Public relations as relationship management

About the author

Richard Bailey FCIPR MPRCA is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

‘Public relations: it does exactly what it says on the tin.’ So says Professor Anne Gregory when lecturing to students, and it seems self-evident that a discipline called public relations should be focused on relationships.

As a well-known definition from a long-established PR management textbook puts it:

‘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.’

This definition – from Cutlip, Center and Broom’s Effective Public Relations, first published in 1952 and still in print in its eleventh (international) edition – presents public relations management as relationship management. What’s more, the definition explains why this should matter: an organisation’s survival depends on these PR relationships.

There’s a body of relationship management theory and scholarship, centred around the work of John Ledingham and Stephen Bruning, arguing for public relations to be understood as PR relationship management.

Marketing understands that organisations depend on relationships with customers. No customers, no business. But public relations also consider non-market groups such as regulators, politicians, activists, investors, trades unions and employees (collectively, citizens).

Publics, stakeholders, constituencies, communities 

If relationships are central to public relations management, then it also follows that ‘public’ should mean something more specific than ‘the general public’.

James Grunig (with Todd Hunt in 1984 and with Fred Repper in 1992) argued that publics were more dynamic than stakeholders, as they come together when facing a particular issue and deciding to become active on this issue (originally presented as ‘the situational theory of publics’).

Yet from the 1990s onwards, the use of stakeholders has replaced that of publics. It’s a flexible term that allows many different approaches to identifying, segmenting and managing stakeholder groups.

We have provided a downloadable Guide to stakeholder identification and mapping, so won’t cover the same ground here.

There are some critical voices, though.

Stakeholder maps tend to depict a static relationship and risk assuming that all those within certain groups (eg shareholders) have the same interests and the same level of involvement in the organisation.

The focus is on organisation-public relationships, and this tends to assume that the relationship is as important to stakeholders as it is to the organisation. This is rarely the case.

Millions of us are members of the National Trust, a conservation charity. All will be happy to contribute to preserving beautiful places. Most members take advantage of the ‘free’ admission to country houses and landscape parks and may welcome (and even read) the member magazine. Only some will volunteer their time and yet fewer will exercise their voting rights at annual general meetings.

Despite paying for membership, this does not guarantee our loyalty. Those with a keen interest in heritage and conservation may well be members of other bodies that may feel themselves to be in competition with the National Trust for funds, for members and for attention.

Maps of stakeholder relationships tend to place the organisation at the centre, rather like the medieval Christian view of the universe revolving around the earth. Yet as my National Trust example shows, most of us do not have undivided attention or fixed loyalties.

A more accurate view would present the organisation as one planet revolving around the sun, which is in turn just one star among many others in the galaxy. It’s a much more complex map.

In reconceptualising public relations in this direction, US scholars Timothy Coombs and Sherry Holladay prefer the word ‘constituencies’ to ‘stakeholders’ or ‘publics’. Their definition:

‘Public relations is the management of mutually influential relationships within a web of constituency relationships.’

It’s still centred on relationships, though these are now ‘mutually influential’ rather than ‘mutually beneficial’. The ‘web of constituency relationships’ reminds us that we may be at times be influenced by the organisation, but we are also open to influence from other sources. This is a very different model to the usual focus on organisation-public relationships.

Others extend this thinking and see public relations as community management. This sounds like a contemporary view, as community management is now assumed to mean social media management. Yet US scholars Kenneth Starck and Dean Kruckeberg have long argued for public relations to be seen as ‘an active attempt to restore and maintain a sense of community.’

This argument was made in 1998 – that’s before the web and long before social media. By community they mean society, and they later argued: ‘We believe that corporations ultimately exist by consent of society, which remains in fact the ultimate stakeholder of such corporations to which these organizations are answerable.’

Today, community and PR management is a distinct area of practice. Some see it as part of public relations (or even as the future of public relations). Others, such as Richard Millington, argue that it’s a distinct practice driven by the needs of the community members, not the needs of an organisation.


Coombs and Holladay talk about ‘mutually influential relationships’. Robert Cialdini has written that rare thing, an academic bestseller, exploring what’s involved in influence. He identifies six paths to influence:

  1. Reciprocity: If you do something for someone, they’re more likely to do something for you
  2. Consistency: People act in ways that are consistent with what you have said or done previously
  3. Liking: If people like you, they are more likely to do what you want
  4. Authority: If people see you as an authority figure, they’re more likely to do what you say
  5. Social proof: People do what they see other people doing
  6. Scarcity: People don’t like losing the opportunity to get something

Within the public relations literature, practitioner Philip Sheldrake has written about influence. In The Business of Influence, he provides a critique of Grunig’s two-way symmetric ideal on the grounds that there are only two influence flows involved: the organisation’s influence with its publics, and the publics’ influence on the organisation. (Grunig would surely argue that these are the only two we can claim to manage.)

