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Relationship management in public relations: dimensions of an organization-public relationship.


More than a decade ago, Ferguson urged that the matter of relationships between an organization and its key publics should be the central unit of study of the public relations researcher.(1) Today, a leading public relations text defines the field as "the management function that establishes and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and the publics on whom its success or failure depends."(2) The perspective that views public relations as "relationship management" argues for the practice unfolding within the four-step management process of analysis, planning, implementation and evaluation. Moreover, the term "public relations" also implies that the research and practice of the discipline should focus on an organization's relationships with its key publics, concern itself with the dimensions upon which that relationship is built, and determine the impact that the organization-public relationship has on the organization and its key publics.

The view of public relations as relationship management represents a conceptual change. In place of the traditional view of public relations primarily as a communications activity, relationship management is conceptualized as a management function that utilizes communication strategically. Moreover, public relations traditionally has been described by what it does. The notion of relationship management is an attempt to define the field in terms of what it is.

The field of public relations continues to seek a theoretical framework. As a part of that search, a central focus of recent research is to understand the nature of relationships between organizations and their key publics. The investigation reported herein is an attempt to further explicate the organization-public relationship by identifying and testing organization-public relationship dimensions that impact consumer behavior. To develop a list of potential dimensions that impact the organization-public relationship, the authors examined literature from public relations, interpersonal communication, marketing, and social psychology.


Public Relations

The matter of public relations as "relationship management" is the subject of a growing body of research within the literature of public relations. J. Grunig's contribution to this body of research focuses around a two-way symmetrical model that envisions public relations as a process of continual and reciprocal exchange between the organization and its key publics.(3) Central to Grunig's model is the notion that successful relationships involve mutual benefit for both an organization and its key publics. Grunig also suggests that for public relations to be valued by the organizations it serves, practitioners must focus their efforts upon developing long-term behavioral relationships between organizations and their key publics, rather than relying solely upon symbolic activities designed to enhance organizational image. When organizations focus public relations efforts on developing long-term behavioral relationships, benefit-cost analyses then can be used as a means of determining the value of those organization-public relationships.(4)

Broom and Dozier address the need to measure the organization-public relationship as part of public relations audits.(5) As they note: "Conceptually, public relations programs affect the relationships between organizations and their publics, but rarely is program impact on the relationships themselves measured."(6) They suggest using a coorientational approach to relationship audits to bring together the interests of an organization and those of its key publics.

Broom, Casey and Ritchey reviewed the literature of interorganizational and interpersonal relationships as well as that of psychotherapy as a part of the process of explicating the term "relationship."(7) They suggest a concept of organization-public relationships with measurable properties, independent of the parties in the relationship, and distinct from their antecedents and consequences. In an unpublished work, Grunig and Huang have responded to Broom's notion of relationship precedents and antecedents, as well as maintenance strategies that address the state of the relationship itself.(8)

Numerous other scholars have approached discussion of public relations from a relational perspective. For example, Wilson calls for the use of public relations as a vehicle for building responsibility in contemporary corporations.(9) Acknowledging that public relations practitioners must "have a finger on the public pulse," she contends nonetheless that the focus of public relations ought to be toward the development of "relational responsibility." Similarly, Heath argues for a focus on social responsibility, employing a traditional rhetorical perspective.(10)

Various authors such as Toth and Trujillo have suggested there is a need to integrate concepts from organizational communication, management research, and public relations to bring greater clarity to the area of corporate communication.(11) More recently, Toth suggests that public relations "should be considered interpersonal communication behavior because public relations practitioners worked in a buffer zone between an organization and its publics."(12)

The research cited above provides a excellent basis for theory building within the relationship management perspective. However, one area of the organization-public relationship which has not been explored concerns the matter of the dimensions of the organization-public relationship. Identifying and verifying such dimensions could contribute to the effort to develop a relational theory of public relations and add to the model building advanced by Broom and Grunig. At the strategic level, knowledge of the dimensions which comprise organization-public relationships - and their relative impact - could lay the groundwork for program design. This investigation addresses the need for identification and verification of organization-public relationship dimensions. It does so through quantitative testing of hypotheses that were generated during qualitative research conducted by Ledingham, Bruning, Thomlison, and Lesko.(13)

The scholarly literature of the field of public relations yielded a great deal of useful information in terms of broad-stroke paradigms with implications for developing relationship models. Following the lead of Toth and Broom et al., we also turned to other fields in our search for relationship dimensions that might apply to an organization-public relationship. One area of literature which proved fruitful was that of interpersonal relationships.

