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Relationship building as integral to British activism: its impact on accountability in broadcasting.

Rachel Kovacs (*)


This study examines the strategies and impact of six activist groups concerned about British broadcasting policies and programming. Particular emphasis is placed on strategic relationship building, which played a central role in groups' interactions with target publics, and on the activists' perspective. The study is contextualized within the political culture of the United Kingdom and a changing broadcasting landscape. The data suggested that building strategic relationships is one of the major ways in which pressure groups have an impact on their targets. When assessing effectiveness, respondents looked beyond tangible gains by activists to long-term relationships with targets, which were contingent on critical dimensions. These included trust, mutual respect, openness and access. Groups bolstered their credibility by engaging in research and structuring educational events such as conferences and symposia, in which they enhanced the scope and quality of debate about broadcasting policy. Public relations has a role in facilitating both citizen debate within the public sphere of civil society and the relationships that make such debate possible. These groups may be a model for activists in other societies. [C] 2001 Elsevier Science Inc. All rights reserved.

1. Introduction

Recently, scholars, such as Karlberg, (1) have concerned themselves with the agenda of public relations research. Karlberg's assessment was that such research almost exclusively reflects an organization's perspective. It fails, he maintained, to examine how public relations might be used for the empowerment of citizen publics. Although some of his concerns about the research agenda have been addressed, few attempts have been made to understand the strategic use of public relations by activists. The role of relationships and relationship building in public relations has also become a focal point for scholars. (2) Excellent public relations (3) does not necessarily result in the achievement of concrete objectives; more often, progress is made towards the attainment of tangible goals only through the development of successful, long-term relationships between organizations and their publics. An emerging literature, (4) which includes this study, documents the value of relationships to public relations. Value is p laced on those relationships that develop and are maintained, to the benefit of both organizations and activists. In addition, culture has been found to be a variable of significance to public relations researchers, particularly since it bears on the ways in which relationships are formed and maintained.

This is a study of the relationship-building strategies of six British activist groups concerned about broadcasting issues. It falls under overlapping rubrics within public relations research-activism, strategic relationship-building and its impact, and cross-cultural (including political culture) variations in public relations practice. British activists, the broadcasters whom they hold accountable, and other targets evaluated pressure groups' public relations strategies and their immediate and long-term impact. All these rubrics are operative within this framework, but the emphasis here is on strategic relationship-building.

2. Problem

These broadcasting activists operated within the political culture of the United Kingdom and a changing broadcasting landscape. Technological and economic changes have altered the context within which both contemporary British broadcasters and viewers and listeners operate. Further, responses to these environmental changes suggested that U.K. activism may have implications for activists in other venues.

2.1. The changing role and status of broadcasting in British society

This study's exploration of broadcasters' accountability considered the role of mass communication as a forum for issues of consequence. (5) The BBC and commercial Independent Television (ITV) must respond adequately to changes in audiences, the broadcasting and film marketplace, and other institutions of British life (6) Otherwise, British television's "vulnerable values" (7)--for example, representation of diverse groups-will be at risk. Economies of scale, new technologies, vertical integration and media cross ownership (8) threaten those values. The British system, predicated on criteria for accountability enforceable by regulatory bodies, has been a model for the postcommunist broadcasting systems of transitional and democratic nations. (9)

Strategic moves by British pressure groups may spur new criteria for broadcasters' accountability. A precedent was set by the Citizens' Charter for consumer protection and accountability in the public sector. (10) Activists (11) tried to extend the Charter's focus to broadcasting.

2.2. Broadcasting and the British activist agenda

The communicative efforts of activist groups, Karlsberg (12) maintained, have implications for ordinary persons' ability to challenge government and corporate powers and thus empower themselves:

Active publics are important initiators of (rather than targets for) public relations programs because they are most likely to be aware of and concerned with what organizations are doing. In addition, if citizen groups do not communicate with organizations and attempt to manage conflict, those organizations can limit the ability of citizens to create the kind of communities in which they would like to live.

He stressed that in our times, people need assistance to cope with the media and to find ways to take part in policy-making and public discourse, ethical and symmetrical public relations skills (13) will help to make that discourse more inclusive. Shoemaker (14) commented that "... public relations' efforts on behalf of interest groups can actually have long-term prosocial consequences by providing a socially acceptable forum for the discussion and introduction of new ideas."

The culture within which these groups and their targets operated was a far cry from what Karlberg described as "highly adversarial" and potentially confrontational. Voice of the Listener and the Viewer (VLV), the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association (NVALA), the Campaign for Quality Television (CQT), the Deaf Broadcasting Council (DBC), the Consumers' Association (CA) and the National Consumer Council (NCC) engaged in strategic relationship building, within culturally defined boundaries, towards advancing group goals and propelling discourse about broadcasting issues into the public arena. Public relations is increasingly concerned not only with technical-professional issues, but with the more subtle and equally substantive aspects of interpersonal and negotiative behaviors.

