Monday, December 1, 2008

The Case for PR Theories

It's been an uphill battle for me lately as I've worked vigorously to defend General Motors and make the case as to why we should receive some government loans. Unfortunately, due to some grossly inaccurate perceptions of our company, and the media's near unrelenting coverage of the "corporate jets" issue, it's been difficult to convince many of our critics and even more difficult to get our message out there.

As I have pondered these difficulties in our communications efforts, I've started to wonder whether there might be some kind of public relations theory or theories that might help us do better. Many people, including fellow PR colleagues, have criticized GM for not doing enough to get our message out there, but I have to respectfully disagree. I think we're all working as hard as we can and are staying focused on a few key messages, but it just doesn't seem to be making it through.

I remember studying a few theories in college, but I failed to see the real world application of them. Perhaps it's time for me to rethink this. What PR theories do you feel would help most in the PR situation GM currently finds itself in? Now, I'm not asking for your input as to what GM should do or should have done (trust me, I hear enough of that), but I am asking for some good theories I can study. So what do you have for me?


Brad Rawlins said...


First of all, you can't just throw out a plea for some kind of holy grail theory. You first need to identify exactly what it is you need to understand better. Theories provide perspectives based on generalized principles tested over time. There are theories that help us understand practices of persuasion, relationship building, image management, and other aspects of effective public relations. Ask first what you need to know, then explore the theories that help answer that question. I would look at a couple of theories such as expectancy violation theory, cognitive dissonance, and coorientation theory for starters. However, keep in mind that some problems aren't going to be solved by effective communication alone. Good PR isn't going to make the Detroit Lions a more attractive team.

Keep your chin up and stay focused on what your communication efforts can actually achieve.

Brad Rawlins, PhD

Adam Denison said...

Thanks for the theories, Dr. Rawlins. I'll have to check those out. I think what I need to understand more is how to break through the clutter. How do you get your messages through the barriers of misinformation and bias? Thanks again for your response.

Bill said...

I would also add Uses and gratification theory with regard to why you can't break through to your audience (they aren't listening to you).

However, I think what you are trying to work through has less to do with theory and more to do with a great PR truth "Perception is reality, facts not withstanding." (PR practices, Managerial Case Studies and Problems, 7th edition.)

Bottom line, until actions prove otherwise words will make no difference.

Sara said...

I fought an uphill battle like this at the beginning of the real estate downturn (smaller scale than GM, obviously, but still critical).

The problem with The Big 3 is, there were a couple of major gaffes made by key executives, which spoke louder than what the larger reality is, placing all 3 in a defensive PR mode v. a offensive position.

I'm too far removed from acedemia to have a 'theory' answer, but open, honest access is generally the only way to attempt to overcome exaggerated faults. You saw this last summer when Exxon's CEO made the media rounds to reduce the finger-pointing at Big Oil.

Mihaela V (twitter: prprof_mv) said...

My PR principles class discussed this case today and here's what we came up with:

First, do some research from the coorientation theory perspective to identify what exactly the problem is. Is it an issue of attention, misunderstanding, disagreement?

Then, depending on what's at the root of the problem, we made a list of theory that can help:

- image restoration theory - especially the mortification & corrective action strategies
- 2-way symmetrical model of PR, and the principle of wisdom of the crowds - listen intently, let stakeholders propose solutions, and implement them - not in messages, but in management action
- source credibility (expertise, goodwill, similarity) - we thought goodwill & similarity are weaknesses in GM's case - see also:
- Kenneth Burke's theory of identification as well as:
- Aristotle's rhetoric formula: Ethos, Logos, Pathos. Are any of these weaknesses? i.e. ethos and pathos?

The analysis we conducted produced several concrete courses of action, but since you don't want to hear about those, I'll refrain from publishing them.

If you want to learn more about this class, the course blog is at and the students' blogs are in the blogroll.

lantzilla said...

Who are you trying to persuade? If you're trying to convince Congress to give you money, then you need lobbyists, not PR people.

Being that you're a PR person, I'm guessing what you're really asking is, "how can we make the public not feel so bitter about the bailout." Now, that's a harder one. The last thing you need is theory.

You might be able to address some things with PR– like ...

Counteract the irony. The public (and by the public, I mean me) feels that this situation is irony in it's purest form. The free market-loving capitalists (CEOs and other executives) who resist every form of regulation now (conveniently) feel that government intervention is acceptable. In the truest sense of the free market, GM should be allowed to fail. That is what Capitalism is after all– survival of the fittest.

Make your company more human. GM feels monolithic. People relate to humans, not monoliths. Play on the tradition of being an American tradition and highlight the people that depend on the company. Go to a factory town and show how many people rely on you. Go to Flint and promise to bring back the factories. But, you have to follow through.

Admit that you've made mistakes and more importantly that you've learned from them. People are suckers for apologies and want to believe you. Lots of people have seen the electric car movie, and it really is hurting you. True or not, it's a perception. You could have been Toyota or Tesla, but you chose to think short term and small. GM could have had it ALL. You need to convince the public that you're going commit yourself to innovation and put design at the center of everything you do. Look at Apple– they can get away with anything from a PR standpoint, because they make great products that people LOVE. You can also play off the patriotic vision of innovation

Embrace the environment Like it or not, you have to have an even greater enthusiasm for the environment.

Unfortunately, most things simply cannot be fixed with PR.

1) Most electric cars (Tesla, Volt) are not for regular people. Make a product that most people can afford.

2) Don't rely on quantitative data to shape your product development. Talk to people about how your cars can fit in their lives and solve their problems. Quantitative data led you to make Hummers way past their prime.

***I've got a ton more to say here, but I'm tired***

Regarding EVERYTHING I've said here. Don't tell me (with PR). Show me (with your actions). Oh, and don't tell me unless you fully intend to follow through.

Mark Taylor II said...

I truly believe that theories are for the classroom, made only to help us understand situations better or delive a point to like-minded individuals. But the bottom line is, General Motors needs to meet the demands of consumers and other stakeholders. The demand I'm referring to is not the demand in sales, but the demand in ideals, needs and desires. It's not hard to find out what the people want. TRULY listen to the those who own GM vehicles, the people who are employed (or layed off) with the company, and even those who have not bought a vehicle from the company. As a soon-to-graduate student, I uphold the belief that theories are not for "laymen." They're for the world of academia and debaters in the boardroom/office. Instead, use common sense to reach people, motivated by theories, professional experience and education. That's the "theory" that will help in the long run.

Jackie O'Brien said...
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