Putting Out Fires: How Communication Professionals Understand and Practice Conflict Resolution
Allen, Susan D.
Toth, Elizabeth L
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ABSTRACT Do communication professionals fill the role of negotiators and conflict resolvers within their organizations? Some scholars (Dozier, Grunig, & Grunig, 1995; Plowman, 2007) have claimed this role theoretically, but little research evidence has verified the negotiator role in practice. To gather empirical evidence, I conducted a qualitative research study (Corbin & Strauss, 2008; Miles, Huberman, & Saldaña, 2014) using in-depth interviews and critical incident technique with thirty-one public relations professionals who had an average of 18 years of experience in a variety of organizations across the United States and overseas. Data analysis included open and axial coding and integration with prior research. Validity and reliability were enhanced through member checking, triangulation of data, and peer review of findings. Researcher bias was minimized through bracketing and audit trails. Findings showed that practitioners experienced most conflict within teams and other internal audiences, practiced conflict avoidance rather than conflict engagement, understood individual level factors as major contributors to conflict, and avoided digital channels in conflict resolution. A model of practitioners as transformers of organizational conflict is proposed. This exploratory study leaves an important question unanswered: Can communication practitioners play a recognized role in transforming organizational conflicts rather than negotiating solutions? A quantitative survey with random sampling could be a next step in verifying the extent of conflict resolution in communication practice and how practitioners can engage workplace conflict more effectively. However, communication practitioners in my sample strongly recommended conflict training and activism to promote conflict transformation as an official role for public relations professionals. Keywords: negotiation, public relations, communication professionals, conflict management, conflict transformation, grounded theory, digital conflict resolution