Over the years, academics and practitioners have worked to define public relations by what it accomplishes, the role it plays in society. One attempt at positioning the practice, and research about the practice, features the impact public relations can have on the quality of the relationship between each organization and its key publics, a theme that is at least 55 years old (Cutlip & Center 1952). Monitoring this view, Scott Cutlip, Allen Center, and Glen Broom (2000) observed that the trend in the United States was for public relations to be less focused on one-way, self-interested persuasion and more on mutuality, reciprocation, and the idea of “between.” Based on this trend, these authors posed one of the most widely disseminated definitions: “Public relations is the management function that establishes and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and the publics on whom its success or failure depends” (2000, 6). Thus, organization–public relationships consist of qualitatively valuable and relevant factors that lead key publics to support or oppose the organization because they see the organization as being as interested in their interests as it is in its own. The organization sees its interests with its publics as a valuable aspect of its own interests. Perception of mutual benefit can lead to support rather than opposition, which could foster willingness to buy products, use services, or take issue positions on public policy actions to support rather than sanction the organization. In short, the quality of the relationship is an independent variable that predicts support or opposition. The quality of the relationship is the dependent or mediating variable that results from what the organization does to meet or exceed the expectations of its key publics, whose good will and support are important to its business plan.
Mutually Beneficial Relationships
The ways in which relationships are built or harmed can result from careful strategic business planning that meets high standards of corporate responsibility, and public relations processes shared meaning, i.e., identification, which results rhetorically in shared sensemaking joining the interests of the organization to those of key publics. A mutually beneficial relationship (MBR), a highly desirable outcome of effective and ethical public relations, occurs when the stakeholders of each organization believe that it works to achieve a condition where it and all its stakeholders benefit appropriately because of the quality of their relationships.
As a platitude, MBRs are asserted as the outcome goal of public relations, without much attention to how that end is achieved or what it entails. Some think, thereby leading to substantial criticism, that mutually beneficial relationships are the exclusive outcome of strategic communication rather than responsible and reflective management decisions. Such platitudes may mask the darker intent and ability of the focal organization to manipulate the relationship to seem more mutually beneficial than it truly is. Woe to the organization that fails to believe that such deceit can be detected and doubly harmful to relationships. The concept of MBR commits organizations to a process and discourse that go beyond mere manufactured image or reputation by actually operating in ways that achieve mutual benefits.
The logic of MBR is that when people believe that organizations operate with their interests in mind, they support rather than oppose those organizations. Thus, people buy from businesses they believe give them full value for goods and services purchased. They support activist or other nonprofit groups that share their values and hold similar goal-oriented commitments, such as preventing or treating specific childhood diseases. They believe in and support governmental agencies that act in their interest, in what can be seen as the public interest, where they are the “public.” They support businesses that meet operating expectations such as paying fair wages, giving proper benefits, protecting the environment, and fostering the communities where they operate.
Critics of this line of thinking simply doubt that businesses, for instance, ever hold stakeholder interests equal to their own. Thus the logic of MBR challenges public relations practitioners to truly understand and be in a management position to help the organization to know the expectations of its stakeholders that define their best interests. For this reason, public relations practitioners need to be advocates for sound and effective measures that produce mutual benefits.
MBRs assume that stakeholders hold varying standards of how each organization should operate. These standards are forged through societal dialogue voiced by many points of influence: industry, activist, government, media reporter, and such. Disagreement and intolerance are part of the dispute over the definition of what is mutually beneficial and whether the organization truly operates to that end. Critics hold different standards. Some are more intolerant of the actions and ethical choices of organizations than others. Thus, MBR is a normative goal that cannot be totally satisfied for all parties in any relationship. Each organization, regardless of its type, has a wide array of stakeholders. Each may have different expectations for the quality of the relationship and whether it is satisfied by what the organization does and says. In any full discussion of MBR, the sense of community is a focal point. What any organization does and says needs to be judged by whether it truly advances the essence of community among all of the stakeholders.
By the same token, appeals to community can be used asymmetrically to the beneficial interest of the organization rather than those of its stakeholders. Thus, a government ostensibly fighting international terrorism can appeal to community to defend its policies against its critics. It may, in this rhetorical stance, argue that any critic of its battle against international terrorists is actually a supporter of terrorism because it does not immediately and completely agree with and support the government policies. This rhetorical stance would in fact be asymmetrical and not serve the mutual interest of the critics, whose ideas may indeed ultimately add value to the fight against terrorism but do so in ways that disagree with the positions of the administration.
How To Create Relationships
Substantial discussion by various practitioners and academics earlier in the twentieth century sought to determine how organizations could create relationships. Both the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) and the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) have featured relationship building as a part of effective public relations and strategic business communication.
