Invited Panel Presentation: The Public Relations Research Agenda--The Next Decade, PublicRelations Division, International Communication Association, Acapulco, Mexico - June 2, 2000 REDISCOVERING THE INDIVIDUAL: POTENTIAL APPLICATIONS OF CONSUMER BEHAVIOR RESEARCH TO PUBLIC RELATIONS Kirk Hallahan Abstract: Public relations is an interdisciplinary field that draws upon a wide range of other disciplines for theory and applicable research. This paper argues that valuable insights about the behaviors of people important to organizations can be derived from an examination of the growing consumer behavior literature. This paper identifies five broad areas where consumer research might contribute to the public relations research agenda during the next decade. These areas include: message processing, decision- making, the influence of affect, organizational-consumer relationships, and consumer action behaviors. As the theme of this session suggests, public relations theory and research is at acrossroads. As we begin a new decade, the public relations research agenda is fragmented. Thisfracturing largely results from the relatively few researchers in the field, and from the lack of asingle theoretical paradigm (Botan, 1993; Toth & Heath, 1992). Public relations today struggles to define whether it is a discipline primarily grounded inmanagement or communication. Management theorists, for example, focus on issues of systemsmaintenance and balance, strategies for accommodating publics in organizational actions, andorganizational and personal factors that influence practitioner performance (e.g. organizationstructure, culture, practitioner values, gender, etc.) Communications theorists, by contrast, aremore interested in the construction and delivery of messages and in concrete strategies for thedevelopment of effective programs. The relationship of organizations to people is presumably the focus of public relations.Yet, ironically, people are seemingly overlooked as the focus of much of our theorizing andresearch. We identify the individuals to whom programs are directed in organization-basedterms. Sakeholders are people potentially impacted by the actions of organizations, whether ornot these stakeholders know or care about such consequences. Publics are groups who organizearound issues or who engage in discussions and concerted action to address problems, whichpresumably are caused by or can be solved by organizations. But few, if any, of the audiencemembers to whom we direct programs actually think of themselves as “stakeholders” or membersof a “public.” At best, they identify themselves as a customer, an employee, an investor, a donoror a constituent.
Consumer Behavior Research and Public Relations - 2 Our examination of audiences is compounded by a propensity to talk interchangeablyabout groups and the individuals who constitute those groups--as if they were the same. A group,such as a public, is a collectivity of people with a definable set of collective characteristics orproperties--number of members, purpose, structure, leadership, patterns of interaction, etc.Although groups tend to reflect the characteristics of the individuals who constitute them, weerroneously attribute to groups characteristics that rightfully are properties of individuals--such asknowledge, opinions, attitudes, or patterns of everyday behavior. Indeed, many of the people to whom we direct public relations programs do not act inconcert. Rather, the majority are more akin to what Blumer (1946/1966) defined as a “mass” --people with only a loose sense of common identity, who largely act independently, and who makedecisions largely out of self-interest. Elsewhere, I have argued that we need to pay moreattention to these groups, which I have labeled inactive publics (Hallahan, in press). CONSUMER BEHAVIOR RESEARCH AND ITS POTENTIAL CONTRIBUTION TO PUBLIC RELATIONS In the coming decade, I believe public relations scholars must gain a deeperunderstanding of the behaviors of individuals. Indeed, collective individual actions of peoplemake them just as strategically important as organized groups and provide the basis for much ofwhat we do in public relations. In turn, an important part of our research agenda in the comingdecade must address how public relations influences the behavior of individuals. This is not an entirely new idea. Yet, Im mystified by the relative lack of attention thatwe have paid to research focused on individuals. Obviously, there are solid examples of individual-level research in the field. The mostprominent example, of course, is J. Grunig’s situation theory, which attempts to predict thelikelihood that individuals will become active on a given set of issues (J. Grunig, 1997; J. Grunig& Hunt, 1984). Other examples include the current stream of research to measure relationships(Broom, Casey & Ritchey, 1997; Hon & Grunig, 1999; Ledingham & Bruning, 2000). Similarly,Heath’s work in the area of risk communication has provided valuable insights about how peopledeal with environmental concerns and uncertainty (Heath, 1990, 1991). Yet, our inventory ofother research focused on the individual level of analysis is remarkably sparse. One potential way for public relations researchers to jump-start research about individualaudience members is to tap into the growing consumer behavior literature. Consumer behaviorresearchers have focused on understanding individual behavior since that field emerged as adistinct field in the mid1960s. The focus of consumer behavior has been to apply social scientificand humanistic investigation to understanding peoples everyday behaviors. To some, consumer behavior is synonymous with marketing. Robertson and Kassarjian(1991), for example, define consumer behavior as “the scientific study of consumer actions in themarketplace” (p. vii). However, others view consumer behavior as independent of marketing orany particular discipline. Jacoby (1976), for example, defined consumer behavior as “theacquisition, consumption and disposition of goods, services, time and ideas by decision-makingunits ....” (p. 1). Arndt (1976) suggested that consumer behavior encompasses the “the problemsencountered by members of society in the acquisition and realization of their standard of living”(p. 213). More recently, Holbrook (1995) defined consumer research as “the study ofconsummation in all of its aspects.” Holbrook explained, “Consummations of one sort or
