Web of institutionalised legitimacy : building a model of legitimacy as a raison d'etre for public relations practice

Bartlett, Jennifer Lea (2007) Web of institutionalised legitimacy : building a model of legitimacy as a raison d'etre for public relations practice. PhD thesis, Queensland University of Technology.


This research responds to calls for the establishment of an overriding rationale, or

raison d'être, for public relations practice. Several scholars are suggesting that the

construct of legitimacy provides an overarching rationale that would link public

relations practice across organisations, industries and countries (Boyd, 2000;

Massey, 2001; Metzler, 1995, 2001; van Ruler & Vercic, 2005; Vercic, van Ruler,

Butschi, & Flodin, 2001). However, existing public relations studies using legitimacy

have focused on the communicative aspects, with little emphasis on long term and

societal level effects for organisations. In seeking to accommodate these challenges,

the central research question of this thesis is:

Does legitimacy provide a rationale for public relations practice, and if so, in

what ways?

This study draws on institutional theory, with its central imperative of

legitimacy, to address this question. Institutional theory considers the relationship

between organisations and environments from a social constructionist perspective.

Institutions created through the social construction of reality are based on shared,

rational myths of legitimacy which drive organisational and social action, and with

which organisations need to demonstrate compliance through their organisational

ceremonies or practices. These two central contributors to legitimacy -- rational

myths and ceremonies -- provide the framework guiding the study. The study was

conducted around issues about the corporate social responsibility (CSR) of the four

major Australian banks.

In order to consider relationships between public relations practice and

legitimacy as an institutional concept, Giddens' theory of structuration is used as a

theoretical apparatus to straddle the rational myths of legitimacy at the level of

institution, with public relations practice related to ceremonies at the level of action.

'Structuring moments' identified in media coverage provide sites of microanalysis

of the intense social construction of rational myths of legitimacy that include

organisations and publics. Through these theoretical devices, a number of guiding

research questions shape the study:

RQ i): What is learned about the social construction of rational myths about

legitimacy by studying media coverage about CSR in Australian banking?

RQ ii): What is learned about legitimacy by studying public relations

practices in relation to media coverage about CSR in Australia banking?

A longitudinal, qualitative, case study approach was taken to explore the

research questions in this study. As legitimacy was viewed as a process of ongoing

social construction, a temporal bracketing strategy (Langley, 1999) was used to

examine the relationships between the level of institution and of action over the six

year period of the study. Media coverage, annual and social impact reports, and

interviews were used as sources of data to examine the institutionalisation of

corporate social responsibility in the Australian banking industry.

The findings of the study show that there is a dynamic relationship between

public relations and legitimacy at both theoretical and practical levels. Through the

duality of structure lens, theoretically public relations can be conceived as agency

and legitimacy as structure. The influence of these two dynamically interrelated

levels of agency and structure is both constituted by human agency and is the

medium of the institutions (Sewell, 1992). Public relations practices, therefore, can

be seen as human agency that both shapes and is shaped by legitimacy. If legitimacy

represents a dominant concept of organisational success, it is also a rationale for

public relations practice as an act of human agency that seeks to create alignment

between organisations and publics in their environment.

As such, public relations practices are not just activities. Rather, public

relations practices constitute a central resource that organisations can access to exert

power to create and manage their legitimacy within the broader environment. Public

relations practices, therefore, are resources because they are embedded within the

deep structures of society that influence organisational practice, but also are actions

that allow the organisation to shape those structural arrangements. This process takes place within webs of communication and relationships between organisations and

publics that form institutionalised legitimacy.

This study also found that public relations practice is a balance between the

demands of time and space. The traditional focus of public relations studies has been

on incidents of compressed time and space, such as crises and campaigns. This study

suggests that expanded periods of time and space are also integral to how and why

public relations make a contribution as, over time, there were shifts to the

institutional arrangements that guide public relations practices. This suggests that

there is a compression of time and space as organisations and publics communicate

in their relationship and an expansion of time and space to shift frames of social

structures and legitimacy. It is through this juxtaposition of time and space, and

across dual levels of structure, that legitimacy provides a rationale for public

relations practices.

The conclusions of this research make a major contribution to public relations

theory by building a model for considering how legitimacy provides a raison d'être

for public relations practices. As such, the model developed in this research provides

a theoretical framework of how public relations practices contribute to organisational

legitimacy at a societal level. The study also provides deeper insights to the role of

public relations practices in managing organisational legitimacy at the level of

action. In doing so, it addresses theoretical and methodological issues of the

conflation of publics and environment.

A number of opportunities for further research are presented by this study in

understanding drivers of public relations practices and the role of inspection forums

in processes of legitimacy. For practice, there are implications of taking a longer

term perspective to considering the role of public relations practices, its impact on

organisational success and, therefore, how it is evaluated.

Impact and interest:

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ID Code: 16568
Item Type: QUT Thesis (PhD)
Supervisor: Hatcher, Caroline, Tywoniak, Stephane, & Ferguson, Sherry
Keywords: Public relations, legitimacy, institutional theory, corporate social responsibility, Australian banking
Divisions: Past > Schools > Brisbane Graduate School of Business
Current > QUT Faculties and Divisions > QUT Business School
Department: Faculty of Business
Institution: Queensland University of Technology
Copyright Owner: Copyright Jennifer Lea Bartlett
Deposited On: 03 Dec 2008 04:06
Last Modified: 28 Oct 2011 19:49

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