Public Relations in a "Jolted" Political Environment: An Exploratory Study of Boundary-Spanning Government Relations Professionals in Maryland

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This qualitative study examined government relations, an academically underexplored specialized form of public relations. It explored the individual lived experiences of boundary-spanning government relations professionals (GRPs), those organizational members who manage organizational interdependence with political stakeholders, in organizations enduring a major "jolt" (A.D. Meyer, 1982) in the political environment. The jolt in question is the election of Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr., in November 2002, as Maryland's first Republican governor in nearly four decades. The study then explained the implications of this jolt for GRPs, their work, and their organizations. Further, the study considered those experiences and implications in light of whether the jolt was perceived as a boon or a bane to an informant's organization.

From the conceptual framework built from public relations and organizational theories, the study specifically looked at GRPs' perceptions of the jolt and the political environment, organizational worldviews, communication practices, their work activities and responsibilities, and organizational political legitimacy. Active interviews were conducted with forty "informants" who functioned as either in-house or for-contract GRPs for IRS-designated 501c nonprofit organizations in Maryland.

Among other findings, the analysis demonstrated the ways in which partisan conflict among political stakeholders, a polarized political environment, and changes in organizations' political legitimacy affected in the work-lives of informants. Of greatest concern to them were the jolt's effects on their networks of social and professional contacts ¾ their social circles (Kadushin, 1968). Social circles were found to be the ultimate linchpins to GRPs' effectiveness and success. The analysis also revealed that dialogue, used in the course of jointly implementing the personal influence and cultural interpreter models of public relations, best described both the positive and normative practices of government relations.

This study made significant contributions to the body of knowledge on public relations and government relations. It advanced a positive-normative theory of government relations, resolved speculation about why government relations is an anomaly to the Excellence theory of public relations (J.E. Grunig, 1992), filled gaps in the scholarly literature, and suggested organizational justice (Thibaut & Walker, 1975) as a conceptual framework for understanding symmetry and dialogic processes in government relations.