Consumer Behavior Research and Public Relations - 3another are what all humans and therefore all consumers seek. Consummation--attainingcustomer value or achieving satisfaction--thereby designates the central core of the concept ofconsumer research” (Holbrook, 1995, p. 88). As a field, consumer behavior represents the intellectual meeting ground for investigatorsfrom economics, marketing, applied psychology, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, familysciences, and related disciplines. For public relations researchers and practitioners, consumerbehavior is particularly relevant because of its study of practical, real-world activities. TheAssociation for Consumer Research (founded in 1970) and the interdisciplinary Journal ofConsumer Research (established in 1974) are two of the primary forums where consumerbehavior researchers come together. Ironically, public relations researchers are conspicuous bytheir absence. Some people might balk at the idea of equating individuals who constitute publics withconsumers. Critics argue (correctly) that public relations deals with far more categories ofaudiences than customers or consumers. These include: investors, donors, volunteers, workers,suppliers and voters. Yet, thoughtful examination reveals just how similarly all of theseconstituencies interact with organizations today. Virtually all organization-individual interactionsinvolve some form of exchange relationship and people exercising choices. Usually, people paysome form of consideration (money, skill, time, or psychic commitment) in exchange for areward (a product, service, wages, a profitable return on their investments, recognition or someother gratification). Significantly, constituents of organizations have assumed a customer-like mentality.Investors, donors, volunteers, employees and voters demand both value and situation and expectto be courted by organizations as if they were customers. Organizations have respondedaccordingly by routinely providing incentives to attract individuals -- product discounts forinvestors, tickets to social or sporting events for donors, signing bonuses for employees. Indeedsocial agencies and politicians promote causes and ideologies in the same marketers promotesoap. We live in a customer- and consumption-oriented society (Lewis & Bridger, 2000). SOME POTENTIAL AREAS OF INQUIRY AND CONTRIBUTIONS OF CONSUMER RESEARCH My call for public relations scholars to devote more attention to understandingindividuals is grounded only in partly by what we see going on in modern organizations. Indeed,traditional value systems are being shaken as through the transformation the spatial and temporalthat once defined relationships. However, my enthusiasm is also grounded in the fact thatconsumer behavior researchers have spent the past 40 years addressing many ideas that are bothinteresting and potentially useful for public relations. If consumer behavior research has enteredearly adulthood, public relations is still a "babe in the woods." In recent years, public relations scholars have been challenged by organizations such asThe Institute for Public Relations to look beyond their own little domain and to draw upon abroader theoretical grounded in other disciplines. Toward that end, consumer behavior is anuntapped opportunity. Consumer behavior obviously is a broad field that covers everything from economics tothe anthropological analyzes of the meaning of gift giving. It would be impossible to catalog allthe pertinent questions that can be found in the field. Instead, Id simply like to outline five broad
Consumer Behavior Research and Public Relations - 4areas that I think it is important for us to investigate in the next decade--and to suggest ways thatpublic relations might benefit from consumer behavior research to date. These areas areintentionally broad. But within each one I will point to some specific questions of specialinterest.Message Processing To understand people, public relations researchers and practitioners must continue tostudy the process of communication, more specifically, how people process information andmessages. Consumer behavior continues to generate the most robust research related to cognitivemessage processing and persuasion. Indeed, several of the leading scholars conducting researchon influence processes test their ideas in a consumer behavior context and publish in theconsumer research journals. Examples include Richard T. Petty and John T. Cacioppo of OhioState, and Shelly Chaiken of New York University, who are considered the leading persuasiontheorists. Although persuasion is regarded with disdain by some in our field, we cannot ignoredeveloping a better understanding of influence processes. Today applied cognitive processing research goes far beyond how to construct the mostpersuasive message. Instead, the