During the past 40-odd years, James E. Grunig’s situational theory of communication behavior has been developed, changed, empirically tested, and adjusted through new research, with the purpose of defining the communication process and the behavior that results from it. Situational theory seeks to explain why people communicate and when it is most likely that they communicate. The theory also uses communicational behavior to partition the general public into smaller segments which are most likely to communicate about certain issues. Situational theory also predicts behavioral effects of communication, as well as attitudes that are most commonly connected to specific types of communication and types of public for which these consequences are most likely. Finally, the theory describes the process in which a certain, previously unconnected, group of people develops into an activist group that, with its public opinion, influences the decisions of a certain organization (Grunig 1997).
In the course of its long development, the situational theory of publics has become a significant part of public relations theory and approaches to communication management (Grunig & Repper 1992), as well as an integral part of the public relations two-way symmetrical model (Grunig 1992).
In its current form, situational theory offers guidelines for segmenting the population into smaller groups relevant for public relations programs. In that sense the theory is comparable with marketing segmentation theories. Marketing theories offer specific criteria for choosing a segmentation concept; segments have to be mutually exclusive, measurable, reachable, significant for the mission of an organization, and big enough.
Most importantly, though, marketing segments have to show a “differential reaction” to various marketing strategies (Kotler & Andreasen 1987, 124). Situational theory of publics is also used for predicting differential responses, those important for the area of public relations. In addition, it can be used for predicting the effects that communication has on cognitions, attitudes, and behavior, as well as forecasting the likelihood of collectively pressurizing an organization (Grunig 1982).
Development And Basic Assumptions
The development of the theory began with the assumption of John Dewey and Herbert Blumer (Grunig 1997) that the formation of a public depends mostly on certain problems a group of people share, with the presumption that the consequences of these problems are similar for that group. Blumer (according to Grunig & Hunt 1984) separated the concept of publics from the concept of masses, defining masses as a heterogeneous group of people, unlike the public, which he considered homogeneous. Individuals form a mass not because they share a mutual characteristic but simply because they are all included in the same mass media or live in the same city. On the other hand, members of a public share a common problem and it is this problem that makes them a homogeneous group. A public is formed around issues that influence its members in a similar way. Dewey (according to Grunig 1997) also recognized the key role that publics have in American democracy; once publics recognize a certain problem, stakeholder groups are formed. The main objective of these stakeholder groups is to pressurize the government, thus indirectly controlling organizations.
Members of a public function as a unique system process the same information, and demonstrate similar behavior; that is to say that they represent a structured system in which members discover the same problem and react to it in a similar manner. On the other hand, masses do not behave unanimously (or do not behave at all; they are often inactive). Situational theory builds on the classic concept of publics, formalizing the concept and offering a way of identifying and measuring publics and public opinion (Price 1992).
Variables And Relationships
In its current form, situational theory comprises two dependent variables (active and passive communication behavior) and three independent variables (problem recognition, constraint recognition, and involvement). Recent research conducted on the model added cognitive and behavioral effects as well as attitudes to the list of dependent variables (Grunig & Childers 1988). The two dependent variables of active and passive communication behavior are also called information processing and information seeking.
Grunig based the theory on theories of decision-making in economics and psychology. His first publication of the situational theory was in a monograph on the relationship between communication and economic decision-making, published in 1968 (according to Grunig 1997). The first two variables that the theory is based on were information seeking and problem recognition; this categorized the theory as a situational theory. Specifically, the independent variable of problem recognition is not a characteristic people transfer from one situation to another, but a person’s perception that a certain situation represents or conveys a problem. The next independent variable, constraint recognition, was added to the model in research conducted in 1969 and 1971. Grunig discovered that people do not have a need to communicate in situations where certain constraints enable them to make a decision. In 1976, Grunig also added the concept of involvement (Grunig 1982), and later that year the concept of a referent criterion (a solution transferred from past situations to new ones). The theory was later redefined more than once, but apart from the referent criterion, all dependent and independent variables remained in place.
Independent variables are situational in that they describe perceptions people have about certain situations, especially situations that are problematic or lead to conflict. Situational theory allows a logical connection between these concepts and the classic theorists’ idea that problems and situations create publics that change in time. Independent variables can therefore be defined as problem recognition (people realize that something has to be done and stop to think about it); constraint recognition (people perceive that there are limitations that restrain their ability to act); and level of involvement (the level to which people connect to a certain situation; Grunig 1997).
