Public Relations and Goffman’s Sociology in the Context of Japan

Catarina Gonçalves*, Filipa Melo*, Inês Gomes*, Isabela Harada*, Jessica Maia*, Marco Barra*, Marisa Freitas*, Sara Duarte*, Sílvia Meneses*, Sofia de Lemos*, Jorge Marinho**

*Student attending the Applied Languages / Major in Business Relations Study Program – University of Porto Faculty of Arts (Portugal) / 2016-2017

**Research supervisor. Ph.D. in Communication Sciences, BA in International Journalism, Professor at the University of Porto (Portugal)




In an interdisciplinary perspective, most notably in the issue of social roles, this article addresses Public Relations and Sociology, based on a few of Goffman’s concepts. This is also examined within the context of Japanese organizations. To a greater or lesser extent, the various aspects found in this article point to Internal / International / Intercultural / Global / Glocal Public Relations.


Keywords: communication; Goffman; Japan; Public Relations; Sociology.



(This article is based on research work conducted as part of the curricular unit of Public Relations under the Applied Languages / Major in Business Relations Study Program – Faculty of Arts of the University of Porto / 2016-2017).

The sociologist who inspired this work is Erving Goffman, regarded as a classic in Sociology (Bentele, Wehmeier 2007, p. 297). Goffman develops interaction theories, by focusing his analysis on the relation between interpersonal meaning and social structure. He establishes interactions as plays, where every participant has a role. His key concepts of impression managementframingfooting and face could contribute toward increasing knowledge of organizations’ communication processes (Johansson 2007, p. 279).

The need for new approaches with regard to the theory of Public Relations (PR), which will influence their practice, and the fact that we agree that PR could take advantage of Sociology, have inspired our curiosity in investigating this interdisciplinarity. Goffman’s theory, in particular, has aroused out attention, not only in the interesting way the author concedes interpersonal relations, through a drama metaphor, but also given the great potential of his concepts as concerns the theoretical and practical development of PR, according to available literature on the subject. This article revolves around Internal / International / Global and Intercultural PR. This subject matter is also examined within the context of Japan.

Our reflection includes bibliographical / webgraphical research, along with an exclusive interview with Reiko Kikuchi, professor of Contemporary Japanese Culture at the University of Porto Faculty of Arts.


Goffman’s concepts

The late Erving Goffman (1922-1982), Canadian sociologist and university professor, was a pioneer in the field of Microsociology, specifically in the study of face-to-face interactions, which he developed in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1956). In this work, the following comprises the prevalent idea that most identifies his work: the world is a theater, and each of us is an actor, who, either individually or as a group, deliberately and strategically, through verbal and non-verbal communication, seeks to show and maintain certain impressions of oneself toward others, his/her audience; this is what the author calls impression management (Support Articles - Erving Goffman / Crossman 2015 / Goffman 1956).

In interpersonal communication, participants are mutually building the definition of the situation, which is why first impressions and preliminary information are important, as they serve as the basis of that which will be developed and modified by participants (Johansson 2007, p. 277). Because on stage, or on the front stage, we only show the impression of ourselves that we want to convey to others, we manage to be ourselves and to free ourselves from the role in society only when we are off the stage, or backstage, where there is no audience (Crossman 2015). From Goffman’s standpoint, in our daily interactions, we seek to show our “public self-image”, or face, which individuals want to claim for themselves, and which is a tool for describing social relations (Johansson 2007, p. 277).

Noteworthy from Goffman’s work is also the one entitled Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience (1974), where he writes on the importance of conceptual frameworks, or frames, in structuring an individual’s perception of society.This beckons the answer to the following question: “What is it that’s going on here?” (Goffman 1974, p. 8). Goffman uses a photo frame to illustrate this concept: just as the frame is a support for a photograph, so, too, are the frameworks of the situations a support for individuals to understand the contexts of the experiences they’ve been through in life (Crossman 2015)The frameworks, expressed via discourse, are subject to collective construction (Johansson 2007, p. 277). Quite often, the significance of an event can be ambiguous, thus leading to uncertainty and hesitation. Individuals can also “de-frame” situations, which can lead to misperceptions and, possibly, to actions based on erroneous assumptions. Such situations usually occur in activities based on little information (Johansson 2007, p. 277).

Within the sociolinguistic sphere, also noteworthy is another work by Goffman entitled Forms of Talk (1981), which extends his analysis of interpersonal relations to conversations and where he expounds on the concept of footing, related to participants’ attitude in an interaction.The position of a speaker could be divided into three parts: animator, author and main participant. This distinction shows the creation of an image of confidence and authenticity in interaction (Johansson 2007, p. 277). The animator is he / she who speaks; the author is the one who has chosen the content and the way it is said; the main participant is the person behind that which is uttered and whose attitudes are presented (Goffman 1981, p. 144 / Johansson 2007, p. 277). It should be pointed out that, although one person can simultaneously be an animator, author and main participant, the exceptions to this situation are extensive, as, oftentimes, when reciting a given text, we can animate words that we did not formulate and express opinions, beliefs and feelings that we do not share (Goffman 1981, p. 145 / Johansson 2007, p. 277).

