by Ana Tkalac Verčič
Full professor at the University of Zagreb, Croatia
Faculty of Economics and Business

In a study conducted thirteen years ago Dejan Verčič, Kristina Laco and I opened the question of applying coorientation theory in studying communication behavior between nations. Now, more than a decade later, we wanted to replicate our original study and test how issues of potential agreement, accuracy and congruency between Croats and Slovenians have changed through time. First, we wanted to compare attitudes toward certain issues relevant for the two nations; and second, to examine degrees of agreement, accuracy and congruency between Croats and Slovenians, under the coorientation model.

As we stated in our original paper the interpersonal concept of public opinion involves two or more individuals ready to communicate about an object or issue of common interest. In the process of communication the two sides are “cooriented” toward a mutual issue or topic, as well as toward one another. The coorientation model of public relations, derived from psychology and communication, was developed to describe why groups of people change attitudes when in relationships with other groups of people. The main assumption of the model is that behavior is not only based on a personal construction of a situation, but also on perceptions of other peoples’ orientations. According to the model, parties in a relationship influence each other through information exchange and interaction. Public opinion is conceptualized as a result of individual perceptions on one side and the perception which a certain group has (on the opinion of others), on the other. In case of potential disagreement, resulting tension can cause corrective action.

Thirteen years ago we stipulated that by using the coorientation model it is possible to identify the three basic forms of communicational problems, and offer solutions by using relatively simple communicational strategies. In the case of Croatian and Slovenian public, potential problems could be boiled down to the following: first, Croats and Slovenians each have different definitions of the basic problems in their mutual relations. They are simply not talking about the same thing when communicating about “the issue” (they are in fact talking about different issues). Second, one side’s perception of the attitudes (evaluation and/or cognition) of the other side does not match the actual attitudes of the other side. Decisions on a course of action that involves the public are based on incorrect assessments of public opinion (for one side, the other, or even both). Third, members of either or both sides have incorrect perceptions of the other side’s position when it comes to issues of mutual interest. Reactions of the public are based on erroneous assessment of the policy and values of the other side.

To determine the coorientation variables towards a series of issues (defined in pre-testing) we conducted a public opinion poll in both countries. Both samples were nationally representative (in Croatia 1057 and in Slovenia 500 respondents). Additionally, as before, parallel to the poll survey we conducted media monitoring in both countries.

The results show lower understanding, lower accuracy, lower agreement and lower congruency in attitudes between the two nations on practically all selected issues. There is less mutuality in their orientation towards common issues, coorientation is lower. The dynamic of the relationship is negative: the two nations see issues more differently, they know less about how the other nation perceives these issues, and they estimate even worse how the other side views their perceptions on these issues. Considering physical proximity and size of the two nations (there are four million Croats and two million Slovenians living on 77.000 square kilometers, which is ten percent less than the size of Austria), one could expect that through time they will know more and not less about each other; yet the opposite is true. It is clear that attitudes of both sides are based on erroneous assessment of the policy and values of the other side and that there is no communication between them leading towards consensus. One wonders if an explanation of these developments could be found in the proposition known in international relations studies, that foreign policy is an extension of domestic policy; i.e. domestic concerns precede international issues, thus leading to unintended deterioration of relations between nations. Whatever energy is spent on public diplomacy, its potential positive effects are annulled by more energy spent on domestic politics exploiting external disagreements, thus creating external enemy to homogenize domestic populations.

What are the consequences for public relations? From this analysis we deduce that for public diplomacy to improve understanding between nations, it must target both domestic and foreign nations, which is a highly contested proposition (under what conditions can governments spend public funds for communication directed toward domestic populations?). We have accepted that this can be done in issues dealing with environment, health and safety, but rarely in relations between nations (although we have seen this in Brexit referendum in the UK and in referenda to enter EU and NATO in various countries in Europe). Where we believe this study shows value of applying coorientational research is – it indicated where and when relations between two social groups are developing into a negative spiral of conflict that has as much, if not more, substance in attitudes as it does in material ‘facts’.