Public relations and human development: confronting the risks of being human, or risks to humans?


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Abstract Public relations can contribute to human development by helping organisations communicate about risk and to confront the uncertainty they face in their environments. Yet this potential to contribute is often not recognised, both within the
  1 Public relations and human development: confronting the risks of being human, or risks to humans? Chris Galloway, PhDDiscipline Leader, Public Relations, Swinburne University, Melbourne, Australia  Abstract  Public relations can contribute to human development by helping organisations communicate aboutrisk and to confront the uncertainty they face in their environments. Yet this potential to contribute isoften not recognised, both within the profession and outside it. PR would be better placed to assist if itconsciously sought to develop "risk literacy" - an underpinning knowledge of risk and uncertaintyconceptually, familiarity with suitable risk assessment approaches and an ability to deal appropriatelywith the risk issues identified. PR's contribution need not be seen only in terms of dealing withimmediate poroblemns: it should be viewed also as extending to help strengthencommunities'resilience to face future risks. The challenge to PR to contriubute to human developmentthrough engaging with risk in new ways warrants future research and debate. Keywords  risk, uncertainty, risk communication, hazard Public relations can be defined as “the strategic communication that different typesof organizations use for establishing and maintaining symbiotic relationships withrelevant publics, many of whom are increasingly becoming culturally diverse” (Sriramesh& Ver čič’, 2009, p. xxxiv).Western notions of public relations tend to focus on how the profession cancontribute to organizations’ improved financial performance and enhanced politicalinfluence.They largely ignore questions such as, “What is the role of public relations in humandevelopment”?Yet public relations can contribute to human development when that developmentis seen in terms of greater momentum towards the full functioning of society (Heath,2006).  2 According to Heath, PR contributes to this full functioning by helping to put in placeshared meaning, on the basis of which societies can act together to deal with risk andother questions facing the collective.The shared meaning is developed as PR helps those for whom it works to articulatetheir points of view in the “marketplace of ideas” (Asard & Benne, 1997).When those ideas concern risk and how to address it, public relations can play animportant role but often does not, both because it does not recognise the opportunityitself and because others fail to idenfy PR’s ability to contribute (Galloway, 2010).PR can contribute to human development not only through involvement in riskcommunication but also in helping organizations to confront the dilemmas surroundingthe question, “How should we communicate in conditions of uncertainty”?Although the two concepts are bound together, risk and uncertainty are not thesame. As Hillson and Murray-Webster (2007) comment,The key distinction between uncertainty and risk arises fromconsideration of the consequences...risk is ‘uncertainty thatmatters’, since uncertainty without consequences poses no risk. Inthis sense, risk cannot be defined unless it is related to objectives of some kind. (p.5)Abrahams provides a more detailed description of the difference, based on thework of Knight (1921). Abrahams (2007) describes risk asthe term applied in situations where an actual outcome is unknown, but therange and likelihood of possible outcomes is known (its probabilitydistribution )... Uncertainty applies in situations where there is no knownprobability distribution for the range of possible future outcomes – or nodefined outcomes at all. (p.71, srcinal italics)Societies must inevitably deal with risk and are now so preoccupied with this taskthat we can be said to be living in a “risk society” (Beck, 1992).  3 While risk has to do with uncertainty (Cleary & Malleret, 2007), modernmanagement practices and policymaking processes are geared towards eliminatinguncertainty wherever possible in order to create what are believed to be sound platformsfor decision-making.Phenomena such as the global financial crisis of recent years have shown that thisdrive for certainty is (to some degree, at least) founded on sand: organizations’ planningscenarios did not seem to take into account the uncertainties associated with thecomplex interdependencies now characteristic of the world’s economies.The crisis became a “predictable surprise” (Bazerman & Watkins, 2004): one whosesrcins are recognizable in hindsight but which standard foresight processes missed.The result has been a significant setback to economies around the globe: a setbackfor human development and a collapse of sensemaking (Weick, 1993) as much as adestruction of economic structures