On Jurgen Habermas and public relations ¨ Roland Burkar

Public Relations Review 33 (2007) 249–254
On Jurgen Habermas and public relations ¨
Roland Burkart ∗
Department of Communication, Vienna University, Austria
Received 17 February 2007; received in revised form 7 May 2007; accepted 11 May 2007
Habermas focuses on the human communication process with understanding in mind. Here it is argued that this perspective is
also worth to be considered for the field of public relations research. The article points out how to apply Habermas’ concept of
understanding for the purposes of evaluation as well as for the purposes of planning public relations communication.
© 2007 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Jurgen Habermas; Understanding; Theory of communicative action; Consensus Oriented public relations ¨
1. Introduction
A central effort of Habermas’ thinking is to reconstruct universal conditions of understanding within the human
communication process. A major issue in this context is semiotics and its well-known dimensions syntactics, semantics,
and pragmatics (Morris, 1938). While syntactics deals with the grammatical rules for concatenating signs, semantics
refers to the aspects of meaning that are expressed in a language. The pragmatic perspective – the third component
– focuses on the relation of signs to interpreters. This is where the “speech act-theory” (Austin, 1962; Searle, 1969)
starts, that assumes that to speak a language is, at the same time, a way of human acting. In his main work, How to
do things with Words, Austin (1962) questions, what we do when we use our language, and concludes that we create
speech acts. We make assertions, give orders, ask questions, make promises, etc. Speech acts are seen as the smallest
units of verbal communication.
This exactly is the point where Jurgen Habermas sets in with his ¨ Theory of Communicative Action (TCA) (Habermas,
1984, 1987). In this seminal work he analyzes the conditions of the human communication process by means of an
examination of speech-acts because he views language as the specifically human means of understanding. “Reaching
understanding’ ’– according to Habermas – is the “inherent telos of human speech” (Habermas, 1987, p. 287).
As a philosopher, Habermas intends to make “understanding” (and thus communication) discernable as a fundamental democratic process. He wants to demonstrate that, as a measure for the solution of social conflicts, violence
can be replaced by the rational consensus of responsible citizens. From the perspective of communication theory, he
therefore infers a number of rational conditions for mutual understanding in communicative action (Habermas, 1984,
pp. 305–328).
My intention is to utilize this aspect of Habermas’ theory for public relations research. This is not really a new
idea. There have been several attempts to employ the Habermasian communication theory for public relations. In those
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250 R. Burkart / Public Relations Review 33 (2007) 249–254
cases, however, the issue mainly was to transfer the ideal type conditions of the dialogue onto the public relations
process, and to formulate, based upon this context, “an ethical imperative for public relations” (Pearson, 1989a, p. 127)
or, respectively, the necessary conditions for ethical public relations (Pearson, 1989b).1 Similar ideas can be found in
more recent publications, too. For example, Leeper (1996) points out the importance of the study of public relations
ethics; Meisenbach (2006) develops “five steps of enacting discourse ethics” (p. 46) using Habermas’s theory as a
moral framework for organizational communication.
This article, however, focuses neither on ethical principles nor on morally based directives. Nor will I try
(naively) to adopt the Habermasian principles of understanding directly onto the reality of public relations. Rather
the aim of my approach is to gain suggestions for the analysis of real public relations communication from
the perspective of Habermas’s concept of understanding. In particular, one can use this perspective to illuminate the relation between public relations experts offering information and members of target groups who receive
this information. As a result of this attempt a so-called “Consensus-Oriented Public Relations” (COPR) approach
for planning and evaluating public relations-communication has been established (Burkart, 1993, 1994, 2004,
The practical background is that especially in situations with a high chance of conflict, companies and organizations
are forced to present good arguments for communicating their interests and ideas—in other words: they must make
the public understand their actions. Therefore, in the view of COPR, understanding plays an important role within the
public relations management process.
2. The perspective of understanding in Habermas’s Theory of Communicative Action
According to the Theory of Communicative Action (Habermas, 1984, 1987), communication always happens as a
multi-dimensional process, and each participant in this process needs to accept the validity of certain quasi-universal
demands or claims in order to achieve understanding.
This implies that the partners in the communication process must mutually trust that they fulfill the following
– intelligibility (being able to use the proper grammatical rules),
– truth (talking about something the existence of which the partner also accepts),
– trustworthiness (being honest and not misleading the partner),
– legitimacy (acting in accordance with mutually accepted values and norms).
As long as neither of the partners have doubts about the fulfillment of these claims, the communication process will
function uninterruptedly.