3. Literature review

The emerging public relations literature identifies dimensions or characteristics of relationships and relationship outcomes that are vital to effective public relations. (15) Traditionally, public relations put a premium on tangible, organizational outcomes, and only on relationship-building when it was instrumental to the achievement of those outcomes. The new literature recognizes that relationships are intrinsically worthwhile outcomes. The literature of negotiation (16) has stressed the need to identify areas of common interest among parties as a bridge to building successful relationships.

Activism in the United Kingdom and in other venues (17) was examined through cross-disciplinary literatures. (18) McQuail's (19) normative framework for accountability underscored the media's fundamental public interest. Norms included good taste, decency, quality, accuracy, impartial news and current affairs, absence of political interest, British content/artistic input, diverse programming, and minority access. Political science and sociology provided many terms (20) for activists' interactions with government (21) to the end of greater accountability. (22) Broadcasting corporations could not be compared to the majority of corporate interests, since they produce cultural goods. These goods are distinguishable from other goods that also reflect the concepts of "public interest" and "collective good" (23) and suggest a need for accountability. Public goods theory (24) has discussed connectivity and communality, the distinguishing features of communicative public goods. Broadcasting is a communicative public g ood whose supply is not diminished because multiple publics use it. (25)

Public interest and collective goods are congruent with the "national interest." Dissatisfaction with the BBC's responsiveness to the national interest (i.e., the needs of audiences outside London) has spawned certain viewer and listener advocacy groups. Comments about programs are directed to broadcasters via the regulators (the Broadcasting Standards Council and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission [merged as the Broadcasting Standards Commission], the Radio Authority, or the BBC Programme Complaints Unit.

Harris', Harris' and Ziegler's, and Moloney's (26) works discussed targets' reference publics and the connection between public relations and politics in U.K. lobbying channels, respectively. Thus, they provided a link between both literatures. Criteria for effectiveness were more difficult to identify.

3.1. Identifying and assessing effectiveness

Criteria for effectiveness were drawn from the literatures of public relations, negotiation, political science, (27) and sociology. (28) They emphasized process goals, (29) a critical function of public relations and relationship building. (30) The typology (see Appendix) also included interviewees' criteria.

The impetus for this study was VLV, a small, resourceless, but accomplished group. It validated Olson's theories about small groups' effectiveness. (31) The research questions reflect this impetus.

4. Research questions

Two basic research questions emerged: 1) Strategies--What communication strategies have pressure groups used to influence and increase the accountability of their targets, including building relationships with their publics, other pressure groups, target organizations, and the latter's publics? and 2) Impact--What is the perceived impact of activist groups on relationships with the above publics, on broadcasting policy and programming, and on public discourse?

5. Methods

The principal method used was research interviewing. Most data were gathered through interviews with activists, broadcasters, regulators, policy makers, and academics. In January and February 1997, 43 interviews were conducted in the U.K. Preliminary data were collected in the U.S. in 1996, primarily through database keyword searches. These data were supplemented by various group, government, and organizational publications, and, during my stay in the United Kingdom, by archival research. There are both traditional and fluid aspects of British culture. The traditional refers to historically British political, social, and cultural frameworks for voluntarism. In addition, market, societal, and technological changes have impact on the public sector (which includes broadcasting, a public good). This fluid, market-driven environment clearly threatens public service broadcasting. In this complex, changing, culturally-sensitive environment, qualitative methods were an appropriate fit for the research questions.

5.1. Selection of interviewees

American political culture differs greatly from that of Britain. Jeremy Mitchell, a veteran consumer advocate, (32) noted that Parliament is nothing and government and civil service are everything. Respondents (Members of Parliament, press and policy officers, civil servants, policy makers, heads of regulatory bodies, academics, broadcasters and activists) whose names recurred in conversations or correspondence were selected. Two "new" groups, the National Consumers' Council (NCC), a government-funded agency, and the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom (CPBF) were discovered through online research. A vigorous letter-writing and e-mail campaign facilitated the scheduling of interviews. Many interviews were arranged from the U.S.

The sample included 1 media consultant, 1 media librarian, 10 broadcasters, 2 civil servants, 7 regulators/policy makers, 2 Members of Parliament (1 Lords, 1 Commons), 1 aide to an MP, 9 academics, and 11 activists (This does not total 43 because some interviewees were boundary spanners who had more than one professional affiliation). Multiperson interviews where respondents were identified were successful. Respondents, interviewees, and research design were flexible. DBC was identified as a significant group by Simon Albury, former Director, the Campaign for Quality Television. Noncore groups were assessed in the summary of strategies/impact.

Other variables facilitated the research process, including my "outsider" status, a prominent contact, accessible candidates (in pre-election 1997), and events significant to the BBC (33) and Channel Four. A day at VLV revealed its strategic planning and administrative set-up. To better understand consultative processes, the author attended a Select Committee meeting in Parliament.

