An organization-public relationship can be defined as a connection between one or more formal organizations and one or more of the publics that are affected by or affect those organizations. The central idea behind the concept is that organizations and publics find reason to communicate with each other because circumstances in their environments (e.g., overlapping problems, consequences of the behavior of one for the other, need for each other, or demand for similar resources) create a relationship between or among them. Communication among organizations and publics results in relationships of varying quality, depending on the nature and effectiveness of communications programs. The study of organization-public relationships has been one of the most extensive areas of research in public relations and communication management since the concept was formally introduced into the discipline in the 1980s. This entry first provides an overview of the concept of organization-public relationships and its relationship to corporate reputation. It then discusses the historical development of the organization-relationship concept and research on organization-public relationships.
The quality of organization-public relationships has value for both publics and organizations because good relationships reduce costs and risk and increase revenue. Therefore, public relations scholars believe that the value of the public relations function to both organizations and publics can be identified and measured by the quality of their relationships. Research by scholars of organization-public relationships has demonstrated that relationships are more central to identifying the value of an organization’s communication function than is the concept of reputation. These scholars theorize that reputation essentially is a by-product of relationships and that relationships are much more important than reputation in understanding the value of the communication function to organizations and society, in developing communication strategies to cultivate organization-public relationships, and in evaluating the success of public relations programs. They add that reputation can only be managed by managing the behavior of an organization, which in turn affects its relationships with publics, which then strongly influence what members of publics think and say about the organization—that is, its reputation.
Public relations scholars who value relationships more than reputation also distinguish between the two approaches to communication management—(1) the strategic management approach and (2) the symbolic interpretive approach. Reputation scholars typically view public relations from a symbolic-interpretive viewpoint, conceptualizing public relations as communication programs designed to affect how publics interpret the behaviors of the organization, not to change the behavior of the organizations themselves. Relationship scholars view public relations more as a strategic management function designed to listen to publics, provide publics a voice in management decision making, and encourage socially responsible and sustainable organizational behaviors. Whereas the concept of reputation suggests that favorable messages about organizations can create a positive reputation, the relationship concept encourages interaction and dialogue between organizations and publics to cultivate mutually sustainable behaviors.
Historical Development of the Organization-Relationship Concept
Despite this long-standing assumption that public relations is about relationships with publics and the inclusion of the two terms public and relations in the name of the concept, public relations scholars did not begin to theorize about or do research on relationships until Mary Ann Ferguson of the University of Florida delivered an invited paper at the annual conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication in 1984, in which she argued that relationships between publics and organizations was the concept that most distinguished public relations from other disciplines and that it should become the focus of theory and research in the discipline.
The relationship idea remained dormant, however, until 1992, when the six authors of a long-term study of excellence in public relations and communication management noted the importance of relationships in defining the value of public relations. Although the excellence study did not measure relationships directly, both quantitative and qualitative results led the authors to conclude that the value of public relations could be found in the relationships that publics have with organizations. They concluded that relationships form an intangible asset that, over time, reduces costs and risks for an organization and increases revenue. Relationships also make it possible for publics to bring their problems and concerns to the attention of an organization’s executives, which in turn helps the organization be more responsive to publics, socially responsible, and sustainable.
In 1997, Glen Broom, Shawna Casey, and James Richey published an article titled “Toward a Concept and Theory of Organization-Public Relationships” in the Journal of Public Relations Research that became a major catalyst for a wave of public relations research on relationships. That research led to the development and publication of the first edition of the book Public Relations as Relationship Management. That book, in turn, stimulated two groups of researchers to pursue the study of relationships in earnest.
The first group consisted largely of a group of faculty members and doctoral students at the University of Maryland and University of Florida. In 1996, James Grunig of the University of Maryland and Linda Hon of the University of Florida attended a meeting sponsored by the Institute for Public Relations, the publication Inside PR, and the measurement department of the public relations firm Ketchum, which was called to discuss how the effects of public relations activities could be measured and evaluated. That meeting resulted in the formation of a Public Relations Measurement Commission, sponsored by the Institute for Public Relations. At that meeting, Grunig and Hon suggested the importance of relationships for conceptualizing the value of public relations as well as for measuring its effectiveness. The report resulting from that meeting then emphasized the importance of relationships in public relations.
Stimulated by that conclusion, research by doctoral students at the University of Maryland provided concepts and measures that have been used extensively by the first group of researchers. Their review of the literature on interpersonal relationships identified four dimensions of relationships—(1) trust, (2) mutuality of control, (3) satisfaction, and (4) commitment—that could be used to measure the quality of long-term organization-public relationships. Follow-up research produced a set of scales to measure relationships that were published in a guidebook of the Institute for Public Relations in 1999. These concepts and scales have been revised and improved by a number of researchers since their initial publication.
At the same time, John Ledingham and Stephen Bruning of Capitol University developed a similar set of relational concepts and measures that have served as the focus for the second set of researchers studying organization-public relationships. These researchers identified five relationship dimensions—(1) trust, (2) openness, (3) involvement, (4) investment, and (5) commitment—which have been cited heavily in refereed journal articles and in two editions of the book Public Relations as Relationship Management, dimensions that have been influential in the development of the relationship research tradition in public relations.
Research on Organization-Public Relationships
According to an analysis of the literature published in the second edition of Public Relations as Relationship Management, 124 articles were published on organization-public relationships in refereed journals between 1985 and 2013—110 of them since 2000. Research has moved from an emphasis on the development of scales to an application of those scales in several specialized areas of public relations, such as volunteer-nonprofit organizations, shareholder relations, lobbying, employee relations, university-student relations, risk management, and reputation management.
Although the initial focus of research on organization-public relationships was on defining, conceptualizing, and measuring the dimensions of relationships that could be used to measure the quality of relationships, researchers also expanded their theories to include the antecedents of relationships and the strategies used to cultivate relationships (which originally were called maintenance strategies). For example, researchers have distinguished between symmetrical cultivation strategies (e.g., disclosure, assurances of legitimacy, participation in mutual networking, sharing of tasks, integrative negotiation, cooperation and collaboration, being unconditionally constructive, and saying “win-win or no deal”) and asymmetrical strategies (e.g., distributive negotiation, contending, avoiding, accommodating, and compromising).
Researchers also have identified several types of relationships. They began by distinguishing between exchange and communal relationships but expanded these types to include one-sided communal, mutual-communal, covenantal, manipulative, contractual, symbiotic, and exploitive relationships. Other researchers have identified the outcomes of relationships at the individual level (e.g., attitudes, behavioral intentions, and behavioral outcomes) and at the organizational level (e.g., cost reduction, conflict resolution, revenue generation, and economic input). Still others have found cultural differences in the dimensions of relationships (e.g., “face and favor”) and in cultivation strategies. Other researchers have studied the role of social and other digital media in relationships. In addition, critical theorists have challenged public relations scholars and professionals to think of relationships from the standpoint of publics, communities, and society rather than solely from the standpoint of organizations.
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Hon, L. C., & Grunig, J. E. (1999). Guidelines for measuring relationships in public relations. Gainesville, FL: The Institute for Public Relations, Commission on PR Measurement and Evaluation. Retrieved February 11, 2016, from http://www.instituteforpr.org/wp-content/uploads/Guidelines_Measuring_Relationships.pdf
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