Exploring citizens’ judgments about the legitimacy of public policies on refugees

Maria-José Canel (Department of Audiovisual Communication and Advertising II, Complutense University of Madrid, Madrid, Spain)
Evandro Samuel Oliveira (Communication and Society Research Centre, University of Minho, Braga, Portugal)
Vilma Luoma-aho (School of Business and Economics, University of Jyväskylä, Jyväskylä, Finland)

Journal of Communication Management

ISSN: 1363-254X

Publication date: 6 November 2017



The purpose of this paper is threefold: to introduce a theoretical frame regarding the meaning of legitimacy as an intangible asset of the public sector; to test a way of operationalizing legitimacy typologies that allows exploring and comparing how citizens from two countries evaluate the legitimacy of public policies; and to suggest implications for governments’ legitimacy-building strategies in shared international crisis, such as the refugees coming from the Syrian region.


Building on Suchman’s typology, it was defined and categorized different types of legitimacy into concrete measurable, communication related statements concerning consequential, procedural, structural and personal. For the illustrative example, four focus groups were conducted in two different European societies as a mean to have two poles of comparison.


The paper reports current understanding of legitimacy by citizens, discusses how different legitimacy types might demand different communication and public diplomacy approaches. The basis for hypothesis for further research on how governments should build legitimacy during emerging societal issues such as immigration policies is set.

Practical implications

It proposes a typology and its operationalization, discusses how communication might shape legitimacy and profiles the challenge governments have in building it. Within a public diplomacy context, it brings clues for new strategies to the challenge of explaining policies on international crisis combining the tension of domestic with foreign publics.


There is little research so far in search for clues for communication strategies for the legitimacy of policies on the 2015 European refugee’s crisis. This contributes to the emerging area of intangible assets in the public sector and tests a focus-group research strategy with both hermeneutical and pragmatic aims. Combine public diplomacy theory with public sector intangible assets theory to respond to the tension of internal and external public demands.



Canel, M., Oliveira, E. and Luoma-aho, V. (2017), "Exploring citizens’ judgments about the legitimacy of public policies on refugees", Journal of Communication Management, Vol. 21 No. 4, pp. 355-369. https://doi.org/10.1108/JCOM-02-2017-0025

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