Contingency theory in public relations                             Maria Fleming                            18 October 201...
Fat chance
Logic in the factory
No ‘one best way’
The continuum
Criticisms of contingency theory for PR
It’s so....visionary!
Assignment 2 seminar contingency_theory
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Assignment 2 seminar contingency_theory


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  • This is an excerpt from The Hollowmen, an ABC TV fly on the wall show set in the offices of the Central Policy Unit- a crack taskforce put together personally by the Prime Minister to help him get re-elected. Their brief is long term vision; to stop worrying about tomorrow's headlines, and focus on next week's.I find this interesting not because of its obvious documentary properties but also in relation to today’s presentation, it shows some of the pressures that influence the way we as communication professionals select one strategy over another. (Fat Chance - The Hollowmen)
  • Firstly, what is contingency theory? Jim covered a bit of this prior to the break, but as it was a while ago, I thought I would go over it again and expand on a few areas.Contingency theory was originally theorised in the mid 20th century as a way to examine the ideal organizational structure. Growing out of systems theory, the term was coined by Lawrence and Lorsch in 1967 and used to provide an alternative perspective to earlier rationalist/scientific approaches such as was used by Henry Ford in his car factories.
  • According to Lorsch et al, “Contingency theory claims that there is no single best way to design organizational structures. The best way of organizing e.g. a company (is) contingent upon the internal and external situation of the company.” This theory has since then been refined, tested and applied to a range of organizational functions and behaviours such as management (Woodward, 1958), learning (Rescorla 1967), leadership (Fielder 1976 ), and more recently public relations (Cancel 1997) and corporate social responsibility (Husted, 2000).Lawrence and Lorsch, in echoes of Giddensstructuration theory, go on to say that structures are influenced by various aspects of the environment which are the contingency factors . In echoes again of another of our theorists, Porter and his five forces model, important contingencies for organizations, according to Lawrence and Lorsch include: Technology Suppliers and distributors Consumer interest groups Customers and competitors Government Unions They go on to conclude that “there cannot be ONE optimal organizational design for every company, because no companies are completely similar, and because every company faces its own set of unique environmental contingencies that result in different levels of environmental uncertainties. “
  • Gareth Morgan in (1998) described contingency theory in the following way:Organizations are open systems that need careful management to satisfy and balance internal needs and to adapt to environmental circumstancesThere is no one best way of organizing. The appropriate form depends on the kind of task or environment one is dealing with.Management must be concerned, above all else, with achieving alignments and good fitsDifferent types or species of organizations are needed in different types of environments
  • Cancel et al have looked at Contingency Theory from the perspective of public relations.In the paper, It Depends, Cancel et al argues that organizational public relations moves along a continuum from pure advocacy to pure accommodation due to the fluid nature of the environments in which public relations is practiced. That is, a public relations activity depends on the situation.Applying a contingency theory framework, Cancel et al addresses the perceived limitations of a one size fits all approach to public relations as defined by Grunig’s iconic Excellence Theory. She and her colleagues argue that Grunig’s model and specifically the ideal of two way symmetrical communications does not adequately describe the way public relations in an organization operates.Pure advocacy in this model can be likened to a court of law where defence and prosecution only ever argue the points which favour their case and paint it in the best possible light. At the other end of the continuum, pure accommodation is where the emphasis is on complete consensus so that there is no longer any conflict or differing opinions. Public relations, according to Cancel et al, moves along this continuum in response to a range of variables – they cite 87 to be precise.
  • Criticisms of contingency theory include that it is lacks theoretical clarity and cannot be tested robustly enough in relation to it variables (Schoonhoven, 1981).So the questions remains, does a contingency theory help or hinder public relations practice?I found this quote on a blog which I think is useful: “While the contingency approach is useful in recognizing that the complexity involved in understanding human and organizational systems makes it difficult to develop universal principles of management, there have been several criticisms of the approach. For one, it has been pointed out that the logical extension of the contingency approach is that all situations are unique. If this is true, then management can be practiced only by intuition and judgment, thereby negating the value of prior knowledge and wisdom.”From a personal perspective, the idea of a continuum is appealing as a concept, however, I wonder how useful 87 variables can be for a practitioner seeking a model for best practice?
  • Also, in Government it is not necessarily legal to move along a continuum from pure advocacy to pure accommodation. For example if you are a regulator, there may be very little wriggle room for public relations activities which require more accommodation. Some of these limitations were shown to us the other day in the Decision Wheel for Government paper by Liu. Finally, it strikes me that as contingency theory was developed as a reaction to the rationalist/scientific approaches to organisational structures, such as employed by Henry Ford in his car factories, the application of a scientific epistemology which uses variables, experiments and the language of the rationalist like Cancel et al does, seems to run counter to the spirit of the original theory.
  • I’d like to finish with the Hollowmen again. (future fund - 4mins)Thank you!
  • Assignment 2 seminar contingency_theory

    1. 1. Contingency theory in public relations Maria Fleming 18 October 2012 Strategic Communications Planning (8625) University of Canberra
    2. 2. Fat chance
    3. 3. Logic in the factory
    4. 4. Impact
    5. 5. No ‘one best way’
    6. 6. The continuum
    7. 7. Criticisms of contingency theory for PR
    8. 8. It’s so....visionary!