and systems.Previous ideas about how to manage financial crises were obsoleted by the scaleand severity of the tsunami of financial failures around the globe, at individual, corporateand even governmental levels.Public relations could not, of course, have prevented the global financial crisis. Butit could in future make a contribution to helping organizations deal with uncertainty andambiguity.If organizations are enabled to adjust their communications to accommodate someuncertainty, public trust in institutions may be maintained (or strengthened) in times of social stress, and the stability of communities enhanced.In this way, public relations could aid human development on a broad scale.Uncertainty is a central theme in the organizaonal theory literature (Milliken, 1987)and regarded as the fundamental problem with which top organizational administratorsmust cope (Thompson, 1967, in Milliken, 1987, p.133).  4 It is also one which PR must confront in its boundary-spanning activities (Ankney &Curn, 2002), as it scans the organizations for signals of developments that could affect theorganization.Defining uncertainty as “an individual’s perceived inability to predict somethingaccurately” (1987, p. 136), Milliken iden fi es three types of perceived uncertainty aboutthe organizational environment: state, effect and response uncertainty.State uncertainty exists when the organizational environment or a component of it isperceived to be unpredictable.Effect uncertainty is present when organizational leaders are unable to predict whatimpact a future state of the environment or environmental change will have on theorganization.Response uncertainty is a lack of knowledge of response options and/or an inabilityto predict the likely consequences of a response choice (Milliken, 1987).Milliken refers to the confusion arising from the fact that “the term environmentaluncertainty” has been used both as a descriptor of organizational environments and as adescriptor of the state of a person who perceives himself/herself to be lacking criticalinformaon about the environment” (1987, p. 134).Notwithstanding the potential for confusion, Milliken’s distinction is helpful andrelevant to PR, which should see its boundary-spanning and environmental scanningactivities as helping to reduce organizational uncertainty, and should recognize that peoplewho believe they lack critical information about a perceived risk in their environment willseek to attain a position of information sufficiency in relation to the risk.Information sufficiency is defined as the amount of information people feel they needto have in order to be able to control their exposure to the risk (Gri ffi n et al., 2004).PR’s potential role in aiding human development through assisting in risk reductiongoes beyond environmental scanning to contributing to risk communication itself. Yet,outside the work of only a few scholars, the profession has largely neglected this role.This is to the profession’s detriment, because risk communication is the missing linkbetween PR’s practice areas of issue communication and crisis communication.  5 Inattention to concepts of risk and risk communication limits PR at both theoreticaland practice levels (Galloway, 2010).Rather, PR should aim to develop both risk-literate practitioners and scholars whosee helping to foster this literacy as central to their responsibilities.Here risk-literate means having “an ‘underpinning knowledge’ of risk anduncertainty conceptually, familiarity with suitable risk assessment approaches and anability to deal appropriately with the risk issues identified” (Abrahams, 2008, p.5),considering them as public relations problems to be addressed on clients’ behalf.The scope of risk literacy should be seen as wide, covering communicationstrategies appropriate both to public anxieties that a hazard, or potential source of harm,might produce actual injury or damage at a future point - a sense of being “at risk”- andto the actualization of that potential in a “risk event”, or crisis (Sriramesh, Wattegama &Abo, 2007).It is the experience of living riskily that can create an “angry public” (Susskind &Field, 1996) with which PR praconers may have to deal.The immediate risks they may have to communicate will be geographically situated inlocal settings, but the srcin of those threats may be hard to determine, as they may beborderless such as polluon (Beck, 1992) and climate change.In dealing with these dilemmas, risk literacy is important because when it comes torisk, “some forms of communication enhance understanding; others don’t” (Gigerenzer,2002, p.32).Early in 2009, the Australian state of Victoria experienced raging bush fi res whosedestruction, both of life and property, was unprecedented.In the aftermath, both media reports and an official inquiry highlightedcommunication failures in the authorities’ responses. Politicians promisedimprovements, with an eye to the next bushfire season and its anticipated risks.
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