Communitarianism, a philosophy with Aristotelian and Hegelian roots, emphasizes the need to balance individual rights with the interests of the community as a whole. Communitarianism tempers liberalism’s concept of the autonomous, self-interested person, by characterizing the individual as a social being shaped by the values and culture of their community.[1]

The Communitarian Movement emerged as a political movement in the United States in the 1980s, in response to the inadequacies of liberal theory and practice in solving social problems. Three primary communitarian ideals posit the need to regenerate communities, balance social order with autonomy, and promote common good through voluntary cooperation.

Responsibility over Rights

The shift from “rights talk” to an ethic of responsibility is a central tenet of communitarianism. Communitarians argue that for individuals to continue to enjoy certain rights, they must first recognize and fulfill certain responsibilities towards their communities and society.[2]

“If individuals pursue their self-interest and protect their rights without regard to the well-being of their community, individuals will not be serving society well.”[3]

Shared Values

Communitarians claim that shared values and cultural cohesion are vital for a well-functioning community, and that society’s moral dilemmas are best resolved by empowering communities.[4]The Communitarian Movement calls for individuals and organizations to develop stronger relationships within their communities and between communities. They claim that this community of communities—a supra-community—is necessary for a fully-functioning society.

Amitai Etzioni, founder of the Communitarian Network, claims, “the more one favors strengthening communities, the more one must concern oneself with ensuring that they see themselves as a parts of a more encompassing whole.”[5]

Communitas – PR responsibility for fostering Symmetry

Communitas is, “the symbolic and instrumental reality of community as transcending the structures and functions of individuals and organizations.”[6] In this conception of community, Robert Heath argues that PR should enhance mutually beneficial relationships through symmetrical communication and understanding. In this way, the good of the whole community is served.

PR practiced through the lens of Communitas is characterized by:

  • Openness: Two-way symmetrical communication, respect and care
  • Trustworthiness: Trust built among publics; organization is seen as dependable
  • Cooperativeness: Collaborative decision making and mutually-beneficial decisions
  • Alignment: Shared interests, rewards and goals
  • Compatibility: Mutual understanding and agreement
  • Commitment: Support for the community[7]

Diversity of Values – PR responsibility for fostering Diversity

Kevin Stoker and Kati Tusinski contend that communities are full of unique and varying value systems, and that the goal of PR is not symmetry, consensus and even understanding within community. PR in this conception is responsible for identifying the distinct value structures in each community and ensuring that they are appreciated for their unique importance.[8]

Community Building – PR practitioner’s responsibility for active involvement

In their 1988 book Public Relations and Community: A Reconstructed Theory, Dean Kruckeberg and Kenneth Starck claim that public relations is better defined and practiced as the active attempt to restore and maintain a sense of community.[9]PR practitioners need to avoid serving the narrow interests of their clients. Instead, PR practitioners have a responsibility to engender a broad-based sense of community where both the needs of the client and the community are well-served.

PR practitioners can strengthen community relations by:

  • Highlighting the competing interests of various community groups, and helping resolve contentious issues
  • Helping individuals within the community overcome alienation
  • Creating that sense of collectiveness through community leadership activities
  • Encouraging leisure activities that enhance a sense of community for employees.[10]

Organizational Communitarianism – PR responsibility for enhancing organization’s community relations

Kathie Leeper suggests that PR should enhance an organization’s active participation within the community.[11]Community relations activities should strengthen community ties for the mutual benefit of the institution and community members. A communitarian approach to community relations suggests that what is best for the community is in fact best for the organization.[12]

There are three issues that organizations should focus on to enhance ethical and responsible community relations:

  1. Quality – A focus on offering high quality products and service
  2. Social Responsibility – A focus on policies that are responsible for the well-being of the bottom line as well as the work force, the environment, and the community
  3. Stewardship – Be accountable for organizational decisions and understand the impact they have on the community

Communitarianism – A Social Responsibility Model

Regardless of the different concepts of communitarian ethics in PR, Kathy Fitzpatrick and Candace Gauthier contend:

“It would be difficult to find a public relations professional who disagreed with the concepts espoused in the ethical theories based on the need for enhanced social responsibility, good citizenship, and improved community relations. All of these concepts focus on the need for public relations to contribute to the betterment of both communities in which their clients and employers operate.”[13]

External Links:

Civic Practices Network
What Communitarians Stand For
The Communitarian Network
  1. ^ Dahlgren, P. (2006). Doing citizenship: The cultural origins of civic agency in the public sphere. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 9(3), 267-286.
  2. ^ Leeper, K. (1996). Public relations ethics and communitarianism: A preliminary investigation. Public Relations Review, 22(2), 163-179.
  3. ^ Ibid., p. 167
  4. ^ Dahlgren, op.
  5. ^ Etzioni, A. (1993). The spirit of community: Rights, responsibilities and the communitarian agenda. New York: Crown Publishers Inc. (p. 155)
  6. ^ Heath, R. (2006). Onward into more fog: Thoughts on public relations’ research directions. Journal of Public Relations Research, 18(2), 93-114. (p. 106)
  7. ^ Ibid.

  8. ^ Stoker, K. & Tusinski, K. (2006). Reconsidering public relations’ infatuation with dialogue: Why engagement and reconciliation can be more ethical than symmetry and reciprocity. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 21(2&3), 156-176.
  9. ^ Kruckeberg, D. & Stark, K. (1988). Public relations and community: A reconstructed theory. New York: Praeger.
  10. ^ Ibid.

  11. ^ Leeper, K. (1996). Public relations ethics and communitarianism: A preliminary investigation. Public Relations Review, 22(2), 163-179.
  12. ^ Ibid.
  13. ^ Fitzpatrick, K. & Gauthier, C. (2001). Toward a professional responsibility theory of public relations ethics. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 16(2&3), 193-212. (p. 198)