The contingency theory of strategic conflict management, which began as an elaboration, qualification, and extension of the value of symmetry propounded in the excellence theory, has, over the last decade, come into its own and emerged as an empirically tested perspective. This article consolidates the maturation and advances of the theory.
Much of the literature on effective public relations and conflict management had been built on Grunig & Grunig’s (1992) and Grunig & Hunt’s (1984) excellence theory. Four models of excellence have been posited: in a “press agentry/publicity model” the organization is only interested in making its ethos and products known, even at the expense of half-truths. The “public information model” is predominantly characterized by one-way transfer of information from the organization to its publics; the aim is to provide information in a journalistic form. In a “two-way asymmetric model,” instead of a rigid transference of information, the organization uses surveys and polls to persuade the public to accept its point of view. Finally, in a “two-way symmetric model” the organization is more amenable to developing a dialogue with the public: communication flows both ways between the organization and the public, and both sides are prepared to change their stance, with the aim of resolving the crisis in a professional, ethical, and effective way. The two-way symmetrical model has been positioned as normative theory, stating how organizations should be practicing public relations (PR) and regarded as the most ethical and effective manner of doing so.
The contingency theory, however, saw a different reality. The complexity in strategic communication was best represented by a continuum of stance, not by a limited set of models of excellence, its proponents argued. A continuum would be far more grounded in reality and able to portray the variety of PR organizations’ practice in a conflict. The contingency theory, thus, argued that the organizational response to the PR dilemma at hand, has, at one end of the continuum, advocacy, and at the other end, accommodation, along the continuum:
The theory offered a matrix of 87 factors, arranged thematically, that the organization could draw on to determine its stance. Between advocacy, which means arguing for one’s own case, and accommodation, which means giving in, was a wide range of operational stances that influenced strategies, and these entailed “different degrees of advocacy and accommodation” (Cancel et al. 1997, 37). Along this continuum, the theory argued that any of the factors could affect the location of an organization on that continuum “at a given time regarding a given public” (Cancel et al. 1999, 172). The theory, thus, sought to understand the dynamics, within and without the organization that could affect an organization’s stance. By understanding these dynamics, it elaborated and specified the conditions, factors, and forces that underpinned such a stance.
To test the theoretical veracity and the applicability of the theory, Cancel et al. (1999) found further insights into the relative influences of the factors in positing the organization’s position, thereby spawning the contingency terms, “predisposing” and “situational” variables.
There were factors that influenced the organization’s position on the continuum before it interacts with a public; and there were variables that influenced the organization’s position on the continuum during interaction with its publics. The former have been categorized as predisposing variables, the latter as situational variables. Some of the wellsupported predisposing factors Cancel et al. (1999) found included: (1) the size of the organization; (2) corporate culture; (3) business exposure; (4) PR to dominant coalition; (5) dominant coalition enlightenment; (6) individual characteristics of key individuals, like the CEO.
These factors were supported in the crisis management literature. For instance, organizational culture had been found to be a key factor in ensuring the formulation of a sound crisis plan and excellent crisis management. Situational variables were factors that were most likely to influence how an organization related to a public by effecting shifts from a predisposed accommodative or adversarial stance along the continuum during an interaction. Some of the supported situational factors included: (1) urgency of the situation; (2) characteristics of the other public; (3) potential or obvious threats; (4) potential costs or benefit for the organization from choosing the various stances (Cancel et al. 1999).
Besides the predisposing and situational variables, Cameron et al. (2001) later found that there were occasions when accommodation was not possible at all, due to moral, legal, and regulatory reasons. They labeled them as proscriptive variables. Six were identified: (1) when there was moral conviction that an accommodative or dialogic stance towards a public may be inherently unethical; (2) when there was a need to maintain moral neutrality in the face of contending publics; (3) when legal constraints curtailed accommodation; (4) when there were regulatory restraints; (5) when senior management prohibited an accommodative stance; and lastly, (6) when the issue became a jurisdictional concern within the organization and resolution of the issue took on a constrained and complex process of negotiation. The proscriptive variables “did not necessarily drive increased or extreme advocacy, but did preclude compromise or even communication with a given public,” argued Cameron et al. (2001, 253).
These theoretical discoveries would have carried little weight if they had no relevance to real-life situations. For instance, to understand how contingency theory was a realistic description of the practitioners’ world and why the two-way symmetrical model was impractical and inflexible, Yarbrough et al. (1998) applied it to how conflicts were managed during the 1996 Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG).
While many subsequent studies had applied the contingency theory interorganizationally, Pang et al. (2006) took it further and applied it intraorganizationally in their study of conflict between an organization’s dominant coalition and its executives in the implementation of a regional crisis plan. This further boosted the theory’s versatility and rigor as a viable conflict management lens.
- Cameron, G. T., Cropp, F., & Reber, B. H. (2001). Getting past platitudes: Factors limiting accommodation in public relations. Journal of Communication Management, 5(3), 242 –261.
- Cancel, A. E., Cameron, G. T., Sallot, L. M., & Mitrook, M. A. (1997). It depends: A contingency theory of accommodation in public relations. Journal of Public Relations Research, 9(1), 31– 63.
- Cancel, A. E., Mitrook, M. A., & Cameron, G. T. (1999). Testing the contingency theory of accommodation in public relations. Journal of Public Relations Research, 25(2), 171–197.
- Grunig, J. E., & Grunig, L. A. (1992). Models of public relations and communications. In J. E. Grunig (ed.), Excellence in public relations and communication management. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 285 –326.
- Grunig, J. E., & Hunt, T. (1984). Managing public relations. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
- Pang, A., Cameron, G. T., & Cropp, F. (2006). Corporate crisis planning: Tensions, issues, and contradictions. Journal of Communication Management, 10(4), 371–389.
- Yarbrough, C. R., Cameron, G. T., Sallot, L. M., & McWilliams, A. (1998). Tough calls to make: Contingency theory and the Centennial Olympic Games. Journal of Communication Management, 3(1), 39 –56.