The theory predicts that a high level of problem recognition and a low level of constraint recognition increase both information seeking and information processing (Grunig & Stamm 1979). The level of involvement increases information seeking, but has a lesser influence on information processing. In other words, people rarely seek information on problems that do not concern them, but frequently accidentally process information in low-involvement situations. Since people are more active in their information seeking than in information processing, information seeking and variables that precede it are more likely to produce communication effects than information processing. People who communicate actively develop cognitions that are more organized, have attitudes about the situation more often, and are more frequently involved in behaviors connected to the situation (Grunig 1982; Grunig & Ipes 1983).
Grunig and Disborow (1977) and Grunig (1982, 1983) combined the four variables in order to segment publics in various situations. In the studies mentioned they calculated conditional probabilities in order to predict the possibility of each of the publics being involved in one of two communication behaviors. These probabilities could then be used to plan communication programs for each public. Grunig also estimated probabilities of various communication effects for various combinations of variables. Effects included message retention, cognitions and attitudes, and certain behaviors. For example, the likelihood that the most active public (high problem recognition and high involvement, low constraint recognition and existence of a referent criterion) will be involved in passive communication behavior was 99 percent, in comparison with the least active public, for whom this likelihood was 63 percent. As for active communication behavior, the likelihood of involvement for the most active public was 77 percent, while for the least active public it was only 20 percent. The most active public had a 99 percent likelihood of having a cognition (for the least active public it was 65 percent), and the possibility of holding an attitude was 74 percent for the most active public and 52 percent for the least active public.
All of the probabilities mentioned help define the implications that situational theory has on forming public relations programs (Grunig & Hunt 1984). If an organization communicates with a public with little chance of information seeking and information processing, it is not necessary to invest time and money in an attempt to send a message. In this type of public, the message will rarely be noticed and, therefore, it will rarely be efficient. The only possibility for communicating with this type of public (if for any reason it is important to the organization) is in communication processing, while communication seeking is very unlikely. If an organization is communicating with a public that is ready to process information, but is not seeking it, the communication strategy must be based on style and creativeness in order to attract the attention of this group. If the communication is aimed at an active public that is likely to actively seek information, it is important to offer them extensive and high-quality arguments in order to discourage them from seeking elsewhere.
Empirical Tests Of The Theory
In the early days of the theory, the author predicted that each situation will create a unique profile of publics, specific to that situation only. Empirical research of this supposition included, among other things, public affairs, social responsibility, consumer, and employee issues (Grunig 1997). However, canonical variants that were the result of the research mentioned earlier pointed to the possibility that in various situations there are four consistent types of public; the all-issue public (a public active on all issues); the apathetic public (a public not interested in any issue); the single-issue public (a public that is active on one issue or a group of connected issues that concern only a very small segment of the population); and the hot-issue public (a public active on only one issue that involves almost everyone in a population and is followed with a high media coverage).
Empirical tests of situational theory consistently point to the conclusion that active publics are more likely to show active behavior and are more likely to have cognitions, attitudes, and behavior. However, in its current form, situational theory presupposes the existence of cognitions, attitudes, and behaviors but not their content or valence (Grunig & Childers 1988). People construct their own cognitions, attitudes, and behaviors, in other words, they actively control their own thoughts and behaviors. According to the theory, then, all of the communication efforts aimed at communicating with publics that are not likely to succeed are misguided. Communication campaigns are often based on the idea of changing the level of problem recognition, constraint recognition, and the level of involvement in an audience, the final goal being that of redirecting their behavior in such a way that suits the organization. However, merely exposing an audience to the media cannot lead to the desired effects, since people cannot be influenced by messages they do not seek or process.
Although numerous empirical tests confirmed most of the basic assumptions of the theory, certain elements are still not completely without question. Situational theory of publics in its current form says nothing about the valence of attitudes. Research shows that cognitions and attitudes rarely precede communication behavior; and that people do not seek and process information in order to confirm their existing attitudes but instead they seek information that is of relevance to them (Grunig 1997). Even though attitudes, cognitions, and behavior (according to the situational theory) are a result of communication behavior and not its source, even the author of the theory agrees that including these variables in the theory is necessary.
The question that still remains unanswered by the theory is: can messages create publics? The question of creating publics through the media and media messages is based on another question, namely: how are behavior and communication messages linked? According to situational theory the answer is in creating publics in various ways (for example through interpersonal communication), but not in using mass media. Only in situations in which individuals form publics will those publics seek and process information on a certain issue.
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