However, these ideal circumstances are an ideal type of imagination—hardly ever they occur in reality, Habermas
argues. Often, basic rules of communication are violated and therefore there is a certain “repair-mechanism” which is
called the discourse. The term “discourse” used by Habermas means that all persons involved must have the opportunity
to doubt the truth of assertions, the trustworthiness of expressions and the legitimacy of interests. Only when plausible
answers are given, the flow of communication will continue.
Basically, Habermas distinguishes three types of discourse (see Fig. 1):
• In an “explicative” discourse we question the intelligibility of a statement, typically by asking “How do you mean
this?”, or “How shall I understand this?” Answers to such questions are called “interpretations”.
• In a “theoretical” discourse we question the claim of truth, typically by asking “Is it really as you said?”, or “Why
is that so?” Answers to such questions are called “assertions” and “explanations”.
1 These conditions involve the communicators understanding and satisfaction with rules concerning (1) “opportunity for beginning and ending
communicative interaction;” (2) “length of time separating messages;” (3) “opportunity for suggesting topics and initiating topic changes;” (4) “a
partner in communication has provided a response that counts as a response;” (5) and “channel Selection” (Pearson, 1989b, pp. 82–84 cited in
Leeper, 1996, p. 142.).
R. Burkart / Public Relations Review 33 (2007) 249–254 251
Fig. 1. Claims and types of discourses according to Jurgen Habermas’ theory of communicative action. ¨
• In a “practical” discourse we question the normative rightness (legitimacy) of a speech-act by doubting its normative
context, typically by asking “Why have you done this?”, or “For what reason didn’t you act differently?” Answers
to such questions are called “justifications” (cf. Habermas, 1984, p. 110).
A fourth aspect, i.e. the claim of trustworthiness (typical questions: “Will this person deceive me?”, “Is he/she
mistaken about himself/herself?”), is an exception as it cannot be subject to discourse because the communicator can
prove his truthfulness only by subsequent actions (Habermas, 1984).
Discourses must be free of external and internal constraints. However, this is what Habermas calls “contrafactual”
because the “ideal speech situation” that would be required for this does not exist in reality. We only act as if it would
be real in order to be able to communicate (Habermas, 1984, p. 180).
The process of “understanding” is not an end in itself. Normally we pursue the intention of putting our interests
into reality. Thus understanding becomes the mean for the coordination of actions, as the participants involved in this
process aim at synchronizing their goals on the basis of common definitions of a situation (Habermas, 1984).
This leads to the conclusion that commonly accepted definitions of a situation need undisturbed processes of
understanding as a prerequisite for deciding about what should be done in a given case.
3. Public relations as a process of understanding
The COPR model focuses on the above prerequisites. Public relations managers who reflect on the basic principles
of communication will always orientate their activities in accordance with possible criticism maintained by the public.
However, the COPR model is not a naive attempt to transfer Habermas’ conditions of understanding directly onto
the reality of public relations—although this was (wrongly) insinuated in the past by some German critics.2 In view of
the theory’s contrafactual implications this would be inadequate. It was rather a goal to gain from Habermas’ concept
of understanding new ideas for the analysis of real public relations communication. The main impact of creating the
COPR-model was the possibility in differentiating communicative claims, so that this process of questioning can now
be analyzed more systematically.
Especially in situations when conflicts are to be expected public relations managers have to take into account that
their messages might be questioned by critical recipients. Members of the publics involved will offer their doubts
about the truth of presented public relations information, especially when confronted with numbers, other data and
2 Jarren and Rottger (2005) ¨ ; Merten (2000); see also my answer (Burkart, 2000).
252 R. Burkart / Public Relations Review 33 (2007) 249–254
Fig. 2. Public relations communication based on consensus-oriented public relations (Burkart, 2004).
facts. They will question the trustworthiness of the company and its communicators as well as the legitimacy of the
company’s interests. This is illustrated in Fig. 2.
For example: In case a community plans to build a waste disposal site this will most likely cause disturbance among
the local residents. Sometimes even a citizens’ initiative will be formed that aims at bringing down the project. Normally
the local media will support the protests so that a conflict situation can be expected.3 On the basis of the COPR model
the public relations managers of the company planning the landfill should consider that:
• any assertion they make will be examined concerning its truth, e.g. whether figures about the quantity of waste to
be deposited are correct, whether air, plants, wildlife, ground-water, etc. are really not endangered,
• the persons, companies and organizations involved will be confronted with distrust, e.g. representatives of companies
might be taken as biased, experts/consultants as incompetent or even corrupt,
• their intention for building the landfill will be doubted in principal, either because one questions the basic strategy
for waste disposal (e.g. by preferring waste avoidance as an alternative for landfills), or because the choice of the
site for the landfill is seen as unjustified (e.g. because the region has just started developing tourism).