Interpersonal Communication

The components of successful interpersonal relationships is the subject of a recent seminal work by Wood.(14) Through her exhaustive review of more than 700 articles and books on the subject, Wood isolated four essential dimensions of successful interpersonal relationships which are investment, commitment, trust, and a comfort with relational dialectics. Investment refers to the time, energy, feelings, efforts and other resources given to build the relationship. Commitment involves the decision to continue a relationship. It adds the element of responsibility by suggesting that successful relationships involve facing relational difficulties together. Trust essentially refers to a feeling that those in the relationship can rely on each other. Dependability, forthrightness and trustworthiness are key components. Comfort with relational dialectics refers to the numerous forces which can pull a relationship in opposite directions. Wood identified autonomy/connection, novelty/predictability, and openness/closedness as the three dialectics of relationships.

In an interpersonal context, relationships flourish when: (1) there exists a balance in the relationship, (2) both parties in the relationship feel that the other is investing of time and themselves, (3) both parties are willing to make a commitment to the relationship, and (4) both parties can be trusted to act in a manner that supports the relationship.

Marketing and Social Psychology

The literature of marketing identifies commitment, trust, cooperation, mutual goals, interdependence/power imbalance, performance satisfaction, comparison level of the alternatives, adaptation, non-retrievable investment, shared technology, summate constructs, structural bonds, and social bonds 15 as dimensions that impact the "buyer-seller" relationship. Finally, the field of social psychology contributes the dimensions of commitment, intimacy and passion(16).

As a result of the review of literature, we developed a list of 17 relationship dimensions (investment, commitment, trust, comfort with relational dialectics, cooperation, mutual goals, interdependence/power imbalance, performance satisfaction, comparison level of the alternatives, adaptation, non-retrievable investment, shared technology, summate constructs, structural bonds, social bonds, intimacy, and passion) that were used in qualitative research with key publics in order to identify organization-public relationship dimensions that impact consumer behavior.


Setting for the Study

The geographic setting for the study is the three-state territory of a telecommunication company that provides local telephone service. The field of telephony was once the province of carriers operating under exclusive franchises granted by governmental agencies. Today, it is experiencing competition at various levels from familiar and newly-emerging entities.

Qualitative Research

The qualitative research process was initiated with in-depth discussions with 14 public relations personnel of the telecommunications company. That discussion was followed by interviews with 18 local governmental, business and community leaders across the three-state area. The results of these interviews served as the basis for discussions with residential telephone subscribers in focus group settings across the three-state area.

Focus groups were conducted using a group of randomly selected residential subscribers. Twelve focus groups of six to 12 residential subscribers were conducted in this manner across the tri-state territory. In these groups, the residential subscribers discussed the impact that price, product features, and the organization-public relationship have on consumer behavior. Also, focus group participants were asked which of the 17 relationship dimensions they believed would have an influence on their relationship with an organization.(17) The following relationship dimensions were defined by focus group participants as being critical in the process of creating, developing, and maintaining an organization-public relationship: trust, openness, involvement (investment, and commitment).


The hypotheses developed as the result of the review of literature and the qualitative research are presented below:

H1: The organization-public relationship dimensions of openness, trust, involvement, commitment, and investment will differentiate staying, leaving, and undecided consumers.

H2: The organization-public relationship dimensions of openness, trust, involvement, commitment, and investment can be used to predict which subscribers will stay, leave, or are undecided.

H3: The organization-public relationship mean scores of stayers will be highest of the stayers, leavers, and undecideds. The organization-public relationship mean scores of undecideds will be in the middle, and the mean scores of leavers will be the lowest.


The findings generated by the executive interviews and focus groups served as the basis for development of a 91-item survey instrument. The survey instrument tested respondent perceptions of the local telephone company and other competitors, attitudes about price and product features, the local telephone company's relationship with its key publics, and expectations with regard to choosing between the traditional telephone service provider and new service providers. The survey instrument was then pre-tested and interviewers were trained to administer the survey questionnaire. The survey was conducted by telephone using a computer-generated random-digit-dialing program. The interviews took place over a two week period, and 20% of the telephone numbers called resulted in a respondent agreeing to be interviewed. Of the 390 people who agreed to be involved in the study, 384 (99%) completed the interview. The average completed interview lasted 25 minutes.


The sample consisted of 384 residential telephone subscribers across a three-state region, with 12% indicating they were 18-27 years old, 33% were 28-42 years old, 38% were 43-65 years old, and 17% were older than 66. Respondents whose annual household income was $15,000 or less made up 10% of the sample, 21% of the respondents indicated their household income was $15,001-30,000, 30% of the respondents indicated their household income [TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE 1 OMITTED] was $30,001-50,000, 14% of the respondents indicated their household income exceeded $50,000, while 25% declined to report their income. Respondents who had lived in the area 0-5 years made up 23% of the sample, 12% had lived in the area 6-10 years, 13% had lived in the area 11-20 years, 25% had lived in the area 21-35 years, and 27% had lived in the area 36 years or more.


