Activist public relations and programs of self-directed change
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The principal theory in the field of public relations, grounded in the landmark Excellence Study headed by J.E. Grunig (1992), has moved from viewing activist groups as posing a threat to organizational effectiveness, to recognizing their positive influence on the development of Excellent public relations practices, to incorporating the activist perspective into the main research agenda. The public relations practices of activist groups are similar to those of their target organizations, and research has demonstrated that both parties are more likely to achieve their respective goals if both use symmetrical strategies. Factors that have been found to be critical to the success of activist groups include their ability to maintain the viability and legitimacy of the organization and the issue(s) it pursues, and their ability to build relationships of trust with its members, complementary organizations, legislative bodies, and the press. Since web-based communication has become a principal source of counterbalancing their disadvantage in resources vis-à-vis the targeted institution(s), the ability to take advantage of the potential of online media has also become critical to the success of activist groups. Another important source for counterweighing the “deep pockets” of their corporate or governmental adversaries, and thus a critical factor for success, is the “motivation and fervor” of the members of activist groups. Whereas the public relations behavior of corporations and governments is primarily cued by highly rational and regulated guidelines at the organizational (meso) level, activist public relations behavior is often grounded in highly emotional considerations at the personal (micro) level. This raises the question: how can the public relations practices of an activist group affect its members at the personal level? Bandura’s model of self-directed change (1990) offers a promising framework for addressing this question, as it facilitates the evaluation of an activist group’s public relations campaign in terms of its effectiveness in reinforcing the motivation, social and self-regulatory skills, and self-efficacy of individual members. The model suggests that effective activist public relations practices are not only successful in preserving viability and legitimacy at the meso level, but also enhance empowerment at the micro level.