Relationship Management - Key Theories
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Compare and evaluate the key theories or concepts which describe an organisations links with its publics
The relationship management perspective holds that public relations balances the interests of organizations and publics through the management of organization-public links and relationships. Within that perspective, public relations is seen as “the management function that establishes and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and the publics on whom its success or failure depends” (Cutlip, Center, & Broom, 1994, p. 2). Moreover, the notion of relationship management is consistent with major theoretical concepts such as systems theory and the two-way symmetrical model of Grunig and Hunt (1984). The essence of the relational perspective is captured in Center and Jackson’s (1995) observation that: “The proper term for the desired outcomes of public relations practice is public relationships. An organization with effective public relations will attain positive public relationships” (p. 2).
The relational perspective is said to define the organizational function of public relations, clarify the role of communication within that function and provide a process for determining the contribution of public relations to attainment of organizational goals (Ledingham and Bruning, 2000). Moreover, the relational perspective is consistent with the notion that public relations initiatives should generate understanding and benefit both for organizations and publics (Ledingham & Bruning, 2000). Further, the concept of relationship management underscores the need for public relations practitioners to be conversant with strategic planning and other managerial processes. The relational perspective also provides a framework for scholarly inquiry, a platform for developing educational curricula, and a rationale for practitioners charged with accounting for program initiatives.
According to Ledingham (2001), “There are four pivotal developments which spurred emergence of the relational perspective as a framework for public relations study, teaching, and practice” (p. 286). The first of these four is the concept of recognition of the central role of relationships in public relations. Indeed, Ferguson’s (1984) claim that relationships, “not …the organization, nor the public, nor the communication process,” should be the unifying concept of public relations gave rise to a major shift in the conceptual focus of the discipline. The second is to ‘reconceptualize’ public relations as a management function. The notion of managing organization–public relationships introduced managerial concepts and processes to the practice of public relations. Thirdly, the identification of components and types of organization–public relationships, their linkage to public attitudes, perceptions, knowledge and behaviour, and relationship measurement strategies is another key theoretical area. Finally, the construction of organization–public relationship models that accommodate relationship antecedents, process, and consequences is another key theoretical development in examining how organisations link to their public.
It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the relational concept to public relations. Ehling (1992) characterized it as “an important change in the primary mission of public relations” (p. 662). Dozier (1995) reasoned that, “the purpose and direction of an organization is affected by relationships with key constituents (publics) in the organization’s environment” (p. 85). Within that perspective, Dozier also suggested that communication is “a strategic management function (that helps) manage relationships with key publics that affect organizational mission, goals and objectives” (p. 85).
Moreover, Broom and Dozier (1990) argued that the relational concept shifts the validation of public relations initiatives from measures of communication output to that of behavioural links and outcomes. Ledingham and Bruning (2000) also suggested that the emergence of relationship management …calls into question the essence of public relations: what it is and what it does or should do, its function and value within the organizational structure and the greater society, and the benefits generated not only for sponsoring organizations but also for the publics those organizations serve and the societies in which they exist. Echoing Dozier’s observation, they asserted that while “goals are developed around relationships … communication is used as a strategic tool in helping to achieve those goals,” and that “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” (Ledingham & Bruning, 2000).
More than a decade ago, Broom and Dozier (1990) hypothesized that levels of agreement between organizations and publics on key issues and the degree to which an organization and its key publics can accurately predict each other’s position can act as indicators of relationship state. Ledingham’s (2001) study of government-citizenry relationships found support for that hypothesis in the linkage of organization–public agreement and relationship state. Moreover, Grunig et al (1992) suggested that relationship state can be determined by the dimensions of reciprocity, trust, mutual legitimacy, openness, mutual satisfaction, and mutual understanding. Subsequently, Ledingham and Bruning (2000) theorised five relevant dimensions: trust, openness, involvement, investment, and commitment.
Ledingham and Bruning then explored the linkage between those dimensions and public perceptions, attitudes, and choice behaviour, finding public awareness of an organization’s support of community associated with a favourable predisposition toward that organization. Their research also demonstrates the value of relationships as a predictor of public links, predispositions, behaviour and satisfaction (Bruning & Ledingham, 2000). Similarly, Hon and Grunig (1999) offered strategies for maintaining organization–public relationships, including access, positiveness, openness, assurance, networking, and the sharing of tasks. In addition, they suggested control mutuality, trust, satisfaction, and commitment as preferred outcomes of the links between organizations and their public.
