Social media as a tool for community engagement?

Social media as a tool for community engagement?

Karen Connell has kindly sent me her CIPR Diploma in Public Relations dissertation so I can publish it on my blog.
Her research explores the nature of two-way symmetrical communications in public sector organisations, with a focus on whether the growth of social media is affecting the nature of one of the four models of PR proposed by Grunig and Hunt in the eighties.
Karen’s introduction, shown below, explains more about her research and what it covers:

It is evident throughout professional groups and in trade publications that social media is a hot topic in Public Relations (PR) and communications. This project aims to apply traditional PR theories such as the two-way symmetrical approach to this emerging trend of communication in order to reinforce the value of social media as an effective tool and not just a passing phase.
The two-way symmetrical approach to PR is one of the four models put forward by Grunig and Hunt (1984). The other models are the press-agentry, public information and two-way asymmetrical. Grunig and Grunig proposed that “excellent public relations departments practice the two-way symmetrical model of public relations” (1992, page 290). If excellence in PR is the two-way symmetrical approach then to find out how effective social media is as a tool for community engagement it would be appropriate to measure the extent to which it represents the two-way symmetrical model.
The Government White Paper, Strong and Prosperous Communities (2006) calls for greater community engagement in the public sector. The White Paper suggests the following steps must be taken to engage communities:
inform citizens – providing good, accessible information on how to access services and on how local services are performing; through, for example, newsletters, information on websites, text messages, local media, or staff working in neighbourhoods;

  • consult citizens and communities – about the shape of local services and policies using, for example, surveys, focus groups or neighbourhood and parish plans;
  • involve citizens directly in designing, delivering or assessing a service – for example by co-opting a group of young people to help manage a youth centre; and
  • devolve responsibility for the delivery of a service – for example through community management and ownership of a local community hall.

Community engagement is now a priority in many public sector authorities. There are close links between community engagement and the two-way symmetrical model of PR as they are both approaches that encourage discussion between publics and organisations, they are also concerned with communication being mutually beneficial for publics and organisations.
The rise of social media is a recent phenomenon. Popular social media platforms, including facebook, Twitter and blogs such as WordPress, are now widely used by individuals and organisations. Social media was primarily based on specific sites but more recently organisations have started to incorporate aspects of social media into their own websites.
The nature of social media makes it responsive, constantly adapting to its environment which can provide a good opportunity for PR practitioners to demonstrate excellent two-way symmetrical communications. This study will look at how effectively PR practitioners are using this medium and with what results. This study aims to test the effectiveness of social media as a community
engagement tool by measuring and assessing practitioners’ experiences of using social media.
In order to answer the project title this research will seek to address the questions:

  • How effective do PR practitioners consider social media to be as a tool for community engagement?
  • What can ensure the success or failure of using social media in community engagement?

This project aims to explore the strengths and weaknesses of using social media. It
will also seek to assess to what extent social media communication meets the two-way symmetrical model of public relations by addressing the following questions:

  • Are practitioners using social media to fulfil their own aims or do they
    compromise between public and organisation motives?
  • Are practitioners using social media in a way that encourages community

There currently exists a wide range of comment, opinion and discussion on the subject of social media on blogs and other social media platforms, however, very little of this content is based on formal research and the information is subjective and not academic or peer reviewed.
Social media is a new and rapidly expanding area for public relations study. It has broad practical implications for use in public relations practice across the industry. The platforms that are currently delivering social media (e.g. facebook) may not be around forever but the concepts around social media, such as sharing, collaboration, and the public becoming contributors and creators of content are indicative of the nature of digital media communications in the future, particularly as more generations grow up with the Internet.
This research seeks to provide objective evidence to link practical ideas about social media with theoretical models to demonstrate what value social media has in modern public relations.

You can read Karen’s research below or download the pdf here:

Thanks to Karen for giving permission for her research to be published here. If you’d like to get in touch with Karen drop me a line and I will pass your message on.


I work as a fractional Chief Operating Officer (COO), consultant and advisor. I created the B3 framework® for company building and I also write a newsletter called Build for leaders who care about creating resilient and sustainable businesses.