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The myth of relationship building as the key measure of PR

By Kim Harrison,

Consultant, Author and Principal of

One of the myths to emerge in public relations in the past ten years has been the view of relationship-building as the key measure of PR accomplishment. The problem with using relationship-building as the key measure is that it is only a process – it doesn’t measure outcomes or results. In the real world, communication professionals are judged by the results they achieve, which are measured in many more important ways than by the relationships they build or strengthen.

This myth started with the 40-page paper written by Dr James Grunig with Dr Linda Hon and colleagues in 1999 titled “Guidelines for measuring relationships in public relations.” Grunig and Hon maintained that PR is mainly about managing the relationship between an organization and its stakeholders. The paper is at

Basically, Grunig and colleagues believed that “a growing number of public relations practitioners and scholars have come to believe that the fundamental goal of public relations is to build and then enhance on-going or long-term relationships with an organization’s key constituencies.”

This group made their case this way:

“Tools and techniques for measuring and evaluating the relatively short-term outputs and outcomes of specific public relations programs, events and campaigns have existed for quite a number of years. But up until now, measuring the success or failure of long-term relationships stemming, in part from public relations efforts, have not existed.

Outputs are usually the immediate results of a particular PR program or activity. More often than not, they represent what is readily apparent to the eye. They measure how well an organization presents itself to others, the amount of attention or exposure that the organization receives.

Outcomes measure whether target audience groups actually received the messages directed at them … paid attention to them … understood the messages … and retained those messages in any shape or form. They also measure whether the communication materials and messages that were disseminated have resulted in any opinion, attitude and/or behavior changes on the part of those targeted publics to whom the messages were directed.

“As important as it can be for an organization to measure PR outputs and outcomes, it is even more important for an organization to measure relationships. This is because for most organizations measuring outputs and outcomes can only give information about the effectiveness of a particular or specific PR program or event that has been undertaken.

“In order to answer the much broader question -- “How can PR practitioners begin to
pinpoint and document for senior management the overall value of public relations to the organization as a whole?
” -- different tools and techniques are needed.”

Unfortunately, these people have never held a position in public relations management, and therefore they didn’t understand the realities of the corporate world. Can you imagine telling your executive committee that the key measure of stakeholder relationships improved by 12%? They would rightly say, “But how does that relate to our bottom line?” The main problem is that relationships are only a means to an end – they are a process and don’t relate to end results. Senior managers insist on measuring results.

The reality is that relationship measurement is only one of many measures of PR effectiveness. PR is implemented in multi-faceted ways and therefore needs to be measured in multiple ways.

There may be a correlation, but there is no proof that better relationships generate better business outcomes. More research is needed on this aspect.

Another problem is that it is difficult to measure the value to the organization of public relations programs if the focus is on measuring relationships. Merely being able to demonstrate better relationships with key constituent groups such as employees and customers doesn’t necessarily prove that better business outcomes have been generated by the PR efforts. PR must clearly show how it is supporting the achievement of business outcomes, especially a measurable return on investment in PR.

Measurement of organizational relationships is therefore just another measure of communication; certainly not the most important.

About the Author

Kim Harrison is a recognized authority in the public relations field. His website,, provides a wealth of informative articles and resources on public relations techniques and management.


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