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Relationship building is not a crucial PR measure

01 Jun, 2020 PR measurement, PR planning, strategy, budgeting

One of the myths to emerge in public relations has been the view of relationship-building as the key measure of PR accomplishment. It is a vital measure, but only in conjunction with measures of outcomes or results. Relationship-building is a process. It is not an end in itself. It is  a means to an end – it doesn’t measures outcomes or results. In the real world, communication professionals are judged by the results they achieve, which are measured in more direct ways than by the relationships they build or strengthen. Nevertheless, it is acknowledged that positive and productive relationships are fundamental to successful public relations practice. Overall, relationship building is not a crucial PR measure.

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.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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. [They haven’t specified any “different tools and techniques.” And nor have they indicated a productive way to measure relationships.]

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 tangible results. Senior managers insist on measuring results, and therefore relationship building is not a crucial PR measure.

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. Therefore, relationship building is not a crucial PR measure.

(On the other hand, good personal relationships on an ongoing basis are more important to productive career results. Read more about this in my article, “Soft skills of good communication and relationships essential to career success,” for insights into developing a positive career path.)

Professor Grunig and his colleagues probably would have had greater success with this approach if they had considered using relationships more as a societal measure than an organizational measure. Now on to a contrarian’s view…

If public relations is more than good relationships, then what is it?

Firstly, what is the purpose of language? Professor Emeritus Robert Cialdini, author of the New York Times bestseller, Influence – the Psychology of Persuasion, said in his latest book, Pre-suasion – A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade, published in 2016, page 100:

No longer should we think of language as primarily a mechanism of conveyance; as a means for delivering a communicator’s conception of reality….we should think of language as primarily a mechanism for influence [my emphasis]; as a means for inducing recipients to share that conception or, at least, to act in accord with it…

This aligns with Alan Kelly’s 2021 argument expressed in an interview by Jim Macnamara for Macnamara’s 2020 book, ” Beyond Post-Communication, in which:

[Kelly] argues that PR operates “first and foremost to create competitive advantage” for those who use it. He elaborates: Influencers are always running plays [his term for influence strategies], most especially PR people, because their essential purpose is to defend or advance the position or point of view of a client or company. PR/comms is advocacy dressed as education. And if it’s advocacy, it’s manipulation.

Edelman is the biggest US communication firm, with 6,000 staff. Edelman styles itself as “a global communications firm that partners with businesses and organizations to evolve, promote and protect their brands and reputations.” Although its core business is clearly public relations, according to Kelly’s points in the above interview, the firm avoids the term, presumably to avoid the conflicts created by straying from Professor James Grunig’s famous, idealistic “two-way symmetric model” of communication, as described on pages 41-43 of his 1984 book, Managing Public Relations.

Finally, a leading thinker, the UK’s Chris Tucker, a CIPR course leader and former global PR director for Barclays, definitely views public relations as persuasion. In a 2018 article, “Public relations as persuasion,” for the PR Academy, she says:

Many of the criticisms aimed at persuasion rest on the idea that our audiences are passive recipients of persuasive messages and lack the resources to challenge what they are being told. Does that sound much like today’s audiences? Perhaps the rhetorical tradition’s idea of a battle for ideas is a more apt metaphor, and public relations as advocacy need not be a concept we should be ashamed of any more.

Image: Outline of the new online AMEC Integrated Evaluation Framework

About Kim Harrison – author, editor and content curator

Kim Harrison, Founder and Principal of Cutting Edge PR, loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in his books available from

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