6. Results concerning relationships

Strategies were largely a function of the cultural propensity for interpersonal communication among groups and their targets (e.g., phone calls, as per Anthony Smith, President, Magdalen College), despite access to diverse channels of mass communication. Access to time-strapped individuals depended on the ability to identify key people (broadcasters, regulators, and government/civil service) with whom it was advantageous to develop and maintain relationships. Strategies did not appear to be linked to resources.

Respondents suggested approaching the minister for broadcasting through senior civil servants (especially when legislation was pending). Government consultation (e.g., via the Select Committee on Broadcasting) and engaging the press facilitated group input in agenda setting (34) and government guard dog behaviors. (35) The ability to forge relationships with credible journalists of the broadsheet press was an asset. Public reaction to press leaks (by politicians) about proposed broadcasting changes (e.g., regarding the BBC's Governors (36)), "a trial balloon," was a test of support for those changes.

6.1. Vehicles for relationship building and advancing compelling issues

Loose, ad hoc alliances around issues were favored over formal coalitions. Groups were concerned about loss of autonomy and compromising their agendas. Given that broadcasters have been historically perceived as arrogant, they were generally approached through policy makers and regulators, who received written complaints from individuals, not groups. Legal action included NVALA's lawsuit against blasphemy. VLV threatened to sue over the government's proposed sale of the BBC transmitters).

Under the rubric of lobbying, MPs could raise questions in Parliament or press for legislation. Groups could approach senior civil servants (who have access to influence the Minister for Broadcasting). CQT used such influence, as well as celebrity power and social events, all infeasible for resourceless groups. CQT's strategy of sending a "clear, consistent message" (Albury) and attending a fringe meeting at the all-party conference were also used by VLV. Several groups, including VLV, testified before the Select Committee on Broadcasting and courted the opposition party. Except for NVALA, using petitions was an anomaly. Paul Bolt, Head, Broadcasting Policy, Department of National Heritage, discussed how mass letter writing helped DBC achieve more television subtitling.

Strategic relationship building's impact was evident in groups' engagement in media education and their provision of public forums for compelling broadcasting issues, such as VLV meetings, conferences and seminars, affording networking opportunities for interested parties. Such venues, built around shared, compelling interests, became the basis for a "virtuous circle" (David Mills, Secretary, Campaign for Quality Television) in which the debate generated drew more interest in group goals and prestigious people to support them. Often, media education worked in tandem with research and media advocacy.

Research (individual group or collaborative) was used by VLV, NCC, and CA to support arguments and bolster credibility. Some research, discussed at conferences, culminated in publications. Mills cited the advantage of group research to busy politicians.

Relationships were established with journalists of both the tabloid (Bolt called it "gutter") and broadsheet presses, in which NVALA and VLV placed articles and letters to the editor, respectively. Press releases were intermittently issued. The all-issue groups sought coverage by the influential journalists of the broadsheet media pages, whereas, it was felt, the tabloid press "used" groups (notably NVALA) to lambast broadcasters or whip up sensationalism. Advertising was prohibitive for most groups; VLV placed limited ads in magazines, but concentrated on relationship-building strategies. Disability groups ranged in the extent of their media coverage, with DBC at the low end. They sought alternative representation of their issues, including on Right to Reply, one popular television feedback program.

Marches, hunger strikes, and similar measures were culturally unacceptable and counter-productive to building long-term relationships. Activists focused on alliances, shared interests, and credible arguments to support group goals. DBC, a permanent coalition of deaf groups, and the Broadcasting Liaison Group (BLG), an ad hoc alliance of VLV, NCC, and CA, joined around legislation to avoid compromising autonomy. The relationships among these groups were sustained over time.

Internal communication (publications for members-e.g., CA's Which- or prospective supporters) also bolstered group's relationships. CQT attributed much of its success to computers, which facilitated direct mail. VLV's newsletters offered a range of relevant broadcasting content as well as events to unite members and prominent professionals and politicians. Core groups' use of e-mail and the Web was minimal, but groups recognized the potential of these technologies to recruit, inform, and mobilize members. Graham Mytton, Director of Marketing, BBC World Service, explained the sophisticated Web tactics used in the campaign to save that organization. Roger Bolton, General Secretary for BECTU (the British entertainment union), explained his plans for an organzational Web site. These online resources, and the strategies above, cumulatively helped relationships.

6.2. Building and identifying successful relationships

Often, a combination of strategies was used. Albury said that this may have given the appearance of being systematic but sometimes was not. Developing positive relationships was both a cultural norm and a step toward long-term goals. Some equated good relationships with achieving "tangible" goals. According to Diana Whitworth, Head of Public Affairs for the National Consumer Council, they opened doors to future success. Benet Middleton's (Senior Policy Analyst at the Consumers' Association) description of "tangible results" embraced process-oriented achievements, such as pressure group inclusion in consultation around compelling issues, or working jointly with targets on projects.

