Brief Thoughts on Fully Functioning Society Theory

I must admit, of all the academic or professional experiences I have ever sought out or been asked to participate in, working toward my Master of Arts in Public Relations is by far the most nerve-racking. That is not because of any one particular course, professor, or project. That is because, for the first since I was in first grade, I am attempting to tackle material of which I am not totally familiar.

Aside from what some of my professors call “good PR instincts,” I am not sure I have much of a base. The only class in public relations I have taken prior to this semester is Law of Advertising and Public Relations. In that course, I found copyright law particularly enjoyable, probably because I was already familiar with it. However, I like to believe nervous energy and excited energy are practically the same. So, rather than being nervous, I will choose to be excited.

During our first lecture, I found particularly intriguing the notion of “honoring your practice,” (Smith, 2013). Determining what is valuable and important to me in public relations is not difficult. The principle I hold in highest regard is transparency. If an organization is transparent from its inception, trust is built with publics and if a subsequent crisis occurs, publics will be more likely to give the corporation the benefit of the doubt. Really, I consider transparency to be part of what Robert Heath refers to as corporate responsibility in his 2006 article Onward Into More Fog: Thoughts on Public Relations Research Directions.

It is Heath’s emphasis on the importance of corporate responsibility that helps me better identify with his fully functioning society theory (FST). Early in his article, Heath identifies a key ethic of my meaning of corporate responsibility as a fundamental pillar of his FST: The importance of “responsibly using control and power to the advantage of the community,” (Heath, 2006).

One of the problems public relations practitioners-in-training have to cope with is the perception that our profession is a deceitful enterprise serving one-sided partisan goals and tricking publics with no regard for ethics (Heath, 2006). Even some of my colleagues and former professors in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Kent State hold public relations in a very low regard. I cannot begin to enumerate the various snide remarks that have been thrown my way upon those persons learning I am pursuing a graduate degree in public relations. That very perception is one reason I wish to enter the public relations industry and promote the spirit of transparency and corporate responsibility. I have to whole-heartedly agree with Heath’s notion about the future of the business “rest[ing] with attention focused on the good of society instead of the communicator or organization,” (Heath, 2006).

I believe the best public relations practitioners are able to at least partially reconcile disputes between publics and management. That is a primary reason I take issue with elements of Grunig’s excellence theory in that way: Public relations should not simply be viewed as a strategic management function or a means to an end. There are certainly times when the good of the organization or client may call for action that is a detriment to a relationship with a public. But through Heath’s FST, the creation of shared reality with not just strategic publics but all publics should serve to establish a trust and facilitate disagreement in a meaningful way. Grunig seems to approach public relations from an idealized, all-or-nothing standpoint.

Based on Heath’s writings, at this point, I equate FST with democracy. “FST draws on the norms of exchange whereby community members seek to maximize outcomes and minimize costs of personal and collective association and decision making,” (Heath, 2006). Minimizing cost, or making the fewest people unhappy and trying to benefit the majority of the stakeholders, sounds an awful lot like what occurs during an election; it seems as if Heath favors creation of a shared meaning, like American society, and decision-making benefitting as many people as possible based on the needs and interests of a community.

Now, these are just musings after having attempted an understanding of a week’s reading. I am certain my opinion will grow and change. However, in this moment, Heath’s ideas of community and corporate responsibility suit my thirst for transparency nicely.

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