Relationships are in the DNA of PR – in fact, the name itself indicates the function manages relations with publics. But the priority in PR practice is largely on writing skills rather than interpersonal ones; whilst although academic definitions and literature highlight two-way communications, they largely omit what is required to build and maintain mutually beneficial relationships.
Most of the focus on communications skills is still primarily on an ability to write. Even here, the emphasis is usually on informing, or persuading, rather than engaging, initiating a response or building a relationship. Rhetoric rules rather than dialogic communications.
Perhaps it is presumed that PR practitioners are competent in relationship building and don’t need to learn relevant craft skills in the same way that they need to learn to write for the media or other publics. Indeed, one of the claims made to explain the ongoing gender shift of the occupation is that women have better people skills. But is it natural to know how to build professional, multi-dimensional relationships to help organizations manage conflict situations or seek co-orientation with a wide range of individuals or groups over time?
Is it unreasonable to suggest practitioners need relationship counselling rather than relying on a gender stereotype of a friendly nature or outgoing personality? The relational perspective of public relations offers a good body of knowledge regarding the concept of organization-public relationships, albeit drawing on other fields such as marketing, organizational theory, conflict resolution and interpersonal communication (see Julia Jahansoozi’s excellent review). This needs to be translated into practical competencies to become recognised as a vital intelligence-based skills set to close the gap between the “friendliness” focus of relationship building in practice and an informed understanding of research and knowledge-based strategies.
There are lots of opportunities for building a competency toolkit – from considering how to establish professional relationships to methodologies for evaluation, ethical frameworks, etc. Issues arising from the traditional journalist to PR career route need to be considered in relationship terms. Aspects of openness, acknowledgement of partisanship, and “faux friendship” need to be examined. Strategies around frenemies and friendlies (Judy Gombita’s great term) could be investigated.
The focus on what is required to develop and maintain professional relationships is of particular relevance to young PR practitioners, based on a recent PR Conversations’ post on mentoring and networking by Alan Berkson and Fred McClimans. They reference a vital “knowledge acquisition ecosystem”, and relationships are an important way in which culture and practice is developed and corrected. The reliance of Gen Y on their peer relationships, and other online cultivated contacts, has an impact on the way in which professional relationships may be conceived going forwards. How this relates to the organization-public relationship would be an interesting area to research further.
Likewise, what are the consequences of a faster cycle of job changes on practitioners’ credibility as the hub of organization-public relations? Are the contacts primarily personal rather than “belonging” to the client organization?
PR practitioners should also play a key role in providing relationship counselling advice at the strategic level – something that seems to be a pitfall waiting for many CEOs, or is that just British politicians, police and newspaper proprietors? Surely such a role needs to be based on more than intuition, common sense and previous experience, particularly if PR is to be seen as providing strategic counsel that delivers proven results.
And, if relationships are to be recognised as a central unit of public relations, then we need to engage with methods of analysing, tracking and researching them. This means qualitative not simply quantitative survey approaches. Relationships are nuanced and the methods of research we use need to reflect this. Counting Twitter followers or Facebook likes does not constitute evaluation of organization-public relationships.
We need to consider the challenges as well as the benefits of building relationships and understand issues such as power-imbalance, selfishness and disengagement.
This is a rich channel for PR practitioners that extends their competency beyond the short-termism of generating press coverage or seeking ownership of the digital terrain. It is not something new, but is an area which seems to be taken for granted so perhaps it is time to foreground this aspect of practice and academic research. If we are called public relations at the least we ought to be competent in building public relationships.