Recurrent dimensions for the building of strategic relationships were: 1) frank, reasoned dialogue, 2) mutual respect, 3) confidentiality and trust, 4) openness and understanding, 5) shared interests, 6) networking with others/befriending your target, 7) access, and 8) recognizing the constraints of your target. These paralleled "reciprocity, trust, credibility, mutual legitimacy, openness, mutual satisfaction, and mutual understanding." (37) A substantive power differential did not preclude good group relationships. Public relations developed such relationships, although culturally-appropriate behaviors did not guarantee "tangible" evidence of effectiveness.

7. Results concerning effectiveness

Responses to the data on effectiveness were less clear cut. The term "indicators," rather than "characteristics," conveyed how most of these "markers" indicate a progression to a relationship between the activist group and a target- one that hinges on acknowledgment, acceptance, communication, shared interests, reciprocity, defining constraints, inclusion, input and feedback, (sometimes) group institutionalization, negotiation, (sometimes) acquiescence by targets, and access. Trust, important among the dimensions, is an implicit criterion for effectiveness.

The more successful groups developed relationships reflecting at least some indicators. Groups that did not achieve tangible policy or program-making changes but showed indicators of sustained relationships could be considered effective. Achievement of goals may be an important benchmark of activist impact on accountability and may attest to the power of the viewer and listener over that of the market. It is not a prerequisite of pressure group effectiveness. Furthermore, the data suggested that groups achieving short-term goals that cannot develop or sustain good relationships with their targets do not sustain credibility.

7.1. Core aspects of effectiveness

The transactional or relationship aspect of pressure group activity yielded the most significant data about pressure group effectiveness, consistent with Smith's assessment of the interpersonal nature of communication about broadcasting. The all-issue groups, such as VLV and the consumer groups, built good relationships with key elite targets, developed venues for policy debate, and promoted key arguments. In contrast, NVALA generated copy but lacked other signs of effectiveness, notably, the forging of positive relationships with its targets. CQT and the all-issue groups engaged in media advocacy (38) through relationship building and reasoned argument on compelling issues.

The data suggested that all groups, including NVALA, were effective in placing compelling issues on the public agenda. They raised the consciousness of various publics, who interfaced with the British broadcasting environment and political culture--although respondents could not always make causal connections and sort out pressure group impact from a "confluence of different pressures" (described by Steven Barnett, a broadcasting researcher based at the University of Westminster) and influences such as the Citizens' Charter. (39) The impact of relationship building may be difficult to prove. Broadcasting organizations may not concede that they succumb to pressure or that changes are justified. Activists may not acknowledge other actors or events instrumental in bringing about change. No group conceded its goals had been or even might be fully met. Changes in policy and programming sometimes resulted from this debate, as with CQT's quality threshold amendment to the 1990 Act. DBC neither employed media advocac y nor generated debate, but nevertheless engaged politicians' support for subtitling.

Groups whose causes, strategies, arguments, presentation, and behaviors appealed to influential journalists were more likely to get their issues on the table, as was the case with other targets. Relationships (i.e., whether they contained the dimensions cited above) also factored into media responses. If the press used activists to stir emotions, as Jocelyn Hay, Chairwoman of the Voice of the Listener and Viewer, suggested, the media exposure was short lived. In some cases, it could have been argued that groups were vulnerable to absorption or cooptation (and some knew the risks and avoided them).

7.2. Absorption and cooptation in relationship building

Collaboration between groups and other groups or targets posed a dilemma if group autonomy were compromised, blurring boundaries between concessions, absorption, or cooptation. (40) In 1995, Jacek Barlik, a Polish public relations practitioner and scholar, had described to this author the absorption of activist groups into the postcommunist political party system in that country. In the U.K. in 1997, Fraser Steel, Head of the BBC's Program Complaint Unit, commented, "... you might say grass roots activism is kind of absorbed through officials into official channels... as contrasted with the U.S.... it will be mediated through institutions or largely institutional-looking arrangements." Targets only moved so far to absorb pressure groups, as Claire Mulholland, Deputy Chief Executive of the Independent Television Commission (ITC), indicated. Albury and Middleton both expressed a reluctance on the part of activists to collaborate with targets if there was any intimation that doing so might compromise group auton omy.

8. Discussion of pressure group impact

As striking as was the consensus about strategies, the lack of consensus about impact was more striking, for the reasons listed above. Notably, even the most "effective" groups had difficulty in attributing causality to any number of variables that may have affected outcomes. Professor Vincent Porter of the University of Westminster, a VLV committee member, said: "It's always difficult to say... what we've achieved because quite often in these affairs you're forming alliances-strategic alliances." Nevertheless, the comments below suggest both tangible and intangible (unrelated to policy or programming) outcomes. Albury said": My hunch is they (activists) impact on politicians much more than they impact on us (broadcasters)." Smith remarked: "... I think they're powerful... they come and go, of course, in power... I think they've played an important role, and will continue to do so." BBC Secretary Christopher Graham offered: "It's a sign of the times, not pressure groups, (that there) is much more emphasis in public services on measuring delivery."

Brian Groombridge, of the University of London Institute of Education, said: "If you're looking at the role of the lobby groups, it would be very easy... to overstate the overall significance of that. And insofar as it has some significance, it is partly because of all sorts of other things are happening in this society at the same time."

