Public Relations Review 33 (2007) 249â€“254
On Jurgen Habermas and public relations Â¨
Roland Burkart âˆ—
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 Habermasâ€™ concept of
understanding for the purposes of evaluation as well as for the purposes of planning public relations communication.
Â© 2007 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Jurgen Habermas; Understanding; Theory of communicative action; Consensus Oriented public relations Â¨
A central effort of Habermasâ€™ 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 â€“ the third component
â€“ focuses on the relation of signs to interpreters. This is where the â€œspeech act-theoryâ€ (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 Â¨ 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. â€œReaching
understandingâ€™ â€™â€“ according to Habermas â€“ is the â€œinherent telos of human speechâ€ (Habermas, 1987, p. 287).
As a philosopher, Habermas intends to make â€œunderstandingâ€ (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,
My intention is to utilize this aspect of Habermasâ€™ 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
âˆ— Tel.: +43 4277 49323; fax: +43 4277 49388.
E-mail address: [email protected]
0363-8111/$ â€“ see front matter Â© 2007 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
250 R. Burkart / Public Relations Review 33 (2007) 249â€“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, â€œan ethical imperative for public relationsâ€ (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 â€œfive steps of enacting discourse ethicsâ€ (p. 46) using Habermasâ€™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 Habermasâ€™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 â€œConsensus-Oriented Public Relationsâ€ (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 ideasâ€”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 Habermasâ€™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
However, these ideal circumstances are an ideal type of imaginationâ€”hardly ever they occur in reality, Habermas
argues. Often, basic rules of communication are violated and therefore there is a certain â€œrepair-mechanismâ€ which is
called the discourse. The term â€œdiscourseâ€ 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):
â€¢ In an â€œexplicativeâ€ discourse we question the intelligibility of a statement, typically by asking â€œHow do you mean
this?â€, or â€œHow shall I understand this?â€ Answers to such questions are called â€œinterpretationsâ€.
â€¢ In a â€œtheoreticalâ€ discourse we question the claim of truth, typically by asking â€œIs it really as you said?â€, or â€œWhy
is that so?â€ Answers to such questions are called â€œassertionsâ€ and â€œexplanationsâ€.
1 These conditions involve the communicators understanding and satisfaction with rules concerning (1) â€œopportunity for beginning and ending
communicative interaction;â€ (2) â€œlength of time separating messages;â€ (3) â€œopportunity for suggesting topics and initiating topic changes;â€ (4) â€œa
partner in communication has provided a response that counts as a response;â€ (5) and â€œchannel Selectionâ€ (Pearson, 1989b, pp. 82â€“84 cited in
Leeper, 1996, p. 142.).
R. Burkart / Public Relations Review 33 (2007) 249â€“254 251
Fig. 1. Claims and types of discourses according to Jurgen Habermasâ€™ theory of communicative action. Â¨
â€¢ In a â€œpracticalâ€ discourse we question the normative rightness (legitimacy) of a speech-act by doubting its normative
context, typically by asking â€œWhy have you done this?â€, or â€œFor what reason didnâ€™t you act differently?â€ Answers
to such questions are called â€œjustificationsâ€ (cf. Habermas, 1984, p. 110).
A fourth aspect, i.e. the claim of trustworthiness (typical questions: â€œWill this person deceive me?â€, â€œIs he/she
mistaken about himself/herself?â€), 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 â€œcontrafactualâ€
because the â€œideal speech situationâ€ 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 â€œunderstandingâ€ 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 Habermasâ€™ conditions of understanding directly onto
the reality of public relationsâ€”although this was (wrongly) insinuated in the past by some German critics.2 In view of
the theoryâ€™s contrafactual implications this would be inadequate. It was rather a goal to gain from Habermasâ€™ 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) Â¨ ; Merten (2000); see also my answer (Burkart, 2000).
252 R. Burkart / Public Relations Review 33 (2007) 249â€“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
companyâ€™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 citizensâ€™ 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:
â€¢ 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,
â€¢ 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,
â€¢ 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 claimsâ€”not even the TCA itself would imply
this. In the present context the it should be mentioned that â€œrational dissenceâ€ 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 â€œConsensus oriented public relationsâ€
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. (â€œPâ€ stands for planning and â€œEâ€ 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) 249â€“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 â€œpublic relations buttonâ€ 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 stakeholdersâ€”without prejudice to ethical basics or moral rules. Otherwise
they will have to postpone or even to cancel their plans. In other wordsâ€”they â€œare forcedâ€ to communicate in the way
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) 249â€“254
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 Â¨
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.
