Although public relations practice is slightly ahead of the public relations body of knowledge, both have developed ethnocentrically in the twentieth century, based predominantly on experience and research from the United States and to a lesser extent from some countries in Europe (Sriramesh & Vercic 2003; Van Ruler & Vercic 2004). However, public relations practice, or many of the publicity activities that we have come to characterize as public relations today, took place in pre-biblical times in many ancient cultures. There is evidence of such communication practices in ancient civilizations in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, India, and China, among others (Sriramesh & Vercic 2003; Sriramesh 2004). However, in its “modern” avatar (incarnation), public relations practice is perceived around the world to be a western (predominantly American) phenomenon.
Intercultural Aspects In Public Relations Research
The body of knowledge of public relations is relatively young and ethnocentric. Grunig and Hickson (1979) concluded that of the 4,141 books and articles on the subject of public relations prior to 1976, only 63 had some research component, a clear sign of the lack of development of the “science” of public relations by that time. Although there has been a noticeable spurt in public relations scholarship in the last 30 years, it is only in the last five to ten years that the body of knowledge has diversified to some extent, based on descriptions of experiences from other regions of the world. Even so, most of the studies in this genre have focused on public relations as a phenomenon in a single country, and to a lesser extent one region, and there is very little literature that compares public relations practices across countries or cultures. So it is reasonable to conclude that theorizing about intercultural public relations is in its infancy. It is important to recognize that whereas international public relations is almost always also intercultural, intercultural public relations need not always be international.
The three-nation research project funded by the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) that has come to be recognized as the Excellence Project (Grunig et al. 2002) was arguably the first research attempt to compare public relations across cultures (albeit in three Anglo-Saxon countries: the US, Canada, and the UK) by using the same research design and survey questionnaire to gather data in all countries. When it began in 1987, this project was also the first effort to study the linkage between culture (both societal and corporate; Cultural Patterns and Communication) and public relations, as evidenced by the first Body of knowledge report published by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) in 1988, which did not make any reference to culture as a variable in public relations practice.
Beginning in 1990, several graduate students studying in the United States began conducting studies of public relations in a few countries in Asia, principally in India, China, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, Japan, and Thailand. Although their efforts have been helpful in extending the pedagogy beyond a few western countries, thereby reducing to some extent the ethnocentricity of the body of knowledge, there is clearly a paucity in the depth of information from these countries; while many other Asian nations, as well as those from Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America, have received even less representation in the literature in English for many reasons, including language.
Globalization has made it imperative to address these hitherto neglected areas, which is why there is increased attention to international and intercultural public relations now. In fact, one can reasonably argue that there is no such thing as “domestic” public relations any longer because of the rapid globalization of even small organizations as a result of better communication infrastructure, lower trade barriers, etc. This makes it essential for organizations to consider environmental variables in designing public relations strategies and tactics. Public relations practitioners have traditionally relied on anecdotal evidence to guide their forays into new markets, and in many respects they continue to do so even now because of the scarcity of “intercultural” public relations knowledge. Practitioners have found out, sometimes the hard way, that anecdotal evidence is not always a good method for learning. Three key variables (among others) make organizational environments challenging for intercultural public relations practitioners: the culture, the political and economic system, and the media system. Of these, culture is the only variable to have been empirically linked with public relations so far, albeit by few studies. Unfortunately, culture continues to be treated as an afterthought in the public relations body of knowledge (Sriramesh 2006), which is why one can make a reasonable argument that the current body of knowledge of public relations is ethnocentric (Sriramesh 2002).
Culture And Public Relations: The Missing Link
The link between organizations and culture has been made in a variety of disciplines, such as organizational behavior. Similarly, culture and communication are two sides of the same coin. Because communication is the primary underpinning of public relations, the logical connection between culture and public relations is easy to discern. Both societal culture (Sriramesh & White 1992) and corporate culture (Sriramesh et al. 1992) influence public relations practice. This distinction is important because public relations people communicate with audiences external and internal to the organization and should have familiarity with the cultural idiosyncracies of these key stakeholders in order to communicate effectively with them. Yet less than a handful of empirical studies have assessed how culture affects public relations (see a review of these studies in Sriramesh 2006). It is even more interesting that of the three environmental variables mentioned above, culture has the greatest number of studies linking it with public relations. That is as good an indicator as any of the extent to which intercultural issues have been ignored in public relations pedagogy. Further, beginning with the IABC project, most of the studies linking public relations with culture have relied almost exclusively on Hofstede’s dimensions of culture, although even Hofstede noted that culture is much more than the dimensions he was able to measure. The field has barely touched the surface of the many unique cultural idiosyncracies of individual regions and countries beyond some studies that have discussed guanxi (“relations”) and mianzi (“saving face”) in Chinese culture (Sriramesh 2004), and one or two studies that have assessed the influence of wa (“harmony”), amae (“desire to depend on the goodness of others”), tatamae (“public persona and behavior of an individual”), and honne (“the private or true self and emotions”) in Japanese culture (Sriramesh & Takasaki 2000).
