Interactive public relations : the World Wide Web and South African NGOs
Naude, Anna Maria Elizabeth
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The internet has brought about changes in how organizations view and use communication, especially in the field of public relations. Public relations practitioners working in the social responsibility or development spheres can use their organizations' web sites to build its image, to interact and consult with their different publics and stakeholders, and to set the agenda on policy issues. This could have many advantages for non-profit or non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Previous studies have revealed that most public relations practitioners were still uncertain of how to make the most of the internet. Practitioners who tried to use the internet as part of their public relations efforts often still did not use the interactive features to their fullest potential. Furthermore NGOs usually did not have many people on their staff and they were not necessarily trained to use a medium such as the internet optimally. This study addressed the void in public relations research as far as the application of the internet is concerned. The question was asked whether NGOs in South Africa can use the interactive nature of the internet for public relations purposes to enhance their development programs. The study argued that the obvious advantages of the internet for these organizations could only be experienced if the organizations used the medium strategically and according to the two-way symmetrical model of public relations. Ten South African NGOs and their web sites were studied by means of in-depth interviews and content analyses. Qualitative research was used in order to reach an in-depth understanding of the context in which each organization operated. It was found that problems with the organizations' web sites were in most cases a result of their views on public relations in general. Most of the NGOs in this study did not view the building of relationships and mutual understanding as the purpose of their public relations efforts. Public relations efforts were hampered by the lack of communication specialists with communication qualifications and by the merging of the public relations and marketing functions. As a result of their asymmetrical views on the purpose of public relations most of the NGOs could also not realize the potential of the WWW for the application of two-way symmetrical purposes. This finding corresponds with the findings of other researchers that the poor quality of public relations overall led to an inadequate response to the internet as a means to practice two-way symmetrical communication. Most of the web sites analyzed displayed a lack of interactivity and two-way symmetrical communication principles and web sites were often merely used as an information dissemination tool or instrument. The majority of the NGOs therefore under-used the unique features of the WWW and their web sites could be improved quite substantially by addressing some of the shortcomings identified in this study. The study contributed to the body of knowledge in communication studies at a pragmatic level by making important short-term and long-term recommendations on how the shortcomings regarding the internet as well as the inadequate views on public relations could be addressed. It was proved that the internet can be applied to enhance development projects in South Africa. At a theoretical level the study stressed the similarity between symmetry and interactivity as theoretical concepts, and expanded the use of the two-way symmetrical model by applying it to the internet. It was shown that the under-utilization of the internet's most advantageous features by the NGOs studied was only a symptom of problematic presuppositions about communication and public relations.
- Humanities