An Identity-Based Approach to Organization-Public Relationships and Interactions

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Public relations research has vigorous agendas on theorizing publics and organization-public relationships, but the conceptualization of publics is mostly separated from the theorization of organization-public relationships. This is reflected in organization-public relationship research, where the matter of who is a public is usually ill-defined. Research involving organization-public relationships and interactions also assumes that relationships are inherently mutually beneficial, without fully investigating the utilities of a relationship for publics.

An identity approach to organization-public relationships and publics' interactions with an organization is proposed in this study. This identity approach is grounded in the identity perspective based on social identity theory and self-categorization theory, and is able to connect the research areas involving issues, publics' communicative behaviors, and organization-public relationships. A 3 X 2 X 2 experiment is conducted, where participants (N = 483) are randomly assigned to one of the three issues related to diversity, politics, and environment. In each issue, a nonprofit organization or a for-profit organization (two types of organizations) either fully discloses its position on the issue (affirmation) or does not have any clear stance (non-affirmation).

Results of this experiment show that issues affect salience on certain identities, and individuals' overall identity salience and an organization's affirmation on a particular issue significantly affect individuals' identity expression and perception of the organization as an ingroup, which in turn impact individuals' communication and relationships towards the organization. Such results indicate that publics' interactions and relationships with an organization are used to reinforce their identity and essentially related to their identity building. This project builds a foundation to theorize publics as identity-activated individuals based on issues, and their communicative behaviors and relationships as identity expression and identity connections. The significant moderating role of organizational type in these processes indicates that an individual's overall perception of a specific type of organization matters for public relations research.