Ledingham and Bruning (2000) found that consumers who ranked an organization highly with regard to the five relationship dimensions were more likely to use that organization’s services when given a competitive choice. Based on the results, they posited a theory of loyalty 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 key publics” (p. 63). They further concluded that “what emerges is a 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” (p. 63). They also suggested: “To be effective and sustaining, relationships need to be seen as mutually beneficial, based on mutual interest between an organization and its significant publics,” and argued that “the key to managing successful relationships is to understand what must be done in order to initiate, develop and maintain that relationship” (p. 27). Subsequently, Wilson (2000) argued that there is “support (for) the application of (that) theory to … community and employee publics as well” (p. 12).
Further research by Ledingham and Bruning (2000) demonstrated that relation-ship scores can be used to predict levels of customer satisfaction and thus better build links with the public. Accordingly, they advised that “the relationship between an organization and its key publics should be considered when developing customer satisfaction initiatives and should be included in future models of satisfaction research” (p. 199). Moreover, organization–public relationships were found to cluster into three relationships types: interpersonal, professional, and community. That typology then served as the foundation for development of a multi-item, multi-dimensional scale to measure organization–public relationship state (Ledingham and Bruning 2000) Other research (Ledingham, Bruning, &Wilson, 1999) suggested that organization–public relationships change over time, and it might require decades in some cases to solidify a relationship, underscoring the need to attend to the relationship through-out its life cycle.
Littlejohn (1995) contended that “a relationship is defined not so much by what is said as by the partner’s expectations for behavior” (p. 262). Moreover, Thomlison’s (2000) review of interpersonal literature supports the notion that failure to meet or exceed expectations can determine whether a relationship continues. Ledingham’s (2001) study of government–citizen relationships reinforces the notion of expectations as a relationship imperative. Similarly, Coombs (2000) argued that damage to a relationship “tends to be a result of either (1) incongruence between the public and private definitions of a relationship, or (2) the people involved in the relationship have different expectations of each other” (p. 2). Coombs also introduced the notion of relationship history as a contributor to the state of an organization–public relationship.
Models are an illustration of theories in action, and several organization–public relationship models have been theorised. The pioneering model of Broom et al. (1997) included antecedents, subsequent states, and consequences of organization–public relationships. In that model “antecedents … include perceptions, motives, needs, behaviours …posited as contingencies or causes in the formation of relationships …(and) antecedents are the sources of change pressure or tension …derived from the environment” (p. 94). Moreover, consequences of organization–public relationships were seen as “the outputs that have the effects of changing the environment and of achieving, maintaining or changing goal states both inside and outside of the organization” (p. 94).
In a subsequent iteration of the model, Broom et al. (2000) suggested that transactions are part of the process of fulfilling needs and can be used to describe, categorize, and evaluate the quality of relationships. Accordingly, the communication-centred patterns of accessing, storing, and using information (a “need”) as well as communication engagement (“social exchange”) were suggested as indicators of relationship state. Broomet al. also included three additional dimensions of relationships—the degree of formalization, standardization, and complexity: as well as the intensity and reciprocity of two additional relationship processes: information flow and resource flow. Grunig and Huang (2000) reconceptualized Broom et al.’s (2000) antecedents, states, and consequences as characteristics that describe the publics with which organizations need relationships (antecedents), maintenance strategies (relationship states) and outcomes of those strategies (consequences). They then suggested methods for monitoring each of the three components of the model: environmental scanning for the antecedents phase, ongoing observations by management and publics for relationship states, and, coorientational measurement for consequences.
Moreover, Toth (2000) described two types of public relations practice: a “pure personal influence” approach in which “interpersonal communication is used to dominate individuals, to accept either the organization’s or public’s position, closed and static in attributes,” and a “pure interpersonal influence” approach in which “interpersonal communication (is) used to find mutual definitions, mutuality of understanding, agreement, consensus, open and dynamic in attributes” (p. 214). Toth also suggested: “The end goal of interpersonal communication is to establish and maintain successful relationships” (p. 217), adding that “some conceptual elements to examine along an individual continuum are mutuality of understanding, trust, credibility, emotion, intimacy and similarity, immediacy, and dominance-submission” (p. 218). Toth further called for research “to make this (interpersonal) model of use in managing public relationships,” and suggested that “One starting point would be to study qualitatively how much individuals in negotiation situations attribute their success to their own choices and motivations and how much their agency is influenced and distinctly built in the negotiation relationship” (p. 217).
In conclusion, the relational perspective, and the various theories and concepts underlying it, completely describes, aided by the various theoretical models, an organisation’s links with its publics. The perspective also provides models and concepts for defining and measuring the success, or otherwise of an organisation’s links, and subsequent relationships, with its publics, and also how to mend and improve these links. However, the field of public relations is constantly developing, as new technology offers organisations new ways to build relationships with the public, and thus it is likely in the future that new theories and concepts will arise to better explain these new channels and how they affect the links between organisations and their publics.
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