It is because, if we have the confidence to do so, the practice of PR has the essential and over-riding skill set. It it because we aspire to be involved in relationships management and the essential understanding, not to mention the necessary techniques, empirical evidence and academic support to use relationship management effectively.
In his Overview of Public relations around the world and principles of modern practice Jean Valin when Chair of the Global Alliance of national PR associations said:
I would like to emphasize the part of the definition that deals with managing relationships- as I see this as the cornerstone of everything we do in public relation. It is without a doubt the common denominator in our profession and this is true throughout the world. You may not realise it completely, but whether you are working in London, Djakarta or Sao Paulo, you are managing relationships.”.
The joint report between the Institute of Public Relation and the UK Department of Trade and Industry in 2003 defines Public Relations as: “Influencing behaviour to achieve objectives through the effective management of relationships and communications” .
So Public relations is “…. what it says on the tin” said professor of Public Relations, said Anne Gregory on the BBC Radio 4’s The Message programme. “It is about organisations building relationships with its publics……… to build positive relationships in both directions”
It is clear that relationship management and the management of relationships is an area of management that enthuses the PR industry. Practitioners like to believe that they can change relationships between organisations and their publics in a managed fashion.
So far so good. But one may ask: so what? What do these relationships do. What do they achieve? What are they for?
“In a mature economy it is increasingly difficult to find tangible resources of differentiation and it is the reputation and relationships which organisations establish with their stakeholders which are the drivers of corporate success,” suggests academic Danny Moss (Moss in Theaker 2004 pp. 328). All I would suggest is that the practice of PR goes beyond stakeholders.
PR as a business driver is suggested by White and Murry in their Henley School of Management research based on interviews with European CEO's : PR offers … “Inclusivity in relationships with all stakeholders is seen as correlated with company performance. The things that really drive a company – these are all around relationships and are not seen as of interest to financial commentators” (White & Murray 2004).
The IABC Research Foundation, concluded that in order for organizations to achieve the most value from their intangible assets they must encourage systematic relationship-building and boundary-spanning behaviour by everyone in the organization. The challenge for communication managers is to understand how they can contribute to this process.
Which is not far from Patricia Hewitt MP when she was British Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, and well ahead of many economist's thinking called for corporations to have "successful relationships with a wide range of other stakeholders" because they "are important assets, crucial to stable, long-term performance and shareholder value".
In an academic paper to be published next month in Public Relations – An International Journal I make this point “without effective relationships all other corporate assets are at risk. Sources of capital, raw materials and services, valuable intellectual assets, markets, customers and processes throughout the value chain are completely dependent on relationships between people within organisations and their counterparts without.” Once again, the argument favours a range of relationships, internal and external and a range of different forms of PR practice relevant to relationships along the extent of the value chain to influence value.
The debate is maturing from an argument about affecting a range of publics to one where this effect drives value and the creation of wealth from intangibles. So I pitch public relations as a discipline builds organisational relationships with publics and creates wealth.
So far, what I have been describing is relatively easy the grey matter. But what are relationships? What is an organisation?
These are not easy questions.
There is a need to explicate what we mean by relationships. In Ledingham (Ledingham 2000), Broom, Casey, and Ritchey offer a description that helps.
“Organization-public relationships are represented by the patterns of interaction, transaction, exchange, and linkage between an organization and its publics. These relationships have properties that are distinct from the identities, attributes, and perceptions of the individuals and social collectivities in the relationships. Though dynamic in nature, organization-public relationships can be described at a single point in time and tracked over time.”
This idea postulates that relationships are distinct in themselves and have a mutuality and, through a pattern of linkages, extend their influence. It would also suggest that a relationship has consequences for other people such that any relationship has, to an extent, an influence on other publics and is surrounded by an aura of relationship interactions among other related publics.
Lets me put this into a more understandable context:
A balding old lecturer (and you might guess who) can demonstrate what this all means by interrupting a lecture (think of lectures as being a mini cultural setting or frame) on relationship management by give a rose to a pretty young member of the audience. Instantly the recipient and lecturer relationship is changed. The girl blushes, the lecturer grins. The rest of the audience immediately assesses the meaning of this action and create their own understandings as to the new relationship in an 'arora borealis' of assumptions about this relationship. The exchange of the explicit token (the rose) is significant, so too are all the connotations - that is, implicit values - that such a token may have (in sociology its called antecedents and consequences). A similar effect can be archived with a smile, wink or other signal. Whereas the rose is tangible, the smile, wink or other signal can be intangible. Quite often, a token like a rose, has a value that is inferred or is a metaphor. After all, a rose is but a dying flower on the branch of a shrub. The token is, in itself is insignificant, but the values attached to a rose changes its perceived value (in the case of a rose, some values have a powerful emotional effect too). Should the same lecturer offer a twenty pound note instead of a rose, the nature of the token is different and so too would be the reaction of the recipient and the audience. Both rose and coin are gifts but the implied meanings and resulting relationships would be very different. The nature of tokens and what they represent, their values, in a relationship is significant.
Here we see a process of relationship in which tokens are used for creation of attention and influence with a by-product of wider influence. It is an idea we can explore from empirical research by many academics from altruism (Hamilton 1964) to business relationships (Bouzdine-Chameeva, Durrieu, and Mandják 2001 )
This is a form of relationship management that has and deals in values. In some instances this value is financial which can be demonstrated by the financial effects of loosing or enhancing relationships. But these values extend beyond just financial considerations.
In some domains of public relations practice, for example, in internal communications or vendor relations, the practice of public relations seeks to add extra dimensions to the financial or legal exchange. This can be in forms that have different tokens that bind the employees and contractors and create additional mutual dependencies. Examples include the management of relationships with local communities and other CSR packages using tokens such as corporate facilities, management expertise, access to employees in support of good causes etc.
Such arrangements show that there can be employees or vendor relationships (and other relationships between organisations and publics) that do not have to use financial or legally-binding tokens to change relationships and thereby values in organisations. The nature of organisations is changing too.
The practice of relationship management means that the practitioner changes the value of relationships using tangible and intangible tokens.
If Public Relations practitioners and their industry association are bold enough and brave enough, these are new heights the industry can aspire to.
Picture: Paridgm Shift Howard Bloom's Big Bang Tango Media Lab