A former engineer, he had identified six influence flows, meaning that four were beyond the control of public relations.

Today, influencer marketing is a growth area as public relations teams seek to supplement – or even replace – media relations with influencer relations. This specifically refers to those with niche followings on social media channels such as YouTube and Instagram.

Social capital and public relations

The concept of social capital is useful for explaining relationship management. Some groups have a financial stake in the organisation: most obviously investors, customers and employees. But many others have non-financial stakes.

As Norwegian scholar Oyvind Ihlen explains it: ‘Social capital is seen as a result of a conscious or unconscious investment strategy that involves exchanges of, for instance, gifts, services, words, time, attention, care or concern. It also implies “obligations” or “credit”.’

These exchanges are not as crude as a form of hush money, but public relations practitioners hope that by having built up trust (social capital), stakeholders will at least give them an opportunity to explain their position when the organisation faces scrutiny and criticism.

In an ideal world, these groups would provide a first line of defence by speaking up in support of an organisation when it’s under attack in a public forum like the press or social media. Stephen Waddington and Steve Earl wrote about this first line of defence in #BrandVandals.

Finnish scholar Vilma Luoma-aho defines social capital as ‘the extent of the resources available to an organization through networks of trust and reciprosity among its stakeholders.’

So the outcome of relationship management is a form of intangible capital built on trust and reciprosity.

She writes: ‘public relations practitioners should be seen as creators and maintainers of organizational social capital’ and argues that social capital is the way to connect relationships, trust and reputation into one conceptual framework.

But how do we measure relationships?

This sounds rational. It sounds manageable. But is it measurable?

A challenge to the relational view of public relations is the need to measure the value of these intangible relationships in order to demonstrate progress, prove effectiveness and deliver value.

James Grunig and Linda Hon published an IPR paper addressing this challenge.

Having asserted that the value of public relations is in relationships, they provided an analysis of the six factors that can be assessed within relationships:

  1. Control mutuality (the extent to which the relationship is two-way)
  2. Trust (can the organisation be relied on to keep its promises?)
  3. Commitment (long-term orientation)
  4. Satisfaction (do the benefits of the relationship outweigh its costs?)
  5. Exchange relationships (the extent to which gains are expected from the relationship)
  6. Communal relationships (is there concern for the welfare of the other?)

More recently, measurement specialist Katie Paine has followed in Grunig’s footsteps, arguing:

“The future of public relations lies in the development of relationships, and the future of measurement lies in the accurate analysis of those relationships. Counting impressions will become increasingly irrelevant while measuring relationships and reputation will become ever more important.”

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Further reading

Broom, G and Sha, B (2013) Cutlip and Center’s Effective Public Relations (11th edition), Pearson

Cialdini, R (2007) Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Collins Business

Coombs, WT and Holladay, S (2010) PR Strategy and Application: Managing Influence, Wiley-Blackwell

Grunig, J and Hunt, T (1984) Managing Public Relations, Holt, Rinehart and Winston

Grunig, J and Repper, F (1992) Strategic Management, Publics and Issues in Grunig, J (ed) Excellence in Public Relations and Communication Management, Lawrence Erlbaum

Hon, L and Grunig, J (1999) Guidelines for Measuring Relationships in Public Relations, IPR (pdf)

Ihlen, O (2009) On Bourdieu: Public Relations in Field Struggles in Ihlen, O, van Ruler, B and Fredriksson, M Public Relations and Social Theory: Key Figures and Concepts, Routledge

Kruckeberg, D and Starck, K (1988) Public Relations and Community: A Reconstructed Theory, Praeger

Ledingham, J and Bruning, S (eds) (2000) Relationship Management: A relational approach to public relations, Lawrence Erlbaum

Ledingham, J and Brunig, S (1998) Relationship Management in Public Relations: Dimensions of an Organization-Public Relationship in Public Relations Review 24(1) 55-65

Luoma-aho, V (2009) On Putnam in Ihlen et al Public Relations and Social Theory: Key Figures and Concepts, Routledge

Millington, R (2012) Buzzing Communities: How to Build Bigger, Better, and More Active Communities, FeverBee

Paine, K (2011) Measure What Matters:  Online Tools for Understanding Customers, Social Media, Engagement, and Key Relationships, Wiley

Sheldrake, P (2011) The Business of Influence: Reframing Marketing and PR for the Digital Age, Wiley

Waddington, S and Earl, S (2013) #BrandVandals: Reputation wreckers and how to build better defences, Bloomsbury