Philip Young’s blog, Mediations, is one that I follow for quite some time now. Yesterday, it mentioned an article on PRism by Jim Grunig titled Paradigms of global public relations in an age of digitalisation. Among other subjects, Grunig comments on the book written by Phillip Young and David Phillips, Online Public Relations 2nd Edition.

Both the article and the book qualify as important readings, but for this post we will focus on a few key ideias that I believe are interesting to explore.

Internet Penetration and Use

The first issue that I find interesting is in regards to the use and implementation of the Internet:

“As of June 30, 2009, there were 1,668,870,408 internet users in the world— 24% of the world’s population of nearly 6.8 billion (Internet World Stats, 2009).”

If less than a quarter of the world’s population uses the Internet and already it is something of great importance, we can only expect it to become even more relevant.

But Internet users are one thing, penetration is something completely different. If we plot a map with data from the Internet World Stats website, we can compare these two metrics in a per country basis.

Internet Penetration

Internet Users

Original Source for Both Maps

Both maps substantiate Grunig’s claim that

“Internet usage is higher in developed regions of the world (50.1% in Europe and 60.1% in Oceania/Australia) than in developing regions (23.7% in the Middle East and 30.0% in the Latin American/Caribbean region). Although only 18.5% of the Asian population uses the internet, 42.2% of all internet users in the world are in Asia”.

Grunig then states that “digital media have made most public relations global and force organisations to think globally about their public relations practice.” Although I do like the idea, in a world of computer mediated communication there is still a language and an access barrier to be overcome. There is another aspect pertinent to the way we communicate online, which is that even though we are able to communicate with someone across the globe chances are that we will communicate most with the ones closer to us.

This means that even if it is true that organizations can think globally, it is also truer that the internet allows for a precise communication with certain publics based on location, hobbies, and other characteristics. A clear example of this possibility is in twitter’s geotagging feature, which allows for mobile devices and twitter clients to broadcast their geographic location. In regards to access and use, we need to ask ourselves who is in fact using the Internet and how. China’s large number of users and low index of penetration leaves me specially curious.

At the same time, we still do not know what to expect in regards to the evolution of digital communication in the different countries. Will all countries follow a path as linear as a railway? Does that railway with all its forks and branches lead to the same destination? To be on the safe side, PR should concentrate on understanding the evolution of digital communication in each country.

We can look to the UK and Portugal as examples, while in the United Kingdom, blogs became a widely used form of communication that is now changing. In Portugal blogs did not manage to gain the same size and relevance as in the United Kingdom, Social Networks on the other hand seem to be more relevant each day.

Online Publics

On the subject of online publics and the loss of control, so recurrent when talking about social media, the article states that Publics have always had control over the message substantiating that claim with studies that go back to the 1960’s. But the Internet does force us to re-think PR theory, in particular the Situational Theory of Publics. Indeed publics have always had control over the message and they do in fact create themselves, but what guides their collective behaviour and an individual’s choice between two identical groups/publics?

In this article and in the Situational Theory Grunig puts the emphasis on problems and issues. The concept of Issues alone does not seem sufficient to explain or actions as individuals or as groups, and in our social contexts not everything is an issue, problem or conflict that needs to be resolved. It is my belief that values and values systems of both individuals and groups play an important role in guiding our behaviour and the forming of groups and publics, particularly online. This does not mean that we should abandon the concept of issues entirely, but that the situational theory as it stands now does not help Public Relations practice in an online context.

Further on, Grunig states that “The digital media are ideal for environmental scanning research, and there are many tools available for scanning cyberspace for problems, publics, and issues.“. The two-way symmetrical model mentioned earlier in the article does present itself as the one to apply in Online Public Relations, with this in mind I feel we should focus on areas that go beyond research and scanning. Specifically this would mean using that research and an identification of online publics to create response mechanisms aligned with the need for a quick reply and for a coherent corporate voice.

On the issue of evaluation, the article reads:

A number of analytical schemes have been developed to evaluate the effects of digital media programmes (see Jeffries-Fox, 2004; Paine 2007a, 2007b; Phillips & Young, 2009). These range from simple measures of hits on a website to measures of cognitions, attitudes, and behaviours, as well as indicators of the types and quality of relationships. In many cases, these measures can be applied directly to online content. In other cases, additional survey or experimental research will be required.

In my view, the information made available by the Internet (giving us access to the visible part of the communication between and within publics) can go much further than the research and monitoring stages. It can be used to evaluate corporate communication in a series of new ways and in real time, and the behavioural aspect mentioned by Grunig will no doubt be a key component to understand our online activities as individuals, groups and publics.

For organization’s, the Web can provide valuable information and even help answer a few key questions, such as “who are our publics? what do they talk about?” and even “what do they think of us?”

Last Remarks

Although long, this post reflects only a few ideas and opinions that I believe to be specially  important on the article and I may return to it in the future. I am sure that Dr. Grunig would be able to counter-argument my view on most (if not all) of the questions described here and even (hopefully) prove me wrong.

If you made it this far down the page, please leave a comment and share your thoughts.