principal focus is on how individual audience characteristicsimpact influence processes. As public relations professionals, we need to know more about thesefactors, which broadly can be classified within the molar concepts of motivation, ability andopportunity to process messages. Normative public relations theory suggests that public relations ideally is practicedthrough a process of accommodation that employs symmetrical, two-way communication(Dozier, J. Grunig & L. Grunig, 1995; J. Grunig, 1992; J. Grunig & Hunt, 1984). Yet, as apractical matter, this approach is best suited to dealing with comparatively small, identifiablegroups (and particularly, the leadership of those groups) and reflects a bias stemming fromreliance upon interpersonal communication concepts to define organization-public interaction.For those who must conduct public relations activities in less than ideal circumstances, and whomust cope with mass audiences only minimally involved in any particular topic of interest to anorganization, we need to understand about how individuals process information and relate toorganizations. Some of the specific areas of inquiry we should pursue include: Memory processes. In particular, we need to gain a better understanding of the ability of people to recognize and recall and form opinions about organizations -- including their names, brands and key messages. As a field, public relations spends billions of dollars to create identities for organizations and products, to rename and reposition those organizations and products, and to enhance the reputation of organizations and products. Yet, our knowledge of basic memory processes and techniques to assess how organizations we are perceived is rudimentary, at best. It is difficult to talk about establishing and maintaining mutually beneficial relationships with people who have only a vague recognition of the organization. Spokesperson effects. In many situations today, people have little direct contact with the management or principals of organizations. Instead, their knowledge of organizations is gained from designated representatives. These agents range from celebrity endorsers, who appear in ads and at special events, to sales personnel, to community and media relations spokespersons. We need to know more of about
Consumer Behavior Research and Public Relations - 5 these representatives are perceived. A valuable starting point is to examine the extensive work on advertising spokespersons found in the consumer research literature. Repetition effects. Another area that is particularly relevant deals with repetition effects, i.e. the value and need for people with only minimal involvement in a topic to hear messages more than once. Repetition also involves the value of hearing messages from multiple sources. Advertisers have acknowledged the potentially deleterious impact of competition and clutter in todays highly competitive communication environment. By contrast, public relations scholars seem to assume that reaching people is not a problem. But, in fact, effective exposure is a necessary condition for any type of relationship to be established. I believe one of the greatest challenges confronting public relations today is communicating with sufficient power, i.e. being able to reach people multiple times to reinforce key messages. Then, we can explore whether people understood or even agreed with the message. Context effects. Finally, an idea that has received increased attention from researchers in consumer behavior concerns the way context affects peoples actions, including responses to messages. Broadly defined, context entails the way external factors influence message processing. Context effects research suggests influence is extremely situational--a fact that makes communication planning all the more complex. Consumer researchers have identified a wide range of contextual effects during the past 10 years. These range from priming effects that involve the influence of one messages on another adjacent message to the importance of ones personal circumstances (physical location, surroundings, mood, etc.) when storing and retrieving information from memory. We largely treat public relations communication as an isolated process that is independent of the many other influences on peoples lives. We must enrich our understanding of how people relate to organizations in a context.Decision-Making In tandem with message processing research, consumer behavior has contributed valuableinsights about how people make decisions. Indeed, the study of judgment and decision-makinghas become a separate subdomain within consumer psychology. As public relationsprofessionals, we need to be much better informed about decision-making processes and tounderstand how people decide to buy, invest, donate, work and vote. Considerable research suggests people are quite rationale in making judgments andchoices. For example, they often use cost/benefit frameworks to make decisions. Yet a widerange of factors moderate the process. These include task variables (problem size, time pressure,response mode, types of decision tasks, information format), context variability (similarity ofchoices, correlation of attributes, comparable versus noncomparable choices, quality ofalternatives) and personal factors (prior knowledge, information processing abilities, etc). In public relations theory, our assumption is that people are thoughtful and logical indiscussing and acting upon issues. However, considerable consumer behavior research suggeststhat people are not always rationale and do not exert the same levels of effort to considerproblems.
