By Timo Lenk
University of Greifswald
Undoubtedly, there are many good reasons for having scientific interest in strategic communication, organizational communication, and public relations. For me, what I find most intriguing is the interdisciplinarity of these fields with references, e. g., to sociology, organizational and business research, psychology, and beyond. As a scholar, I am inspired by endeavours of adopting perspectives such as that of complexity theory to explain, e. g., public phenomena in the digital sphere (Waldherr et al., 2021), or evolutionary psychology to account for diverse phenomena in public relations (e. g., Seiffert-Brockmann and Thummes, 2017).
That being said, it was a pleasure to take the opportunity and introduce Moral Foundations Theory to the audience at the EUPRERA 2022 Conference in Vienna. As a descriptive approach from moral psychology, the theory argues backed by research that humans across cultures share five moral foundations as the ground for their individual moral attitudes – “care” and “fairness”, emphasizing individual welfare, and “authority”, “loyalty”, and “purity” prioritizing communal values and in-group cohesion (Graham et al., 2018). Based on these five foundations, people approve of or dismiss ideas, social institutions, and public communication (Haidt, 2012).
In my paper I argue that Moral Foundations Theory has much to offer for public relations research: it unveils that the public arena, in essence, is morally contested; people may disagree on issues, but they are divided by morality. In order to make sense of what’s going on in public discourse, understanding the moral motives of stakeholders and publics is vital; and strategic narratives resonate with audiences when these narratives accomplish moral synchrony with the audiences’ “moral matrix” (Haidt, 2012). Research in the context of Moral Foundations Theory offers a whole box of empirical tools waiting to be implemented in strategic communication and public relations contexts to gain insight into the complex role of morality.
With my passion for theoretical diversity and interdisciplinary work, I closely follow the ongoing debate on whether it is unification or diversification that is leading to progress in public relations research (Winkler et al., 2021). Undoubtedly, there needs to be continuous debate about what constitutes the field’s research objects, where its boundaries lie, and how, for example, public relations and strategic communication relate to each other (e. g. Heath et al., 2018). Then again, I appreciate that “over recent years, the field of public relations (PR) research has diversified in themes and theories”, as Winkler et al. (2021) observe. And when Seiffert-Brockmann et al. (2022) present the results of their meta-analysis on young scholars’ contribution to theory building in public relations research, I especially favour “the relatively strong citation of non-PR authors, especially from the field of sociology” they find in their data.
Against this background, introducing a theoretical perspective like Moral Foundations Theory from a rather distant discipline to the scientific community of public relations and organizational communication scholars and, what’s more, being awarded for my theoretical import is a bliss. I want to encourage emerging scholars to continue spanning their work across disciplinary boundaries.
Graham, J. et al. (2018) ‘On the Advantages of Moral Pluralism over Moral Monism’, in K. Grey and J. Graham (eds) Atlas of moral psychology, p. 12.
Haidt, J. (2012) The Righteous Mind. Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Penguin Books.
Heath, R.L. et al. (2018) ‘Strategic Communication’, in Heath, R. L. and Johansen, W., The International Encyclopedia of Strategic Communication. 1st edn. Wiley, pp. 1–24. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1002/9781119010722.iesc0172.
Seiffert-Brockmann, J., Hackl, L. and Ihlen, Ø. (2022) ‘Between progress and struggle: young PR-scholars’ contribution to theory building and progress in public relations research’, Journal of Communication Management [Preprint]. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1108/JCOM-12-2021-0150.
Seiffert-Brockmann, J. and Thummes, K. (2017) ‘Self-deception in public relations. A psychological and sociological approach to the challenge of conflicting expectations’, Public Relations Review, 43(1), pp. 133–144. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2016.12.006.
Waldherr, A. et al. (2021) ‘Toward a Stronger Theoretical Grounding of Computational Communication Science: How Macro Frameworks Shape Our Research Agendas’, Computational Communication Research, 3(2), pp. 1–28. Available at: https://doi.org/10.5117/CCR2021.02.002.WALD.
Winkler, P., Kretschmer, J. and Etter, M. (2021) ‘Between tragedy, romance, comedy and satire: narratives of axiological progress in public relations’, Journal of Communication Management, 25(4), pp. 353–367. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1108/JCOM-11-2020-0145.