Discriminant analysis was computed to determine if the relationship dimensions (1) differentiated those who will stay with their historic telephone service provider, leave that provider to sign up for service with a new provider, or are undecided with regards to their provider of local telephone service, and (2) could predict subscriber choice behavior. A significant discriminant function resulted, which indicated that respondent perceptions of trust, commitment, involvement, investment, and openness distinguish and can predict stayers, leavers, and undecideds (Wilks Lambda = .93, [[Chi].sup.2] = 23.74, df = 10, p [less than] .01). The highest organization-public relationship mean scores were found among the stayers, the lowest scores were found among the leavers, and the middle scores were among the undecideds (the one exception was found with involvement, where the mean scores of stayers was 7.05 and the mean scores of undecideds was 7.07). See Table 1 for the means, univariate Fs, structure coefficients, and classification results.

As can be seen in the above table, trust, commitment, and openness are strongly related and investment and involvement are substantially related to an individual's decision to stay with the current provider or sign up with a new provider. Correct classification into groups was 59% (prior probabilities were 33%).


Scholars have the luxury to deliberate the nature of public relations but practitioners deal on a daily basis with the immediate problem of justifying the value of their programs. One measuring stick of a successful relationship is the predisposition of members of significant publics to react positively toward a sponsoring organization. Indeed, if organizational activities can be shown to favorably impact a decision to stay with a provider in the face of competition, then there can be little doubt that these activities have value that contributes to the economic well-being of that organization. This research indicates that an organization-public relationship centered around building trust, demonstrating involvement, investment, and commitment, and maintaining open, frank communication between the organization and its key public does have value in that it impacts the stay-leave decision in a competitive environment. We suggest that, in this case, the value of the relationship between the sponsoring organization and its significant publics is equal to the number of local subscribers for whom relationship factors spelled the difference between staying with the sponsoring organization or opting for service from a new provider.

In this research, subscribers were asked to make a choice. In that sense, this research is consistent with Grunig's(18) concern that public relations practitioners must demonstrate the impact of their programs on behavioral relationships if they are to have value within sponsoring organizations. The research results also provide verified relationship variables that can be used as the basis for further exploration of Broom and Dozier's(19) coorientation approach to relationship audits. Moreover, the research is responsive to Toth's(20) call for identification of constructs that overbridge the areas of interpersonal communication, organizational communication and public relations. Finally, in response to Broom et al.,(21) we offer a tentative definition of the organization-public relationship as "the state which exists between an organization and its key publics in which the actions of either entity impact the economic, social, political and/or cultural well-being of the other entity." An ideal organization-public relationship, then, would be "the state that exists between an organization and its key publics that provides economic, social, political, and/or cultural benefits to all parties involved, and is characterized by mutual positive regard."

This study also suggests that when public relations is viewed as relationship management, then public relations programs can be designed around relationship goals, with communication strategies employed to support the achievement of those goals. And, if the success of public relations programs is to be evaluated in terms of relationship goals, then - as Ferguson has contended - the central focus of public relations research should be on relationships.

This research also was conducted within a setting in which one organization had a substantial advantage because of its long-term relationship with its significant publics. Indeed, it is that very relationship which seemed to spell the difference when the organization's activities were made known. However, relatively few public members (some eight percent) were aware of the numerous activities which the local organization supports in order to build relationships with key publics. Moreover - as noted in the Ledingham, Bruning, Thomlison, and Lesko(22) report of the qualitative research - the decision to stay or leave changed significantly after respondents became aware of the organization's efforts to create, develop, or maintain relationships with its key publics. In that regard, a comment from a focus group participant captures the power of the organization-public relationship:

I hadn't thought of that. Now that it has been mentioned, though, I changed my mind. There's no way I'd sign up with a new company.

This reaction not only underscores the importance of activities designed to build relationships with key publics, but also emphasizes the need to communicate those activities so they are top-of-mind.

This investigation clearly suggests a role for communication initiatives within the framework of relationship management; in that role, goals are developed around relationships, and communication is used as a strategic tool in helping to achieve those goals. Moreover, while measurement of communication efficiencies should certainly be part of the evaluation process, their importance eventually may rest upon their ability to impact the achievement of relationship objectives.


The results of the survey show that the relationship dimensions of trust, openness, involvement, commitment and investment in an organization-public relationship differentiated stayers, leavers, and undecided subscribers in an emerging competitive environment. These findings further suggest that organizational involvement in and support of the community in which it operates can engender loyalty toward an organization among key publics when that involvement/support is known by those key publics. What emerges is a two-step process in which organizations must (1) focus on the relationships with their key publics, and (2) communicate involvement of those activities/programs that build the organization-public relationship to members of their key publics.