Consumer Behavior Research and Public Relations - 6 Building upon basic research in psychology, consumer researchers have recognized thecentral role that heuristics, or cognitive rules of thumb, play in making judgments. The twoleading models in the persuasion literature, the elaboration likelihood model (Petty & Cacioppo,1986) and the heuristic-systematic model (Chaiken, 1987), both posit that it heuristics (peripheralcues in the ELM) can be instrumental in persuasion. For individuals with low levels ofmotivation (e.g. involvement) or ability (e.g. knowledge) related to a particular topic, a heuristicmight be a sufficient basis upon which to make a judgment. For people with higher levels ofmotivation or ability, heuristics can interact with logical thought processes to bias the results. Public relations scholars and practitioners alike need to understand the various ways thatlogical thought can be compromised when people who want to make proper judgments arelimited by motivation or ability. We also need to understand how decision making is influenced.For example, Tversky and Kahneman (1981) demonstrated decision-making can be biaseddramatically merely by the perceptual framework in which a problem is posed. Last year, Iargued that framing is a concept that is particularly useful in public relations. Through the use ofalternative framing devices, public relations practitioners routinely shape the “frame” in whichpeople make decisions. In the coming decade, we need to learn much about how people makejudgments and decisions if we are going to ask them to make positive judgments about theorganizations we represent.Role of Affect A third broad area where we could learn more from consumer research concerns theinfluence of affect and emotions on individuals behaviors. Although public relations addressesconcepts such as problem recognition, risk and uncertainty, our literature falls short of addressingthe feelings these situations generate and the effect on peoples thoughts, attitudes and actions. Atthe same time, many practitioners conduct programs that play upon affective responses. Theintent is to create “warm, fuzzy feelings” among the members of target audiences. The role of affect has been recognized since the time of Plato and Aristotle, who were thefirst to differentiate affect from both cognition (thought processes) and motivation (desire).Affect is a molar concept that can be defined broadly as "a valenced feeling state." Affectsubsumes the concepts of emotion (an intense and sometimes disruptive response to a stimulus)and mood (a more generalized response elicited and maintained without conscious awareness ofits extent, cause or influence). Affect is distinct from attitude, which is a cognitive conceptdefined as a judgment or predisposition toward a particular object (Cohen & Areni, 1991). Studies in psychology and consumer research during the past two decades have fairlyconsistently demonstrated that a person’s affective state impacts a wide range of cognitive andconative behaviors. Positive affect has been demonstrated to be related to enhanced 1) recall, 2)evaluative judgments, 3) free associations, 4) categorizations of novel and familiar stimuli.Affect also impacts 5) decision rules in choice tasks, and 6) negotiation strategies in bargainingtasks. In the coming decade, we would benefit by understanding both sides of the affectquestion. First, positive affect. The challenge is to understand under what circumstances, and towhat degree, the creation of positive affect in organizational communications influences peoplesresponses. Many practitioners intuitively understand the value of the hedonism (pleasure) and thephysiological responses that can be created through music, entertainment, atmospherics andrhetoric. Yet, our literature is void in addressing the question. Alternatively, we also must
Consumer Behavior Research and Public Relations - 7consider negative affect. How do feelings of sadness, grief, or anxiety negatively influence theway people process information, particularly in situations involving crises, conflicts or risks? Two particularly relevant issues pertain to affect and message strategies. The first dealswith the use of information- versus emotion-driven messages. The notion of rational versusemotional appeals dates back to the classic Yale studies, with mixed findings. In a series ofinsightful studies, advertisers have differentiated between informational and transformationaladvertising (Puto and Wells, 1984). Informational ads present factual information, whiletransformational advertising appeals primarily to emotion and often relies upon visual imageryand music. Both have been found to be effective, but the literature suggests sponsors must becareful that information does not interfere with emotion, and vice versa. In light of the extensiveexpenditures on