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ABSTRACT: This article explores the potential of complexity theory as a unifying theory in public relations, where scholars have recently raised problems involving flux, uncertainty, adaptiveness, and loss of control. Complexity theory refers to the study of many individual actors who interact locally in an effort to adapt to their immediate situation, thereby forming large-scale patterns that affect an entire society, often unpredictably and uncontrollably.
Five characteristics of complexity theory render it particularly useful to explore central questions in public relations, such as power and accommodation, shifting perceptions and images, and problems with public relations models' predictiveness. These five characteristics are adaptivity, nonlinearity, coevolution, punctuated equilibrium, and self-organization. The article describes specific complexity-based methodologies and their potential for public relations studies, focusing on data- and agent-based modeling.
Priscilla Murphy is associate dean for Research and Graduate Programs at the School of Communications and Theater, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA.
Common sense would dictate that the more we know about a subject, the more stable and certain our views of it would be. However, public relations has often defied this principle: the more we know about this field, the less decided its underlying precepts appear to be. The late 1990s in particular witnessed a recrudescence of uncertainty, even as the field appeared to be stabilizing around a generally agreed-on set of guidelines that govern strategic relationships between organizations and their publics. This article explores that new uncertainty in public relations theory and proposes, not a resolution, but some ways in which public relations theory and research methods might build on uncertainty, notably through complexity theory.
Still other approaches to public relations veer away from balance altogether and toward the piecemeal, the nonrational, the argumentative, and the irresolvable. Recent public relations theories often seem preoccupied by disorder, transience, power shifts, and the interplay of multiple variables. For example, Williams and Moffitt saw organizational image making as a shifting, recursive process whereby "one image can emerge as strong at one moment in time, and another, contrasting image can emerge as dominant at a different moment in time because of the multiple and contradictory factors involved" in the audience's processing of organizational traits.  These factors may include environmental, personal, social, and business considerations. More generally, Mickey placed public relations in the context of French postmodernism as a variable construct of images devoid of objective reality, but functioning as "a cultural artifact with political or economic reality for the individual in the culture." 
To one degree or another, all public relations theories concern themselves with change and uncertainty, but the emphasis they give to instability varies along a wide spectrum. Many scholars would consider J. Grunig's symmetry theory to be particularly oriented toward stability, if not permanence, because it seeks to create and maintain relationships that balance self-interest with the interests of others. Even so, symmetry involves not static consensus but a "moving equilibrium" that engages "the more process-oriented experience of collaboration,"  a mutable form of balance that is always subject to revision.
Both Vasquez  and Botan and Soto  also conceived of public relations as an unstable, recurrent process whereby an organization and its publics negotiate meaning. They argued that an organization does not enjoy special powers to impose its interpretation of the world because "the public is the locus of the signification process," and meaning "is not an attribute of the message or in the domain of the message designer."  Rather, meaning is constituted through dynamic exchange between sender and receiver, organization and public. Using a similar metaphor of competing interpretations, Heath conceived of public relations as an ongoing "wrangle in the marketplace," an ongoing "democratic battle for order on the part of corporate, nonprofit [including activist], and governmental voices; each asserts a view of fact, value, policy, identification, and narrative that corrects and is corrected by other voices." 
Taking the metaphor of competition even further, Berger asserted that "society may be organized not around consensus, which is pivotal in the symmetrical approach, but rather around conflict and struggle."  He therefore defined public relations in terms of ideology, "as the intentional practices and processes of representation in complex sites to exchange information, construct and manage meaning, achieve consent, and win legitimation."  He pointed out that an ideological world view is highly unstable and "always under construction" on a "terrain of struggle" that "indicates the competition and interplay for meaning between differing world views, representation, and discourses in which ideologies and representations intersect our minds, social formations and cultures." 
This same sense of transience and struggle undergirds Holtzhausen's view of postmodern values in public relations, which insisted, "Public relations is about change or resistance to change."  She envisioned postmodern society as a place where "people are continually transforming themselves," and observed, "This will make it very difficult for practitioners to set up permanent communication channels and to build relationships that can lead to real understanding and mutual change."  Instead, the postmodern public relations practitioner should "promote and create situations in which new meaning is produced through difference and In many ways, Holtzhausen's view occupies the opposite side of the spectrum from Grunig's, and yet in one way or another, all these theorists orient around the notions of mutability, multifarious influences on image, and dynamic negotiation over meaning that neither sender nor receiver can fully control.
Accompanying these concerns with control and mutability come concerns about the haphazard. Variables that influence relationships do so intermittently, subject to chance and noise. Hence, under the rubric of contingency theory, Cameron and his associates argued that when public relations practitioners face a choice of how respond to audiences, "it depends." That is, practitioners may behave symmetrically in one situation and asymmetrically in another situation involving the same audience. Their choices may depend on ethical implications, what is at stake, beliefs about the audience's credibility, and other variables. Cameron and his associates identified 80-some variables as "candidate factors that affect the stance of an organization." 
The idea of contingency, and the nomination of 80-plus possible variables that might determine strategic choice, lie at the more extreme end of the uncertainty-based theories that characterized the late 1990s. Above all, these new theories depict public relations in terms of a universe of variables that interact simultaneously and locally, eventually to overhaul relationships in global ways, ways that are often unpredictable. Testing these assumptions may require a shift in perspective, or at least an overhaul of our working models. What are we to do with some seven dozen variables, a different subset of …