Overall, the results of this research also suggest a significant role for public relations within the broader scope of corporate strategic planning. In that light, relationship dimensions can be viewed as part of an integrated mix that includes variables such as product characteristics, perceptions of quality, service, price, levels of technology, demographics, and predispositions that impact the behavior of members of an organization's significant publics. The numeric value of each of these factors may vary, but there can be no doubt as to the significant contribution of public relations to this mix, particularly when developed around the activities most valued by public members and grounded in the organization-public relationship dimensions of trust, involvement, investment, commitment, and openness.

Future Research

It is hoped that this research contributes to a greater understanding of the organization-public relationship process and at least some of the factors that affect that process. Nonetheless, there is still a need for scholars in this area to work toward a comprehensive definition of the term "relationship" as it applies to public relations. There is still a similar need to expand current models of public relations to include relationship dimensions, as well as the antecedents and consequences of those dimensions. Moreover, there is still the need to explore the dimensions of an organization-public relationship within a longitudinal design that includes benchmark measurement, intervention, and subsequent follow-up. And, further research is needed to determine if the dimensions identified in this study apply to other contexts if they are to be considered of a general nature. As Broom, et al.,(23) have suggested, this area of scholarship is vital to constructing a general theory of organization-public relationships. This study is offered as a part of that process.

Acknowledgment: The authors wish to thank Research Assistant Cheryl Lesko for her assistance with this research.


1. Mary A. Ferguson, "Building Theory in Public Relations: Interorganizational Relationships," paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, Gainesville, Florida, August, 1984.

2. Scott M. Cutlip, Allan H. Center, and Glen M. Broom, Effective Public Relations, 7th ed., (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1994), p. 2.

3. James E. Grunig, "Image and Substance: From Symbolic to Behavioral Relationships," Public Relations Review 19 (1993), pp. 121-139.

4. William P. Ehling, "Estimating the Value of Public Relations and Communication to an Organization," in James E. Grunig, David M. Dozier, William P. Ehling, Larissa A. Grunig, Fred C. Repper, and Jon Whits (eds.), Excellence in Public Relations and Communication Management (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1992), pp. 617-638.

5. Glen M. Broom and David M. Dozier, Using Research in Public Relations: Applications to Program Management (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1990), p. 82.

6. Ibid., p. 82,

7. Glen M. Broom, Shawna Casey, and James Ritchey, "Toward a Concept and Theory of Organization-Public Relationships," Journal of Public Relations Research 9(2) (1997), pp. 83-98.

8. James E. Grunig and Yi-Hui Huang, "Working Model of Relationships," Unpublished manuscript.

9. Laurie J. Wilson, "Excellent Companies and Coalition-Building Among the Fortune 500: A Value and Relationship-based Theory," Public Relations Review 20 (1994), pp. 333-343.

10. Robert L. Heath, "The Wrangle of the Marketplace: A Rhetorical Perspective on Public Relations," in Elizabeth L. Toth and Robert L. Heath (eds.), Rhetorical and Critical Approaches to Public Relations (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1992), pp. 17-36.

11. Elizabeth L. Toth and Nick Trujillo, "Reinventing Corporate Communications," Public Relations Review 13 (1987), pp. 42-53.

12. Elizabeth L. Toth, "Interpersonal Communication and Organizational Communication: Contributions to the Study and Practice of Public Relations," paper presented to the Speech Communication Association, San Antonio, November 1995.

13. John A. Ledingham, Stephen D. Bruning, T. Dean Thomlison, and Cheryl Lesko, "The Transferability of Interpersonal Relationship Dimensions Into an Organizational Setting," Academy of Managerial Communications Journal 1 (1997), pp. 23-43.

14. Julia T. Wood, Relational Communication (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1995), pp. 180-189.

15. David T. Wilson, "An Integrated Model of Buyer-Seller Relationships," Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science 23 (1995), pp. 335-345.

16. Robert J. Trotter, "The Three Faces of Love," Psychology Today (September 1986), pp. 46-56.

17. John A. Ledingham, Stephen D. Bruning, T. Dean Thomlison, and Cheryl Lesko, op. cit., pp. 39-40.

18. James E. Grunig, op. cit., pp. 121-139.

19. Glen M. Broom and David M. Dozier, op. cit., p. 82.

20. Elizabeth L. Toth, op. cit., p. 2.

21. Glen M. Broom, Shawna Casey, and James Ritchey, op. cit., pp. 83-98.

22. John A. Ledingham, Stephen D. Bruning, T. Dean Thomlison, and Cheryl Lesko, op. cit., p. 40.

23. Glen M. Broom, Shawna Casey, and James Ritchey, op. cit., pp. 83-98.

Dr. John A. Ledingham and Dr. Stephen D. Bruning are members of the Public Relations faculty at Capital University in Columbus, OH.
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Author:Ledingham, John A.; Bruning, Stephen D.
Publication:Public Relations Review
Date:Mar 22, 1998
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