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
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
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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|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 14:06|
|Last Modified:||29 Oct 2011 05:49|
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