Jeremy Isaacs, former Head, Channel Four, credited NVALA with raising awareness of violence. As cynical as he may have been about NYALA under Mary Whitehouse, or even about pressure group effectiveness overall, Isaacs clearly identified that group as having achieved a level of effectiveness in generating debate and calling attention to such significant issues. Other respondents, such as political scientist Colin Seymour-Ure of the University of Kent at Canterbury and Richard Collins of the Department of Social Psychology, London School of Economics, either directly stated or strongly implied pressure group impact. Certainly, persistence in networking with journalists, politicians, regulators, policymakers, other interested parties, and even broadcasters (the latter were often perceived as arrogant) required skill in relationship building. Respondents mostly associated pressure group success over time with successful relationship building. According to Whitworth, relationships could not always be identified as discrete from other strategies. Sometimes forces outside group control hampered group successes. Lord George Thomson, ex-Director of the IBA, said,

"I think they play quite a significant and important part and are paid a lot of attention to in terms of the dialogue with the broadcasters... the climate of opinion in Parliament... matters as much as anything else, so you need to pay some attention to the role of Members of Parliament that became interested in broadcasting."

This statement directly acknowledges the impact of political will--that is, even when events are well planned, negotiated, and executed and good relationships exist, activist efforts may not produce policy and programming outcomes. Bolt said that in legislative issues, even civil servants know that the minister for broadcasting will not depart from a given political path. Albury pointed to a change of ministers as a turning point in political will as regards the 1990 legislation, but noted that CQT's response to a compelling issue (quality) may have transcended political will. It was clear that activists must represent an issue as compelling, but it was unclear how activists knew when to pursue an issue or when to concede that it was an idea whose time had not come (e.g., Whitworth and Middleton pointed to the digital access issue in the 1996 legislation).

8.1. Education, relationships and agenda building as counter forces to political will

Dr. Lewis Moonie, Labor Party Shadow Minister, stated that the 1996 Bill "had very little resonance for the general public at all." This was consistent with some activists' observation that, to many people outside elite circles, broadcasting is not a compelling issue. Nevertheless, Media education has the potential to spur a group agenda into public prominence. Hay said: "It's a huge problem and it needs a huge educational campaign, and we've been trying to do this for years... the press will only focus on sensation... so, it's very difficult to get reasoned debate on the importance of the issues. Given the situation described by Hay, one may question whether the present confinement of the broadcasting debate to largely elite circles is one of deliberate exclusion or self-selection. Building relationships with diverse publics in tandem with education and media advocacy may strengthen agenda building.

The data suggested that there are some relationships between strategies and outcomes, but that one must exercise restraint in attributing undue credit to any group's or alliance's (e.g., the Broadcasting Liaison Group, comprised of VLV, CA, NCC and distinguished individuals) efforts when evaluating success. Results also identified certain outcomes, including relationship outcomes, as indicators of effectiveness (see Appendix), rather than attributing success in any one venture to the actions of a particular group or set of groups, particularly when many variables or actors existed. The data also suggested that effectiveness might be better discussed in terms of relationship building and relationship outcomes.

8.2. Patterns concerning relationship outcomes

The data suggested that successful long-term relationship-building is a positive outcome for an activist group that may open the door to "tangible" policy/programming outcomes, even where the latter may be absent or attributable to a range of variables. "One doesn't always see small, precise victories," said Naomi Sargant, former Channel Four Head of Educational Programming and veteran consumer advocate. The building of long-term relationships was an incremental step in increasing debate around broadcasting issues. Effectiveness criteria were weighted more heavily in favor of credibility and relationship outcomes than in terms of policy or programming outcomes (see Appendix). The pressure groups have been rank ordered according to those criteria, as follows.

8.3. The relative effectiveness of my core groups

According to these indicators, VLV would be considered the most effective core group and NVALA the least effective. CQT probably followed VLV, with DBC next in line, followed by CA and NCC. The data suggested positions on a continuum, but they did so with some degree of imprecision, since latitude for subjective interpretation, and variance within individual responses, were important. In addition, VLV and the consumers' groups, compared to CQT and DBC, had made a limited legislative dent and considerable inroads into building strategic relationships with key opinion leaders. Nevertheless, the former groups had raised the overall level of broadcasting debate. The relationships developed by VLV, CA and the NCC, when combined with other advocacy tactics, may have been more effective in the long run than DBC's or CQT's legislative victories. The cumulative impact of activist groups on broadcasters' accountability and on debate follows.

8.4. Conclusions: pressure group impact as a totality

I think it's a very necessary aspect of democracy, and I wish to see more of it, conducted properly."

--Colin Shaw, ex-Director, Broadcasting Standards Council

Shaw implied, in the "conducted properly" aspect of activism, culturally appropriate and dimensional connotations. He described how the deaf lobby "conducted themselves in a seemly way" and in an "orderly manner." Activists must honor certain "rules of engagement," said Michael Stevenson, BBC's Head of Regional Programming. Groombridge linked their recognition as viewers, listeners, consumers, and citizens as proportionate to their engagement in "high quality debate" within a given political context and cultural climate.

