How polarizing forces drive social evaluations apart
By Michael Etter
King’s College, London
Over recent years, the impression that societies have increasingly become polarized has diffused beyond the US, where over eighty percent of citizens feel that polarization is a threat to their country and report to be exhausted by the ongoing division (Boxell, Gentzkow, & Shapiro, 2022). At least since the Covid-19 crisis, it has become clear that European countries are not immune to powerful divisive forces (Mazzoni et al., 2022), which are super-charged by social media technologies and their underlying algorithms that perfectly seem to amplify dynamic ingroup-outgroup mechanisms (Van Bavel et al., 2021). The emerging strategies of brand activism and corporate social advocacy have further shown that division along ideological lines does not only fuel controversies around public institutions, but increasingly concerns corporations and brands. Being drawn into heated public debates, whether calculated or not, can escalate online, rapidly develop into a crisis, and become a threat to the reputation and legitimacy of organizations (Zhao & Valentini, 2022; Etter et al., 2019).
While scholars in the broader field of public relations have produced an impressive corpus of research on social evaluation constructs, such as reputation, legitimacy, and status of organizations (e.g., Schultz et al., 2019), the polarization of judgments underlying these constructs questions many assumptions and ways we have been studying these important constructs. For example, the measurement of reputation and legitimacy typically relies on single score measures that reduce diverging judgments to a mean. Similarly, qualitative work has investigated and developed a good understanding of the emergence of judgment agreement over time, yet how division of collective judgments develops and increases is only poorly understood (e.g., Ravasi et al., 2018). Furthermore, while public relations research has developed a fine-grained understanding of various stakeholder groups that may hold different judgments about organizations (Valentini, 2021), the polarization of social evaluations creates division not only between but also within stakeholder groups. Finally, while social evaluations typically are theorized and associated with more rational processes and deliberative reasoning for judgment formation (Etter et al., 2019), recent insights from political polarization point towards the crucial role of emotions as a main factor that that drives opinions and judgments apart (Iyengar et al., 2019)
Thus, for an increased understanding of polarization for public relations research and practice, it is important to question some of our assumptions regarding audiences, measurements, and processes of judgment formation. In my recent work, presented at last year’s annual EUPRERA conference in Vienna, I have taken these observations as a starting point and conceptualized how social evaluations become increasingly polarized at individual, inter-group, and intergroup levels. I have thereby found that work in political studies on opinion polarization, as mentioned above, provides a rich, yet fragmented body of work that can inspire our understanding of the polarization of reputation, legitimacy, status, and other social evaluations of organizations. Such insights promise not only to enrich research in the field, but also to become useful for public relations practice and the way through which communication managers engage with various publics through adaptive narratives (Winkler & Etter, 2018; Zhao & Valentini, 2022).
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