To Catrin Johansson, professor of the Media and Communication Sciences Department at Mid Sweden University, Goffman’s Sociology is an inspiring starting point, as, with regard to PR, his aforementioned concepts pertain to basic notions: relations, identification and image (Johansson 2007, p. 279).

In the field of PR, the notion of impression management is known as image or reputation management and was only applied to crisis communication (Johansson 2007, p. 278). However, this concept could be applied in other situations, as the image of a company is a crucial element for its success, whether or not it is experiencing a crisis. Moreover, impression management is an interesting phenomenon as concerns communication among members of an organization, particularly between management and the internal public, thereby enabling an understanding of how the identity of organizations is created and why there is resistance to efforts aimed at changing it (Johansson 2007, p. 278). Likewise, it will be relevant to conduct research into which impressions PR professionals consciously and unconsciously create and communicate within different organizational scenarios, how such impressions are managed between front and backstage and which impressions are perceived by different audiences (Johansson 2007, p. 278).

The concept of footing involves major implications for communication between the organization’s leader and its members. Johansson concluded that a director’s footing influences the communication process when the strategy is communicated through the organization’s hierarchy (Johansson 2007, p. 279). From the standpoint of PR, understanding the different roles and their implications in the communication processes is an important aspect of interpersonal relations. In order for PR professionals to advise managers in matters pertaining to internal communication, it is vital to be aware of the impact of footing and of the different roles such managers may play (Johansson 2007, p. 279).

In PR, despite allowing for equality between organizations and the public, we cannot ignore the concept of power, which affects relations and communication within organizations. With regard to communication between a PR professional and a director, or between managers and employees, and even among groups of employees, the face is a major dimension serving as a tool for studying the power differences in interactions (Johansson 2007, p. 279).

According to Johansson, even though footing and face have yet to be used in PR research, the four previously mentioned concepts could contribute toward an analysis of face-to-face relations, by especially focusing on interpersonal communication with the internal and external public (Johansson 2007, p. 279).

When we talk about internal communication, that is, within a company, we are not automatically talking about a backstage, merely due to the fact that we are dealing with something more internal to the organization. Backstage is where we are away from the public: this is something that does not happen in a company, as we always bear in mind the internal public comprising senior management, the other employees and their families. In this case, according to Goffman (1956, pp. 93-94), the PR professional would serve as a go-between or mediator: someone who will try, as much as possible, to appear loyal and close to both groups, both with senior management and with the other employees and their families, in order to achieve an information exchange between them. This way, the PR professional works to create a harmonious atmosphere among the various members of the internal public.

To show what we have been talking about up to now, as to the relevance of conciliating Goffman’s Sociology, PR, theory and concepts, and all this as applied to an organization’s internal communication, we decided to conduct research into the Japanese case, within these spheres. We have chosen this country, aware that its language is strongly influenced by levels of courtesy and by the use of honorary titles, with a hierarchical society comprising profound family and collective values, as clearly reflected in the type of relations and in the way such relations are forged, namely within professional contexts.


Japanese specificities

We have given precedence to crossing the drama-related perspective with structural and cultural viewpoints, as we concluded that these cause the greatest impact and are of greatest importance to the PR professional in Japan or when in contact with a Japanese company. In an exclusive interview for this work, Reiko Kikuchi, professor of Contemporary Japanese Culture at the University of Porto Faculty of Arts, states that “It is very useful to have prior knowledge of Japanese culture, to some depth, as part of business or work with people or in Japanese companies, at least to avoid faux pas with the Japanese.” (“Reiko Kikuchi – Exclusive Interview” 2016). In structural terms, Japanese companies comprise a vertical and strongly hierarchical structure (Nakane 1970, p. 24), where social distances tend to be greater. This carries a great deal of weight in terms of power or influence that a group can have on another, as this dictates the type of language to be used and behaviors to be displayed, depending on the context. Considering Goffman’s perspective, it is advantageous for PR professionals to understand Japanese social structures, in order to adapt their performance to the stage and audience where they find themselves at every level: attitude, language and behavior.

In cultural terms, because this is a country with norms and values that differ from those of Western countries, PR professionals must consider Japan’s cultural aspects and apply them in such a way that they know what to expect from their audience, in order to avoid possible misunderstandings and to achieve the desired goals. In this regard, it is relevant to highlight the importance of International / Intercultural / Global / Glocal PR.



In Japanese companies, internal PR serves to create harmony, well-being and prosperity. Within this context, the PR professional shall especially consider the following concepts:

- Omote (表 – face in the public sphere, on the stage)

- Ura (裏 – face in the private sphere, backstage)

- Giri (義理- duty, sense of duty, but also honor, courtesy, debt of gratitude, social obligation – Jisho).