corporate and issue advertising by a growing number of organizations, publicrelations people would do well to understand more fully the underlying principles at work. The second question pertains to the more general issue of how message affect impactsresponses to the subject matter of the message. A robust body of knowledge suggests thatpeople’s responses to messages a) directly impact how people think about the subject matter of amessage, and b) produce greater acceptance of message claims (Lutz, 1985). However, this ideahas only been tested with advertising. I think is important for us to see whether the sameprinciple applies to the myriad of other content classes used in public relations.Relationships Between Organizations and Individuals Considerable discussion has taken place recently about relationship building in publicrelations (Broom, Casey & Ritchey, 1997; Ledingham & Bruning, 2000; Hon & Grunig, 1999).Researchers have largely drawn upon the interpersonal communication to adapt principlesrelevant to relationships between people to relationships between organizations and individuals. What contribution might consumer research bring to the study of relationships? Consumer behavior researchers have more than 15 years of experience dealing with theconcept of relationships. The emergence of relationship marketing in the mid1980s transformedthe focus of marketers from single transactional exchanges to the development of long-term (andmore profitable) customer relationships. Relationship marketing focuses on customer retention,rather than customer acquisition, and encompasses a range of ideas pertinent to relationshipbuilding in public relations. These include concepts such as customer value, service, frequentcustomer contact, customization and quality performance. Another important concept is branding. Branding is essentially a way to build arelationship between an organizations products and users--particularly in circumstances wherepeople only have only limited interface with than organization, such as a package good firm.Brand identity primarily incorporates issues such as naming and product/service design, whilebrand image focuses on positioning of products or services relative to other brands in a category.Brand loyalty measures the allegiance that users have to an organization or its brands, generallymeasured in willingness to engage in repeated purchase behavior. Brand equity focuses on thevalue-added created by a brand for an organization. Although I dont suggest that public relationstransform itself into marketing, I think the core ideas represented in branding can contribute toour understanding of relationships between an organization and an individuals. This isparticularly so when the relationship is limited in purpose, with minimal personal consequences.
Consumer Behavior Research and Public Relations - 8 Recent efforts to codify the notion of relationships have focused on many of the sameconstructs that are already found in the consumer behavior and marketing channels literature,including trust and satisfaction. For example, more than 300 studies have been conducted relatedto the question of customer satisfaction/dissatisfaction (for a review, see Andreasen, 1988). Finally, work conducted in the arena of social cognition processes provides an alternativeway to assess relationships. A substantial body of knowledge addresses how people developpersonal identities and self-schemas. Self-image and self-labeling have been closely linked to theconcepts of brand image and purchasing behavior. Research suggests that people strive forcongruity between their self-image (identity) and the products they purchase, use or give toothers. I would argue that people also strive for congruity between their self-image and theirschemas pertaining to organizations they consider important to them. People developexpectations about the performance of organizations that are congruent with their self-schemasand personal goals. This would suggest that a successful relationship can only exist whenorganizations perform and otherwise behave in ways that are compatible with an individualsexpectations (organizational schemas). A particularly insightful notion to evolve out of the consumer behavior research dealswith the attributions that people make about the actions of organizations. Wright (1986) suggeststhat individuals develop general theories to explain the actions and intentions of organizations, atleast in a persuasion context. Wright suggests that these schemer schemas influence peoplesresponses to influence attempts. More generally, schemer schema can be conceptualized aspersuasion knowledge theory (Friestad & Wright, 1994, 1999). As people become increasinglyknowledgeable about public relations (and, yes, more cynical about what we do), I think thisknowledge will become increasingly important