Austin, J. L. (1962). How to do things with words. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.
Burkart, R. (1993).Public Relations als Konfliktmanagement Ein Konzept f Â¨ur verst Â¨andigungsorientierte Offentlichkeitsarbeit: Untersucht am Beispiel Â¨
der Planung von Sonderabfalldeponien in Nieder Â¨osterreich. Austria: Wien.
Burkart, R. (1994). Consensus oriented public relations as a solution to the Landfill Conflict. Waste Management & Research, 12, 223â€“232.
Burkart, R. (2000). Die Wahrheit uber die Verst Â¨ andigung: Eine Replik auf Klaus Merten. Â¨ Public Relations Forum f Â¨ur Wissenschaft und Praxis, 2,
Burkart, R. (2004). Consenus-oriented public relations (COPR): A conception for planning and evaluation of public relations. In B. van Ruler &
D. Vercic (Eds.), Public relations in Europe. A nation-by-nation introduction to public relations theory and practice (pp. 446â€“452). Berlin/New
York: Mouton De Gruyter.
Burkart, R. (2005). Verstandigungsorientierte Â¨ Offentlichkeitsarbeit. Ein Konzept f Â¨ ur Public Relations unter den Bedingungen moderner Konflik- Â¨
tgesellschaften. In G. Bentele, R. Frohlich, & P. Szyszka (Eds.), Â¨ Handbuch Public Relations: Wissenschaftliche Grundlagen und berufliches
Handeln (pp. 223â€“240). Wiesbaden, Germany: VS-Verlag.
Habermas, J. (1984). The theory of communicative action. Volume 1. Reason and the rationalization of society. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Habermas, J. (1987). The theory of communicative action. Volume 2. Lifeworld and system: A critique of functionalist reason. Boston, MA: Beacon
Jarren, O., & Rottger, U. (2005). Public Relations aus. In G. Bentele, R. Fr Â¨ ohlich, & P. Szyszka (Eds.), Â¨ Handbuch Public Relations: Wissenschaftliche
Grundlagen und berufliches Handeln (pp. 19â€“36). Wiesbaden, Germany: VS-Verlag.
Leeper, R. V. (1996). Moral objectivity, Jurgen Habermasâ€™s discourse ethics, and public relations. Public Relations Review, 22(2), 133â€“150.
Meisenbach, R. J. (2006). Habermasâ€™s discourse ethics and principle of universalization as a moral framework for organizational communication.
Management Communication Quarterly, 20(1), 39â€“62.
Merten, K. (2000). Die Luge vom Dialog: Ein verst Â¨ andigungsorientierter Versuch Â¨ uber semantische Hazards. Â¨ Public Relations Forum f Â¨ur Wissenschaft
und Praxis, 1, 6â€“9.
Morris, C. W. (1938). Foundations of the theory of signs. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Pearson, R. (1989a). Business ethics as communication ethics: Public relations practice and the idea of dialogue. In C. H. Botan & V. Hazelton Jr.
(Eds.), Public Relations Theory (pp. 111â€“131). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Pearson, R. (1989b). Beyond ethical relativism in public relations: Coordination, roles and the idea of communication symmetry. In PRRA, 1, 67â€“86.
Searle, J. R. (1969). Speech acts. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Are you busy and do not have time to handle your assignment? Are you scared that your paper will not make the grade? Do you have responsibilities that may hinder you from turning in your assignment on time? Are you tired and can barely handle your assignment? Are your grades inconsistent?
Whichever your reason is, it is valid! You can get professional academic help from our service at affordable rates. We have a team of professional academic writers who can handle all your assignments.
Students barely have time to read. We got you! Have your literature essay or book review written without having the hassle of reading the book. You can get your literature paper custom-written for you by our literature specialists.
Do you struggle with finance? No need to torture yourself if finance is not your cup of tea. You can order your finance paper from our academic writing service and get 100% original work from competent finance experts.
While psychology may be an interesting subject, you may lack sufficient time to handle your assignments. Don’t despair; by using our academic writing service, you can be assured of perfect grades. Moreover, your grades will be consistent.
Engineering is quite a demanding subject. Students face a lot of pressure and barely have enough time to do what they love to do. Our academic writing service got you covered! Our engineering specialists follow the paper instructions and ensure timely delivery of the paper.