In its “vision, mission, and structure statement,” the IABC features relationships and says it specializes in helping people and organizations to make business sense of communication, think strategically about communication, measure and clarify the value of communication, and build better relationships with stakeholders (IABC 2007). The PRSA has been committed to meeting the challenge of relationship building since at least 1982: “Public relations helps our complex, pluralistic society to reach decisions and function more effectively by contributing to mutual understanding among groups and institutions. It serves to bring private and public policies into harmony.” Reviewing the wide array of institutions that require effective public relations, the PRSA publication Public relations tactics: The blue book noted that “these institutions must develop effective relationships with many different audiences or publics such as employees, members, customers, local communities, shareholders, and other institutions, and with society at large” (PRSA 2002, B2).
One of the leaders in the formation of public relations as a management discipline, John W. Hill, principal founder of Hill & Knowlton, featured the concept of relationship in his books published during the 1950s and 1960s. He credited public relations icon Ivy Lee with an even earlier discussion of the term: “Public relationships, he [Lee] wrote, involved not simply ‘saying’ but ‘doing’ – not just talk, but action” (Hill 1963, 16). Hill reasoned that organizations simply could not avoid considering and meeting the challenges of multiple relationships “because the corporation deals with employees, stockholders, customers, neighbors, government functionaries, and many others – with all of whom it has many relationships” (1958, 4). To build relationships, organizations must not only talk, but act in appropriate ways. They must be good as well as do good.
At one level, the effort to achieve MBR, Hill reasoned, was a matter of reputation management. Do the organization’s stakeholders believe the organization works in their interests? Does it have the reputation for such actions? If not, is the problem with its reputation one that could be corrected by communication, or does it also, or primarily, call for new and improved actions and policies? To this end, Hill asked managements to think about how strong their relationships were with all of their stakeholders. He was a practical counselor as well as one who sought high moral ground as the rationale for his profession and its profession. He reasoned, as advice to executive managements:
Business managements are concerned with the problems of conducting their corporate or industry affairs in ways that they may feel are contributive to public progress. They must arrive at effective policies that go far beyond their economic and operating functions into the complex realms of social, governmental, and political relationships. The large majority push forward into these policy areas as a matter of choice. But in terms of the long-range survival of corporate enterprise, there is little choice involved; it is a matter of essentiality. (1963, 230)
A realist, Hill knew and counseled that organizations could not operate with autonomy as long as they merely operated in their own interest and expected others to tolerate that point of view.
Theory And Scholarship
Relationship management theory discusses process variables that can foster or impede the creation of MBRs (Ledingham 2005). This line of analysis is far from finished, but key factors are emerging (Heath & Coombs 2006): Openness fosters two-way communication based on listening for and sharing valuable information and evaluative opinions, as well as being responsive, respectful, candid, and honest. One-way communication occurs when an organization “speaks” but does not listen to or acknowledge the merit in what other people and organizations “say.” Trustworthyness builds trust by being reliable, nonexploitative, and dependable. Trust relates as well to the ethical and balanced use of control to foster one’s interests in relationships with other interests. Cooperativity engages in collaborative decision-making that insures that the needs and wants of the organization and its stakeholders are met. Alignment shares interests, rewards, and goals with its stakeholders. Compatible views and opinions foster mutual understanding and agreement, co-creating meaning. Commitment supports community by being involved in it, investing in it, and displaying commitment to its quality.
The analysis of relationships has been explored from many points of view. Systems theory gives the rationale that no part of a system can operate forever imbalanced against the other parts of a system. A rhetorical perspective reasons that the effort to define interests assumes the co-creation of meaning. Many voices come together to define what constitutes a mutually beneficial relationship. Social exchange theory reasons that the quality of each relationship is based on give and take. In such matters, publics must be allowed or assumed to define themselves and speak their mind. Theory does not adequately get at the essence of MBRs if it leads to the conclusion that the organization alone can know what is a public, whose ideas are best, and which discussants of an issue are legitimate.
- Broom, G. M., Casey, S., & Ritchey, J. (1997). Toward a concept and a theory of organization– public relationships. Journal of Public Relations Research, 9, 83 – 98.
- Cutlip, S. M., & Center, A. H. (1952). Effective public relations. New York: Prentice Hall. Organizational Assimilation 3403
- Cutlip, S. M., Center, A. H., & Broom, G. M. (2000). Effective public relations, 8th edn. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Heath, R. L. (ed.) (2002). Handbook of public relations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Heath, R. L., & Coombs, W. T. (2006). Today’s public relations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Hill, J. W. (1958). Corporate public relations: Arm of management. New York: Harper.
- Hill, J. W. (1963). The making of a public relations man. New York: David McKay.
- IABC (International Association of Business Communicators) (2007). At www.iabc.com, accessed January 12, 2007.
- Ledingham, J. A. (2005). Relationship management theory. In R. L. Heath (ed.), Encyclopedia of public relations. Thousand Oak, CA: Sage, pp. 740 –743.
- PRSA (Public Relations Society of America) (2002). Public relations tactics: The blue book. New York: Public Relations Society of America.