Only if it is possible to eliminate such doubts, or even better, if doubts are prevented from the very beginning, the
flow of communication will not be disturbed. However, in reality it will hardly be possible to reach a full consensus or
limitless accordance on all three levels of the aforementioned validity claims—not even the TCA itself would imply
this. In the present context the it should be mentioned that “rational dissence” is seen by some sociologists of conflict
as a major step towards the minimization solution of social conflicts: If we are able to exactly identify the controversial
issues, we know the points we have not reached consensus yet. This is the benefit of differentiating several validity
claims in the COPR model.
4. Steps and questions for planning and evaluation “Consensus oriented public relations”
In the COPR process four steps with corresponding objectives can be distinguished. These steps must be adapted
to the actual conflict situation, in order to use COPR as a planning tool. This makes it also possible to evaluate the
success of public relations activities not only in a summative sense (at the end of a public relations campaign) but also
in a formative way (this means: step by step). Fig. 3 shows in detail the questions that need to be asked in the case of
such an evaluation. (“P” stands for planning and “E” for evaluation steps of COPR).
In the case of a planned landfill in Austria the conception of COPR was useful for analyzing and explaining
the consequences of the public relations activities that the company launched in the conflict that arose from their
3 A situation of this kind was investigated in Austria in the early 1990s. As a result of that study, the COPR model was developed (cf. Burkart,
R. Burkart / Public Relations Review 33 (2007) 249–254 253
Fig. 3. COPR-planning and evaluation.
project (Burkart, 1993, 1994). A representative survey showed that the acceptance of building the landfill correlated
convincingly with the degree of understanding. Respondents who tended to accept the project were not only better
informed but also less likely to question the trustworthiness of the planners and the legitimacy of the choice of the site
for the landfill.
Nevertheless, the COPR model is all but a recipe for generating acceptance. People cannot be persuaded to agree to
a project by pressing a “public relations button” because acceptance can only emerge among the persons involved if the
process of understanding has worked successfully. The prerequisite for this is that the need for dialogue and discourse
on the side of the public is taken seriously by the companies and communication managers concerned, especially when
the former feel restricted or even threatened by company interests and plans. In such cases it is nearly a must for
companies to communicate with irritated stakeholders—without prejudice to ethical basics or moral rules. Otherwise
they will have to postpone or even to cancel their plans. In other words—they “are forced” to communicate in the way
outlined above.
Secondly: By no means COPR is able to prevent the emergence of conflicts. Conflicts belong to life like air and
water; they usually arise when differing interests collide, a situation which is characteristic for democratic societies.
Surely, one cannot get rid of conflicts solely by communication. It is very likely though that COPR is suitable for
avoiding that conflicts escalate.
254 R. Burkart / Public Relations Review 33 (2007) 249–254
5. Conclusion
In this paper the Theory of Communicative Action (TCA) is used as an analytical framework for the planning and
evaluation of public relations in situations of conflict. The focus is on the concept of understanding as defined by Jurgen ¨
With reference to this concept of understanding and an empirical study published elsewhere (Burkart, 1994) a
model of Consensus Oriented Public Relations (COPR) has been developed. COPR is a conception for planning and
evaluating of public relations. It is based on the assumption that the process of understanding as taking place between
public relations clients and publics plays a central role that must not be underestimated. Especially in situations with
a potential of conflict this communication process can be disrupted in various ways, i.e., the recipients have doubts
about (a) the truth of the messages communicated, (b) the trustworthiness of the communicators involved, and (c) the
legitimacy of the interests claimed.
Drawing upon Habermas, in such situations interpersonal communication allows us to induce a discourse (a kind
of meta-communication); this is the attempt to re-establish, by reasonable explanation, the inadequate mutual understanding concerning the truth of the respective assertion(s) and the legitimacy of the interest(s). Accordingly, the COPR
model suggests to realize such explanatory activities also for public relations work in individual cases, and to evaluate
the results achieved in the understanding process appropriately.
Nevertheless, COPR is certainly not able to prevent that conflicts emerge. Communication alone is not enough to
make conflicts vanish into thin air. However, the likelihood that COPR can contribute to the avoidance of the escalation
of conflicts is very high. The model, hence, attempts to follow a central idea of Habermas. It intends to point out paths
for replacing violence as a measure for the solution of social conflicts by the rational consensus of responsible citizens.
The author would like to thank the anonymous reviewer for a number of helpful suggestions, and his colleague O.C.
Oberhauser for some help with the English version of this paper.
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