Isaacs and Bolt had projected a multichannel British broadcasting environment; even in such an environment, the need for greater responsiveness by those institutions to their public(s) on matters of public interest and public policy will still persist. Negotiations around these issues in the United Kingdom and in the European community will necessitate relationship-building skills. Interviewees identified a broadening of the dialogue around broadcasting issues and a slow, persistent penetration by credible groups with rational arguments into broadcasting organizations, statutory regulators, civil service, and to the minister for broadcasting. Tangible gains may have occurred.

8.5. What we can learn from the public relations of broadcasting activists

This study provided several lessons about how activists should practice public relations. First, it underscored the need for groups to engage in environmental scanning, so that they can deal with actors and variables that may have significant impact on broadcasters and viewers and listeners. Second, it also emphasized the importance of requisite variety (diversity) both within an activist group and the targets it sought to influence. CQT, NVALA, and DBC had niche memberships. VLV appealed to middle aged, middle income, middle England and recognized the need for younger blood. Third, relationships containing key dimensions (listed above) clearly influenced effective mobilization of constituents and targets and increased the possibilities for long-term outcomes and non- adversarial communication. Credibility, or ethos, in an activist group increased its ability to generate debate. If credibility existed, presentation may have been a "swing" factor. Good relationships appeared to increase groups' sustained colla boration, piqued their publics' interest in the issues at stake, and moved them towards activist goals. Shared interests in issues or crises (e.g., the BBC license fee debate) seemed to have spurred collaboration, creating a "win-win" zone for resolving conflict. Thus, activists (e.g., environmentalists-Greenpeace) may wish to consider more conciliatory tactics or educational strategies because confrontational approaches may win battles but lose wars.

Karlberg (41) seemed to suggest that activists' relative lack of empowerment necessitated the use of different public relations strategies than would be employed by organizations (42) The British model demanded that activists work within the bounds of symmetry and negotiation and symmetrical strategies were effective in calling attention to activist issues. The data did not present as "culturally-exclusive." Even in East/Central Europe, where the political culture has often precluded the use of symmetrical public relations, it is possible to incrementally introduce symmetrical strategies. If the power differential described by Karlberg necessitates some temporary modifications of public relations practice, then any combination of nonviolent, nonaggressive asymmetrical strategies, beginning with media advocacy, may be used to move the agenda forward. Activists should revert to symmetrical strategies as soon as they achieve recognition. (43) This applies equally to public relations practiced by pressure groups and by their target organizations.

The broadcasting industry, torn between rival media organizations and its audiences, is only one of many industries beleaguered by competitiveness. Strategic relationship building may give an organization a competitive edge through which it can better anticipate the needs of its publics. In addition, a greater understanding of political culture may also enhance the symmetry with which activists and target organizations respond to each other, the likelihood of establishing shared interests, and the areas in which it is feasible or infeasible to press further for goals. Although Karlberg despaired at what he perceived as the lack of discrepancy between the current public relations research agenda and "participatory, representative and inclusive theories of public discourse," (44) this study hopefully will be a step towards bridging that gap.

Rachel Kovacs is an Assistant Professor in the School of Communication at the University of Hartford, where she directs the public relations emphasis and serves as adviser to the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA) and an ex-officio board member of the Connecticut Valley Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). She received her Ph.D. in Mass Communication from the College of Journalism at the University of Maryland College Park.

(*.) Tel.: +1-860-768-4016; fax: +1-860-768-4096.

E-mail address: (R. Kovacs).


(1.) Michael Karlberg, "Remembering the Public in Public Relations Research: From Theoretical to Operational Symmetry," Journal of Public Relations Research 8 (1996), pp. 263-278.

(2.) Glen M. Broom, Shawna Casey & J. Ritchey. "Toward a Concept and Theory of Organization-Public Relationships," Journal of Public Relations Research 9 (1997), pp. 83-98.

(3.) James E. Grunig, Excellence in Public Relations and Communication Management, (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1992).

(4.) See, for example, Glen M. Broom et al., op. cit.; also see Yi-Hui Huang, Public Relations Strategies, Relational Outcomes, and Conflict Management Strategies, Unpublished doctoral dissertation, College of Journalism, University of Maryland, College Park, MD, 1997.

(5.) Denis McQuail, Mass Communication Theory: An Introduction, (London: Sage, 1994); see also Nicholas Garnham, "The Media and the Public Sphere," In Craig Calhoun (ed.), Habermas and the Public Sphere (London: MIT Press, 1994), p. 359-376.

(6.) Jay G. Blumler (ed.), Television in the Public Interest, (London: Sage, 1992); also see James Curran & Jean Seaton, Power without Responsibility: The Press and Broadcasting in Britain, (London: Routledge, 1991).

(7.) Jay G. Blumler, op. cit.

