonal model developed by McLeod and Chaffee (1973), which provided the terminology now used to describe the co-orientation model and its variables in PR. This model was adapted for PR by Broom (1977) and Grunig & Hunt (1984) to elicit key ideas on how organizations and constituencies relate to each other.
“Intraorganizational congruency” describes how close the views of an organization are with the views of its constituency. “Intraconstituency congruency” describes how close the views of a constituency are with views of an organization. Broom & Dozier (1990) described both congruencies as “perceived agreement” – or “disagreement,” arguing that this was crucial in determining how an organization deals with its strategic constituency and how a constituency deals with its focal organization. “Organization-constituency agreement” reveals the extent to which an organization and its constituency share similar evaluations of something of mutual interest, and “organization-constituency understanding” tells the extent to which an organization and its constituency similarly define something of mutual interest. “Agreement” describes instances of a situation being perceived as positive or negative, and more or less important, and how an organization and its constituency agree on a particular issue. “Understanding” is about the descriptive details of a situation – how much an organization and its constituency see the same elements defining the situation. “Organization-constituency accuracy” highlights the extent to which an organization’s view of a constituency’s actual view is correct, and “constituencyorganization accuracy” tells us the other way around. Following Chaffee & McLeod (1970), Broom (2005) sees effective PR as two-way communication producing high accuracy.
By putting accuracy of perceptions into the focus of the co-orientation model, the model loses its meliorist theoretical assumptions (from the balance and symmetry theory). Foci of the model instead become descriptions of agreement between an organization and its constituencies. We can now answer questions such as: how does an organization view something of common interest with a strategic constituency? How does that constituency perceive that area of common interest? How does the organization perceive the constituency’s views? And how does the constituency perceive the organization’s views? By answering these questions and by replacing the term “agreement” with Scheff ’s (1967) term “consensus,” we get four possibilities: (1) consensus: an organization and its strategic constituency have similar evaluations and definitions of a situation; (2) dissensus: an organization and its strategic constituency do not agree either on an evaluation or on definitions of a situation, or both; (3) false consensus: one or both sides perceives a higher level of consensus than there is; and (4) false conflict: an organization or its constituency perceives a higher level of disagreement than there is.
This type of questioning is known in PR practice as a “gap analysis,” a method where practitioners audit organizations and selected constituencies and describe their perceptions as being more or less distant. Where discrepancies are the greatest, intervention is proposed and communication is used to increase accuracy of perceptions, albeit well short of helping to produce a balanced relationship.
Co-orientation in PR exists when an organization and its strategic constituency are simultaneously oriented to one another and to something of mutual interest. Based on its original assumptions, the co-orientation model enables organizations to adjust their goals in response to the expectations of their strategic constituencies and vice versa. In that way, the co-orientation model serves as a tool for PR strategy development. The notion of balance focuses attention on the core idea of co-orientation: internal balance in both an organization and its strategic constituencies. This is possible only through continuous research and open, two-way and symmetrical communication between the dominant groups in organizations and the dominant groups in strategic constituencies.
Accuracy of perceptions is too narrow a goal for such a process, and the ideal of harmony should return to the core of this endeavor. When an organization and its strategic constituencies really value their mutual relations, they are interested in maintaining their mutual favorability. What original balance theory tells us is that accuracy may only produce cognitively correct relations, but it is highly questionable if they can be emotionally sustainable. By limiting the objective of a PR gap analysis to accuracy, internal tensions in organizations and their strategic constituencies may be stored (or even created), with a good chance of eruption in the future.
The co-orientation model has been recently used in PR not only for studying perceptions between organizations and their constituencies, but also for developing PR ethics (Pearson 1989), analyzing consultants (Johnson 1989), nation-building (Taylor & Kent 2006), and international relations (Vercic et al. 2006).
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- Broom, G. M., & Dozier, D. M. (1990). Using research in public relations: Applications to program management. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
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- Scheff, T. J. (1967). Toward a sociological model of consensus. American Sociological Review, 32(1), 32 – 46.
- Taylor, M., & Kent, M. L. (2006). Public relations theory and practice in nation building. In C. Botan & V. Hazleton (eds.), Public relations theory, vol. 2. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 341–359.
- Vercic, D., Taklac Vercic, A., & Laco, K. (2006). Co-orientation theory in international relations: The case of Slovenia and Croatia. Public Relations Review, 32(1), 1– 9.