Relationalizing Public Relations: Selected Interpersonal Communication Concepts and Research with Applicability to Relationship Management

Article excerpt


My family took a vacation to California when I was a youngster. My parents crammed my two brothers and me into our 1953 Ford Fairlane and we were on our way to palm trees, the Pacific Ocean, and Disneyland! Unfortunately, my father was completely focused on his ultimate goal of getting to our destination. Nothing between St. Louis and Los Angeles held any interest for him! Such wonders as the Painted Desert, the Grand Canyon, and the Petrified Forest were ignored because dad had a mission to accomplish and the goal was all important. My father had a mental picture of an ideal vacation in California without being aware that the vacation was already in progress and that he could be accomplishing his goal along the way. Ironically, the quality of the trip itself with its numerous opportunities for new explorations and building of family relationships became irrelevant in the relentless pursuit of his goal. Our family members were treated as a means to an end rather than as the end. One major truth eluded my father: enjoying and concentrating on the quality of the relationships on the trip would eventually manifest itself in the achievement of a far richer goal than arriving at his preestablished "image" of the destination.

Traditional approaches to public relations tend to focus on the creation of an image or of a perceptual reality. This functional view concentrates on the strategies and technical processes necessary to achieve the desired end state, which is a particular public perception of an organization, product, or service. Little or no attention is traditionally given to the relational dynamics involved. At the very least it is ironic that relationships with significant publics or customers have been such a low priority for public relations practitioners. Historically, they have been blind to the wealth of relationship-building potential and rewards available to them because of their unique communication position. This shortsightedness is reminiscent of the vacation my family took to California. The vacation was a human experience, an interpersonal experience, not a destination.

In recognition of and response to this myopia, an alternate perspective has emerged in the continuous evolution of the discipline and practice of public relations, one which might be termed the "relationalizing" of public relations. This approach involves mutual benefits for organizations and their publics through the development of behavioral relationships rather than the symbolic, persuasion-oriented activities of the "image makers" of the past (for elaboration on these activities, see Cutlip, Center, & Broom, 1994; Ferguson, 1984; Grunig, 1993).

Relationship management is at the heart of this new perspective, which a growing number of public relations researchers and practitioners are advocating (Ledingham and Bruning, 2000). Relationship management in public relations settings can be defined as the development, maintenance, growth, and nurturing of mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their significant publics. The basic impetus of this new perspective is the recognition of the essential role of strong bonds and relationships between organizations and their internal and external publics. It is an acknowledgment of the fact that public relations involves much more than strategies and formulas to generate a desired image or a series of functions.

This approach has contributed to what some have termed the beginnings of a "paradigm struggle" in public relations in which the "dominant applied model, based (at least in the United States) on a journalistic heritage and business orientation" is now being challenged by other views (Botan, 1993). Botan notes that the field of public relations is faced with choices between assumptions and values of various paradigms Some theorists see such paradigms as the symmetrical/systems, rhetorical/critical, feminist, and social scientific as among those competing in this paradigm struggle for dominance or, at the very least, equity. …