Cultures also differ in the emphasis they place on interpersonal trust and the ways in which such trust is established and maintained. In public relations literature this is discussed in terms of the personal influence model (Sriramesh & White 1992; Sriramesh 2006). Practitioners from different cultures use different methods of building personal relationships with key stakeholders as a means of increasing the effectiveness of their communication with these stakeholders. This is closely linked to the notion of “relationship building” that seems to have pervaded the body of literature in the past seven years (Hon & Grunig 1999; Ledingham & Bruning 2000). However, interestingly, the core discussion of relationship building in public relations still does not account for culture as the key variable it is. Only when studies have used the core concepts identified in the US or a few western countries in other countries, such as Taiwan and China, has culture been taken into account in applying to other cultures the relationship dimensions identified in the US.
There is plenty of evidence of culture not being given its due in public relations pedagogy, resulting in the ethnocentricity of the body of knowledge. For example, one of the premier research journals of the field, the Journal of Public Relations Research, published a special issue titled “Public Relations Values [emphasis added] in the New Millennium” as the first issue of the new millennium. Although the thoughtful essays in that special issue discussed activist values, feminist values, rhetorical values, and postmodernist values, not one of them made a single reference to culture, which is the core concept that addresses values in any society. In the entire special issue there was only one reference to culture, when Grunig stated: “[individualistic] Anglo cultures need symmetrical public relations even more than organizations in collective cultures” (Grunig 2000, 39). The same applies to discussions of ethics and public relations as well, where discussions are silent about ethical values from more ancient cultures such as China or India or cultures in other regions of the world such as Africa or Latin America.
When discussing intercultural public relations, it is important to extend the discussion beyond the traditional (anthropological) notion of culture to include other variables also, such as political economy and media culture. In the rapidly globalizing world of the twenty-first century, such a broader focus is absolutely necessary in order for public relations practice to be more effective.
Although almost all textbooks of public relations discuss maintaining relations with the mass media as one of the most important activities of public relations practitioners, there has been very little theorizing about the differences in media cultures around the world and their impact on public relations. Global or intercultural public relations ought to study how public relations should be tempered to different media environments. A framework for developing research programs to study the impact of media culture on public relations was presented in Sriramesh and Vercic (2003) and consists of analyzing who owns and controls the media in a country (media control), who has the ability to penetrate media content (media access), and the extent of diffusion of the mass media through the populace (media outreach). Although public relations professionals have been conducting media relations activities cross-nationally and cross-culturally, they are basing them mostly on anecdotal and not empirical evidence. More often than not, such activities have involved imposing western notions of media relations on other parts of the world, with limited effect. So it is imperative for scholars to link media culture with public relations on the basis of empirical evidence.
Western liberal democracy underpins many of the assumptions that pervade the current literature on public relations, because modern public relations has its roots in the west. This is partly why much of the theorizing about public relations is also prescriptive (normative), instructing how it should be practiced in other countries and regions of the world. However, democracy is practiced in myriad forms around the world, because of socio-cultural factors and those relating to level of development. Other forms of political system (e.g., corporatism, communitarianism, or theocracy) exist around the world, and their impact on public relations has not been explored at all. For example, the literature on issue management assumes a liberal democratic environment where corporations use lobbying to influence legislative decisions and the enactment of public policies. However, in other political systems lobbying may be ill-advised because it is illegal. Also, the term “lobbying” itself may have different connotations in different countries. The body of knowledge has yet to fully explore all these avenues.
The body of knowledge of global, international, and intercultural public relations is very young, with a bright future for development. The rapid pace of globalization requires that scholars pay attention to developing this fledgling field with robust conceptual and empirical studies that can help to increase the efficacy of public relations practitioners globally.
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- Grunig, J. E., & Hickson, R. H. (1979). An evaluation of academic research in public relations. Public Relations Review, 2(1), 31–43.
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