(8.) Booz.Allen & Hamilton, The Changing Environment for UK Broadcasters and Its Economic Implications, (London: ITVA, 1993); See also, for example, Tim Congdon, Andrew Graham, Damian Green, & Bill Robinson. The Cross Media Revolution: Ownership and Control, (London: John Libbey, 1995).

(9.) Colin Sparks & Anna Reading, "Understanding Media Change in East Central Europe," Media, Culture and Society 16 (1994) pp. 243-270.

(10.) Prime Minister's Office, Raising the Standard: Britain's Citizens' Charter and Public Service Reforms, (London: HMSO, 1992).

(11.) See, for example, Naomi Sargant, Broadcasting Policy: Listening to the Consumer, (London: Consumers' Association, 1992).

(12.) Michael Karlberg, op.cit., p.272.

(13.) James E. Grunig, op.cit.

(14.) Pamela Shoemaker, "Public Relations Versus Journalism?" American Behavioral Scientist 33 (1989), p. 272.

(15.) James E. Grunig, op.cit.; Broom et al., op. cit.; John A. Lediagham & Steven D. Bruning, Community Relations and Relationshp Dimensions: Measuring the Impact of a Managed Communication Program, Paper presented to the First International, Interdisciplinary Research Conference sponsored by the PRSA Educators' Academy, College Park, MD, June 1998.

(16.) See Roger Fisher & Scott Brown, Getting Together: Building Relationships As We Negotiate, (New York: Penguin Books, 1989); Roger Fisher, William Ury, & Bruce Patton, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, (New York: Penguin Books, 1991); see also William Ury, Getting Past No: Negotiating Your Way from Confrontation to Cooperation, (New York: Bantam Book, 1993).

(17.) Katherine C. Montgomery, Target Prime Time. Advocacy Groups and the Struggle over Entertainment Television, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).

(18.) Related literatures, principally, those of political science-for example, Jeremy J. Richardson (ed.), Pressure Groups, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993); Francis G. Castles, Pressure Groups and Political Culture: A Comparative Study, (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967); Samuel E. Finer, The Anonymous Empire, (London: The Pall Mall Press, 1958); George K. Wilson, Interest groups, (London: Basil Blackwell, 1990) - and sociology- Sidney G. Tarrow, Power in movement: Social movements, collective action, and politics, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994) as well as Dieter Rucht (ed.), Research on Social Movements: The State of the Art in Western Europe and the U.S.A., (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1991)- have helped to explain how activist mobilize and implement campaigns within the British and other Western systems, An "activist" or "pressure" group has been alternatively described as "interest group," "advocacy group," and "social movement," all of which relate to "collective action," a s explicated by Mancur Olson, Jr., The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups, (1971); Neil J. Smelser, Theory of Collective Behavior, (New York: The Free Press, 1962); and Sidney Tarrow, op. cit.

(19.) Denis McQuail, op. cit.

(20.) See Richard G. Kimber & Jeremy J. Richardson, Pressure Groups in Britain, (London: Dent and Co, 1974). Norman Lewis, "Corporatism and Accountability: The Democratic Dilemma," In Colin Crouch and Ronald Dore (eds.), Corporatism and Accountability (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), pp. 63-101. They identified an activist group as "... voluntary association, protective group... exclusive group..." (p.1). British political science literature predominantly has used the term "pressure group," which, according to Francis G. Castles, op.cit., has negative connotations, or, as per Samuel E. Finer, op. cit., the threat of sanctions. The types of social movements described by Sidney Tarrow, op. cit., Hank Johnston & Bert Klandermans, Social Movements and Culture, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995) and Rucht, op.cit., while more grass-roots, could hardly be related to the small, sparsely-staffed organizations in my study.

(21.) The literature stressed pressure group-government interaction, with the exception of Paul K. Wapner, Politics Beyond the State: Environmental Activism and World Civic Politics, World Politics, 47 (1995), pp. 311-341. This often did not fit with the tactics of the pressure groups studied here.

(22.) Political scientists have focused on accountability, largely with respect to corporatism--the cooperative relationship between government and certain interest groups. See Norman Lewis, op. cit., and Clive S. Thomas, "Interest Groups in Western Democracies: Contemporary Characteristics and Future Directions," In Clive S. Thomas (ed.), First World Interest Groups: A Comparative Perspective (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1993) pp.217-230.

(23.) Jeffrey M. Berry, Lobbying for the People: The Political Behavior of Public Interest Groups, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977).

(24.) Janet Fulk, Andrew J. Flanagan, Michael E. Kalman, Peter R. Monge, & Timothy Ryan, "Connective and Communal Public Goods in Interactive Communication Systems," Communication Theory, 6 (1996), pp. 60-87.

(25.) Brian M. Barry, B. & Russell Hardin, Rational Man and Irrational Society, (Beverly Hills: Sage, 1982).

(26.) See Phil Harris, "Pressure Groups and Protest," Politics 17 (1982), pp. 111-120; see also Phil Harris and Silke Ziegler, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: The Missing Link, Lobbying, Paper presented to the Marketing Education Group Conference, University of Strathclyde, Scotland, 1992, July; and Kevin Moloney, Lobbyists for Hire, (Aldershot, UK: Dartmouth, 1996).