In the nursing course, you may have difficulties with literature reviews, annotated bibliographies, critical essays, and other assignments. Our nursing assignment writers will offer you professional nursing paper help at low prices.
Truth be told, sociology papers can be quite exhausting. Our academic writing service relieves you of fatigue, pressure, and stress. You can relax and have peace of mind as our academic writers handle your sociology assignment.
We take pride in having some of the best business writers in the industry. Our business writers have a lot of experience in the field. They are reliable, and you can be assured of a high-grade paper. They are able to handle business papers of any subject, length, deadline, and difficulty!
We boast of having some of the most experienced statistics experts in the industry. Our statistics experts have diverse skills, expertise, and knowledge to handle any kind of assignment. They have access to all kinds of software to get your assignment done.
Writing a law essay may prove to be an insurmountable obstacle, especially when you need to know the peculiarities of the legislative framework. Take advantage of our top-notch law specialists and get superb grades and 100% satisfaction.
We have highlighted some of the most popular subjects we handle above. Those are just a tip of the iceberg. We deal in all academic disciplines since our writers are as diverse. They have been drawn from across all disciplines, and orders are assigned to those writers believed to be the best in the field. In a nutshell, there is no task we cannot handle; all you need to do is place your order with us. As long as your instructions are clear, just trust we shall deliver irrespective of the discipline.
Our essay writers are graduates with bachelor's, masters, Ph.D., and doctorate degrees in various subjects. The minimum requirement to be an essay writer with our essay writing service is to have a college degree. All our academic writers have a minimum of two years of academic writing. We have a stringent recruitment process to ensure that we get only the most competent essay writers in the industry. We also ensure that the writers are handsomely compensated for their value. The majority of our writers are native English speakers. As such, the fluency of language and grammar is impeccable.
There is a very low likelihood that you won’t like the paper.
Not at all. All papers are written from scratch. There is no way your tutor or instructor will realize that you did not write the paper yourself. In fact, we recommend using our assignment help services for consistent results.
We check all papers for plagiarism before we submit them. We use powerful plagiarism checking software such as SafeAssign, LopesWrite, and Turnitin. We also upload the plagiarism report so that you can review it. We understand that plagiarism is academic suicide. We would not take the risk of submitting plagiarized work and jeopardize your academic journey. Furthermore, we do not sell or use prewritten papers, and each paper is written from scratch.
You determine when you get the paper by setting the deadline when placing the order. All papers are delivered within the deadline. We are well aware that we operate in a time-sensitive industry. As such, we have laid out strategies to ensure that the client receives the paper on time and they never miss the deadline. We understand that papers that are submitted late have some points deducted. We do not want you to miss any points due to late submission. We work on beating deadlines by huge margins in order to ensure that you have ample time to review the paper before you submit it.
We have a privacy and confidentiality policy that guides our work. We NEVER share any customer information with third parties. Noone will ever know that you used our assignment help services. It’s only between you and us. We are bound by our policies to protect the customer’s identity and information. All your information, such as your names, phone number, email, order information, and so on, are protected. We have robust security systems that ensure that your data is protected. Hacking our systems is close to impossible, and it has never happened.
You fill all the paper instructions in the order form. Make sure you include all the helpful materials so that our academic writers can deliver the perfect paper. It will also help to eliminate unnecessary revisions.
Proceed to pay for the paper so that it can be assigned to one of our expert academic writers. The paper subject is matched with the writer’s area of specialization.
You communicate with the writer and know about the progress of the paper. The client can ask the writer for drafts of the paper. The client can upload extra material and include additional instructions from the lecturer. Receive a paper.
The paper is sent to your email and uploaded to your personal account. You also get a plagiarism report attached to your paper.
Delivering a high-quality product at a reasonable price is not enough anymore.
That’s why we have developed 5 beneficial guarantees that will make your experience with our service enjoyable, easy, and safe.
You have to be 100% sure of the quality of your product to give a money-back guarantee. This describes us perfectly. Make sure that this guarantee is totally transparent.Read more
Each paper is composed from scratch, according to your instructions. It is then checked by our plagiarism-detection software. There is no gap where plagiarism could squeeze in.Read more
Thanks to our free revisions, there is no way for you to be unsatisfied. We will work on your paper until you are completely happy with the result.Read more
Your email is safe, as we store it according to international data protection rules. Your bank details are secure, as we use only reliable payment systems.Read more
By sending us your money, you buy the service we provide. Check out our terms and conditions if you prefer business talks to be laid out in official language.Read more