in defining the relationships betweenorganizations and people. In general, I think we need to understand more about what people thinkabout organizational communication activities. In order to establish and maintain a positiverelationship, individuals must perceive that organizations are not scheming against them, butinstead are operating with an range of behavior deemed acceptable.Consumer Action Behaviors Finally, public relations would benefit in the coming decade from examining in moredepth the consumer behavior research pertaining to consumer actions and responses toorganizations other the purchase of products and services. Take, for example, complaints. We talk about disgruntled people and activism--but thefirst line of line of action most people take with an organization is to complain. What does publicrelations know about complaint behavior? Research suggests that the propensity to complainabout poor performance is can be explained by both the dissatisfaction itself as well ascharacteristics of people individuals involved. Similarly, consumer behavior research provides useful perspectives on the concept riskwhich consumer researchers have defined alternatively as general uncertainty or physical danger.Fear of risk is one of the most powerful linchpins that can escalate levels of both involvement andactivism. Consumer researchers have devoted consider time to the examination of risk and itsconsequences, including individual compliance to standards, reliance upon warranties, andunderstanding and responses to disclosures and warnings. I believe we can leverage much of theknowledge that has been generated in the consumer behavior arena and apply it to risk-relatedconcerns in public relations.
Consumer Behavior Research and Public Relations - 9 Finally, consumer behavior research shares with public relations a common interest inunderstanding the effectiveness of information efforts intended to improve the economic andsocial well being of people. We can learn from consumer behavior findings on a variety oftopics, including the effectiveness of information disclosures, consumer education programs, andsocial marketing (public information) campaigns. CONCLUSION In outlining these five broad areas, this paper has five broad areas that should bepriorities for public relations research in the coming decade and has highlighted how consumerbehavior research might create opportunities for synergy. Numerous other very useful researchtopics could be considered. By focusing on key questions involving the behavior of individuals, I believe we mustdevelop a critical mass of knowledge that will help to extend our fields own body of knowledge,and thus improve the performance of public relations programs. To be relevant to professionals,public relations research must address more of the key problems that practitioners face today. As scholars, our purpose should not be to provide easy, off-the-shelf, one-solution-fits-allanswers. Indeed, such answers probably dont exist. Instead, we ought to challenge theconventional and the routine. We must address problems of individual behavior in greater depthand in a much more sophisticated manner than we have in the past. That is one of our greatestchallenges for the new decade. REFERENCES Andreasen, Alan R. (1988). Consumer Complaints and redress: What we know and whatwe dont know. In E. Scott Maynes (ed.), Research in the consumer interest: The Frontier (pp.675-722). Andreasen, Alan R. (1991). Consumer behavior research and social policy. In ThomasS. Robertson and Harold H. Kassarjian (eds.), Handbook of consumer behavior (pp. 459-506).Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. Arndt, Johann (1976). Reflections on research in consumer behavior. In Beverlee B.Anderson (ed.), Advances in Consumer Research 3 (pp. 213-221). Ann Arbor, MI: Associationfor Consumer Research. Blumer, Herbert (1966). The mass, the public and public opinion. In Bernard Berelson(ed.), Reader in public opinion and communication, 2nd ed. (pp. 45-50). New York: Free Press.Originally published in 1946. Botan, Carl (1993). The paradigm struggle and public relations. Special issue of PublicRelations Review 19 (2). Broom, Glen M., Casey, Shawna & Ritchey, James (1997). Toward a concept and theoryof organization-public relationships. Journal of Public Relations Research 9, 83-98. Chaiken, Shelley (1987). The heuristic model of persuasion. In M.P. Zanna, J.M. Olsonand C. P. Herman (eds.). Social influence: The Ontario symposium (Vol. 5, pp. 5-49). Hillsdale,NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Cohen, Joel B. & Areni, Charles S. (1991). Affect and consumer behavior. In Thomas S.Robertson & Harold H. Kassarjian (eds.), Handbook of consumer behavior (pp. 188-240).Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
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