Dialogue in the online environment

In Learnings: At the PRINZ Conference held recently in Rotorua there was a lot of talk on the use of social media in public relations. Even though the context of these presentations was varied (ranging from creative industries like Weta Digital to local government like Northland Council), all speakers were of the opinion that social media facilitates dialogue. This got me wondering on the meaning and significance of ‘dialogue’, a word that is a favourite among PR/comms practitioners. Then came Dr. Petra Theunissen’s session on her research that explores the notion of dialogue in public relations practice and theory. Here is an extended interview with her on what ‘dialogue’ means to our online environment…

Does social media facilitate ‘positive’ dialogue?

I see dialogue as a neutral process that can wield both “positive” and “negative” results.  In our book Public Relations and Communication Management: A Aoteoroa/New Zealand perspective we suggest that social media is forcing us to return to dialogue.

I’m not convinced that a snippet of information shared in, let’s say, 140 characters allows us to make a connection. But if the relationship already exists then social media can certainly help us solidify that relationship and maintain it.

Social media and dialogue both involve people who want to engage, neither processes can be controlled, and no topic is ever off-limits. I’d like to pause on the idea of “control”. I think many traditional practitioners find it hard to ease up on that control. The internet was specifically designed not to be contained, and as an outgrowth of this, the social media is subject to a similar lack of control.

So, to answer your question: the social media has the potential to facilitate dialogue but I don’t think we are using it to its fullest potential yet.

Is it possible to misuse dialogue in the online environment?

Dr. Petra Theunissen

I’d like to think not, but then it would depend on what we think dialogue really is. If we use it with the intent of simply gathering information and pretending we actually care about our stakeholders, then I’d say it’s being misused.

I don’t think dialogue is the ideal form of communication in all situations. Having worked in public relations, I’m aware that there are times that  it’s more important to engage in persuasion than it is to engage in dialogue. Let’s be honest, do we really need to have a dialogue around the importance of not drink-driving? I would hope not.

Dialogue may be necessary where an issue is complex and controversial or where we truly need to appreciate our stakeholders’ point of view. But it’s a time-consuming process that is unlikely to take place within a “scheduled” time-frame.

Dialogue requires ongoing commitment, which means organisations need to allocate time, people and money to the process. And it’s not a tool; it’s a lifestyle. Fortunately, judging by the responses to our research, it’s a lifestyle the majority of practitioners buy into.

Is there an issue of ethics in regards the use of dialogue online?

Yes, absolutely. Our research found that many practitioners feel that dialogue can indeed be unethical, and they raised misrepresentation and deliberately misleading the other party as two main concerns. These concerns are particularly relevant to the online environment.

I’m often disturbed by how many people think it’s okay to join a forum under a pseudonym and “spike” discussions by vilifying their competitors’ reputations or promote their own causes without disclosing their interests or true identities.

In her presentation at the PRiNZ conference Jacky James mentioned that the Bay of Plenty District Police uses Facebook to gather intelligence, but she emphasized that they do this openly and honestly. If they can do this, why do others feel they have to mislead and misrepresent themselves?

We can’t engage in dialogue if we are not disclosing who we really are; nor can we build relationships with discerning stakeholders. Dialogue requires an element of trust and we can’t trust someone who is prepared to deceive us or others. Ultimately, it comes down to intent and integrity.

Are there any specific results from your research that pertain to online dialogue?

Our theoretical grounding in dialogue suggests that  the online environment is a good place for dialogue to be nurtured but that face-to-face is still best. If we can’t engage in face-to-face dialogue, I don’t expect we’d be any more successful online. Ultimately, though, online and offline worlds connect; we can’t separate them.

We are still in the process of analyzing the research data and it may be that some of the results will pertain to online dialogue, which we’ll be happy to share. 

Dr. Petra Theunissen is a senior lecturer at AUT University teaching public relations and human resource communication. She holds a D.Phil (Communication Management) from the University of Pretoria and a M.A. (Communication) (cum laude) from the Rands Afrikaans University. She is a published fiction and non-fiction author, is co-editor of Public Relations and Communication Management: An Aotearoa/New Zealand perspective. She is currently working on a research focused on exploring the notion of dialogue in public relations practice and theory.

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