(27.) Wyn Grant, Pressure Groups, Politics and Democracy in Britain (Hemel Hempstead, Herts., UK: Philip Allan, 1989); and Paul F. Whiteley & Stephen J. Winyard, Pressure for the Poor, (London: Methuen, 1989).

(28.) See Judith B. Rosener, "User-Oriented Evaluation: A New Way to View Citizen Participation," Journal of Applied Behavioral Science 17 (1983), pp. 583-596, as well as Wyn Grant, op. cit. and Whiteley and Winyard, op. cit., for perspectives on effectiveness that originate in other disciplines.

(29.) Stephen P. Robbins, Organization Theory: Structure, Design and Applications, (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990).

(30.) See Scott M. Cutlip, Allen H. Center, & Glen M. Broom, Effective public relations (7th ed.)," (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1994); Allen H. Center & Patrick Jackson Public Relations Practice: Managerial Case Studies and Problems (5th ed.)," (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1995); and also Broom et al., op. cit.

(31.) Mancur Olson, Jr., op. cit.

(32.) Jeremy Mitchell, Letter Concerning Differences in Politics and Governmental Structures between U.K. and U.S., "(Sent via fax 12/2/96)

(33.) See Andrew Culf, "BBC Faces Upheaval in Labor Plan," The Guardian, 1, 1/22/97(a); as well as Andrew Culf, "Retreat by Cunningham: Leadership Disowns Radical Scheme to Restructure BBC," The Guardian, 2, 1/23/97(b).

(34.) Maxwell E. McCombs & Donald L. Shaw, "The Agenda-Setting Function of Mass Media," Public Opinion Quarterly 36 (1972), pp. 176-85.

(35.) Clarice N. Olien, Phillip J. Tichenor, & George A. Donohue, "Media and protest," In Larissa A. Grunig (ed.) Environmental Activism Revisited: The Changing Nature of Communication through Organizational Public Relations, Special Interest Groups and the Mass Media (Troy, OH: The North American Association for Environmental Education, 1989), pp. 22-39.

(36.) Culf, op. cit (a).

(37.) Larissa A. Grunig, James E. Grunig, and William Ehling, "What is an effective organization?," In James E. Grunig (ed.), In Excellence in Public Relations and Communication Management, (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1992), p. 83

(38.) Lawrence M. Wallack, Lori Dorfman, David Jernigan, & Makani Themba, Media Advocacy and Public Health: Power for Prevention, (Newbury Park: Sage. 1993).

(39.) Prime Minister's Office, The Citizens' Charter: Raising the Standard, (London: HMSO, 1991).

(40.) Eva Etzioni-Halevy, Fragile Democracy: The Use and Abuse of Power in Western Societies, (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1989).

(41.) Karlberg, op. cit.

(42.) IBID.

(43.) James E. Grunig, & Larissa A. Grunig, Review of a Program of Research on Activism: Incidence in Four Countries, Activist Publics, Strategies of Activist Groups, and Organizational Responses to Activism, paper presented to the Fourth Public Relations Research Symposium, Lake Bled, Slovenia, July 1997.

(44.) Karlberg, op. cit, p. 264.

Appendix. Revised Typology-Indicators of Interest Group Effectiveness

These measures of effectiveness are largely relationship outcomes, as follows:

1. The pressure group has been represented in a favorable or at least a reasonably accurate light in the media.

2. The group's messages, goals, and tactics have been acknowledged by its targets as reasonable, credible, and culturally acceptable.

3. The targets will talk to, if not meet with, the group.

4. The group has developed a working relationship with the appropriate target or targets, including the following:

a) The targets recognize interests shared with the group.

b) The targets have indicated to the group the ways in which they feel they can be helpful to the group and their constraints in doing so.

c) The group's views have been either solicited or otherwise heard at some level of a consultation process that precedes the policy and legislative processes.

d) The group may have been represented in a formal advisory or consultative body that makes recommendations to any policy-making or legislative body.

e) When the group invites targets to its own events, (e.g., conferences, workshops, symposia), they come.

f) The targets reciprocate by inviting the group to their events.

5. Regardless of whether its goals have been achieved, the group has managed to maintain satisfactory, if not optimal, relationships with the targets.

6. The group has succeeded in raising public consciousness about a broadcasting issue and/or has placed an issue on the policy agenda.

7. The group may have brought about a change in the target's or targets' attitudes or behaviors.

8. This change in targets' attitudes or behaviors may lead to a change in broadcasting programming and/or policy.

9. The group perceives that it has reasonable access to those targets with whom it wishes to communicate.
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Title Annotation:British broadcasting policies and programming, public relations research
Comment:Relationship building as integral to British activism: its impact on accountability in broadcasting.(British broadcasting policies and programming, public relations research)
Author:Kovacs, Rachel
Publication:Public Relations Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2001
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