All of this is of extreme importance for maintaining the organization’s Wa (和 – harmony, living in peace and in conformity with the social group, favoring the group’s interests at the expense of personal ones - Jisho). Japanese organizations cause this quest for a good atmosphere for everyone to extend to the entire internal public. In this regard, Japanese companies provide housing for their employees and families, give presents to employees that get married, foster marriage between work colleagues and even gift employees’ children when they complete their secondary education or graduate from university. Despite the existence of a strong hierarchy, younger people feel protected by their elders and superiors, on whom they feel reliance, while being careful not to cause them to “lose face”, while superiors feel it is their duty to protect them, thereby rendering the feeling of Amae (甘え – "taking advantage of", "boldly relying on the benevolence of another" - Jisho), knowing they can count on the loyalty of their subordinates. This way, companies create the notion that every company is “a single person” (Nakane 1970, p. 72), thus emphasizing the concept of Uchi (内 – interior), at the expense of that which is Soto (外 – exterior): the “us” versus “the others”, the reality of the company against the world exterior to it (Nakane 1970, p. 20).

Along with these prizes and benefits for workers, there is also the forming of leisure groups, fostering interaction and group activities (Nakane 1970, p. 15).

Reiko Kikuchi (“Exclusive Interview” 2016) considers that, “According to Goffman, human action is the same as the actor’s performance on stage, always with the awareness of the eyes of others.”. Within this context, according to the aforementioned Japanese expert, “People manipulate their own impression in order to create a good impression in the eyes of others. This can bear some resemblance to the concept of Amae, where we seek not to lose favorable treatment from others.” (”Reiko Kikuchi – Exclusive Interview” 2016).

In Japan, there is also the custom of going out at night with work colleagues and superiors in order to fraternize and bond with each other. It is in this regard that we talk of Nommunication (from the verb Nomu, which means to drink in Japanese, plus the suffix of communication). In terms of the company’s internal communication, we can talk of ringi-sei. This consists of circulating memos within the organization in order to spread news or collect opinions, with the purpose of achieving consensus on a given matter.

Just as Goffman talks about masks or roles played by people when they interact, with the purpose of achieving a goal, so, too, PR professionals and the Japanese are aware they need to make sure to adapt image and language to their goals as communicators. According to Littlewood (1996), "The Japanese know that you never come to a negotiation showing your true nature,” as they end up waging “a game of masks at which the Japanese are adept" (Littlewood 1996). We should also mention the concept of Tatemae (a synonym of façade – Jisho), and Honne (建て前 and 本音 – contrasting between a person’s true nature and that which the person externalizes - Jisho). Depending on the circumstances, the Japanese give more or less importance to appearance than to reality. This should not be frowned upon, as this is nothing more than a conscious reflection of what happens in real life. This is why Goffman and PR professionals talk of impression management, of image, of behind the scenes and of the stage, and that the Japanese speak of Tatemae and Honne. As Goffman (1956, p. 156) admits, “Life may not be much of a gamble, but interaction is.” Because it is impossible for us to know everything about others and to know their true intentions, and “since the reality that the individual is concerned with is unperceivable at the moment, appearances must be relied upon in its stead”(Goffman 1956, p. 161).



Interdisciplinarity between Sociology and PR is positive. As concerns Goffman’s theory, the concepts of impression managementframingfooting and face can benefit the theory of PR, with an impact on its practical aspect. In general, the aforementioned concepts also apply to the particular context of Japanese organizations, while stressing the importance of formal issues, appearances, social roles and group cohesion. Especially in the domain of Intercultural / International / Global / Glocal Public Relations, it is necessary to know Japan’s socio-cultural specificities.

There is a tendency to increasingly differentiate communication. This way, Goffman’s theory is relevant for analyzing interpersonal relations, in order to more directly and individually reach the public.



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Bentele, G., Wehmeier, S. (2007). Applying Sociology to Public Relations: A Commentary. Public Relations Review, 33 (3), 294-300.

Crossman, A. (14.6.2015). About Education. Retrieved 10.4.2017 from

Goffman. E. (1981). Forms of Talk. Philadelphia / Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Goffman, E. (1974). Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience. Boston: Northwestern University Press.

Goffman, E. (1956). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Social Sciences Research Centre.

.Jisho. Retrieved 8.5.2017 from

Johansson, C. (2007). Goffman´s Sociology: An Inspiring Resource for Developing Public Relations Theory. Public Relations Review, 33 (3).

Littlewood, I. T. (1996). The Idea of Japan. London: Secker and Warburg. Apud Basics of Japanese Culture. Retrieved 10.5.2017 from

Nakane, C. (1970). Japanese Society. Berkeley / Los Angeles: University of California Press.


«Reiko Kikuchi – Exclusive Interview» (2016).


Photo by: Jorge Marinho


Published by Marinho Media Analysis / May 23, 2017