Who you know counts in public relations – avoiding dog bites online


There is an old proverb that you may know a man by the company he keeps. In public relations, a lot is made of developing contacts and relationships – but less consideration is given to the quality of company that we keep.

Another angle on the proverb applies to organisations regarding the associations that transfer from the company they keep (for example, in supplier relationships as has been seen with the recent horsemeat issue and discussed in Judy Gombita‘s Defining Social PR Byte post).

There are also considerations about how the organisations that PR practitioners work with affect personal reputations – and vice versa. As individuals we can enhance or harm our employers/clients, and similarly, their actions can have a positive or negative impact on our reputation and credibility.

The nature of our contacts is also important, particularly in relation to whether they reflect an equality or imbalance in power. This reminds me of the two ways to train a dog:

  • One is to dominate it and use your power as an owner to persuade the dog to obey your will. The dog will respond, often from a position of fear.
  • The second is to earn the dog’s loyalty when obedience results from respect.

This analogy extends further into times of crisis where the dog that is motivated by loyalty will take the initiative to help and protect an owner. The dominated dog will more likely respond by adding its bite to that of any attacker.

Power is at the heart of many relationships and we need to think about this in the company we keep, whether building our personal contacts or helping organisations develop strategic partnerships. If you (or your contacts) make connections only on the basis of WIIFM (what’s in it for me?), then the company you are keeping is vulnerable to the occasional bite.

This argues for a form of due diligence to be undertaken that considers strategic relationships from a public relations perspective:

  • What are the possible consequences for reputational damage as well as positive associations that can be gained?
  • Can co-orientation exist in times of possible conflict or will fractures occur leading to blame and self-preservation?

As people and organisations increasingly form coalitions to achieve their aims (proxy or collective agency), these issues need to be considered within public relations. Models of PR – and wider management – often look at stakeholders largely from the perspective of a single organization. Within organisations, stakeholders need to be mapped more universally and specifically by function, project and even individual relationships. When working in partnerships, stakeholders need to be considered from the shared position – identifying friends, foes, those with power, interest, saliency and so on.

Such relationships can also be considered in terms of the tangible and intangible benefits (and possible consequences) gained. Drawing on the work of Clark and Mills, we can distinguish between exchange and communal relationships.

  • Exchange relationships: involve a familiar, economic contractural approach where something of value is directly transferred between parties. This may, or many not, be a commercial or monetary transaction.
  • Communal relationships: are non-contingent, without any obligation or responsibilities between the parties.

Interestingly, this communal approach is asymmetric, in contrast to exchange relationships which are by definition, mutually beneficial. This seems to contrast with how Hon and Grunig view the typology, as they reflect a level of cynicism in exchange relationships suggesting people believe organisations only engage with them when they want something in return, and presenting communal relationships as evidencing a concern on the part of the organisation for others. Hence, they present communal relationships as symmetrical claiming both parties gain a benefit, which seems the reverse of Clark and Mills. However, Clark and Mills identify symmetry in communal relationships where the parties assume a mutual level of responsibility for each other, and asymmetry where there is variance in communal responsiveness.

What I find surprising is that there is little attention paid to educating PR practitioners in respect of relationships. The focus of training and qualifications tends to remain on communications, with an implicit belief that being competent in writing somehow equates to building positive relationships. Or the ability to build relationships is seen as personal and intuitive, something that is derived from a certain personality type, rather than a competency to be studied and improved, particularly in respect of organisational relationships.

I believe that the complexity of relationships in a modern, global, dynamic world calls for re-envisioning of the normative ideas that public relations is about dialogical, mutually beneficial communications predicated primarily on a simple, linear interface. Clark and Mills present further models of relationships, such as exploitative and a hybrid communal-exchange approach, and begin to examine various dimensions of the multiple relationships that individuals establish with others. There are many other areas of relationship thinking outside the PR literature that could be considered.

For example, social network theory considers how relationships develop within groups (formal and informal), which means grasping aspects such as culture, status, unwritten rules and inter-group dynamics. This is particularly relevant online where a pack mentality can quickly turn from tail wagging approval to a frenzied teeth-baring assault.

Online, the company we keep is likely to be out of our control. People can choose to associate with us even if we’d prefer they didn’t. When others engage with us or our organisations, we become connected to a wider network that extends the reach of influence, but also potential harm. Such contacts may increasingly assume a level of interest and indeed, power, that can have major impacts. They become publics, who form and act in relation to matters that concern them, and to which we may well need to react.

Taking this back to the personal level, it is seen in how social media have impacted on our relationships. Friends of friends suddenly can connect and take an interest in our affairs. This can be a benign comment or like, or lead to positive consequences. It can also result in harmful consequences. Perhaps this involves invading our privacy in a minor way, or more sinisterly opening us up to possible harm – 20,000 people invading a private party for example. The same ideas apply to organisations online – building a Facebook community may be attractive from a marketing perspective, but it is a ready made activist group if something we do – or are thought to do – incurs a negative reaction.

Something else we don’t always fully consider in public relations is how in the online territory, relationships are often very different from those built in the ‘real’ world. Common approaches to online relationship building are about making as many contacts as possible – with little regard to the quality or possible implications of the company we are keeping. It is all about the numbers or some unproven measure of influence. But the more contacts you have, the greater the potential risk (as well as opportunity) for negative consequences.

In the same way that the horsemeat issue raises the importance of understanding the full six degrees of separation in supplier relationships, so PR practitioners need to assess the nature of online connections – as well as those with other relevant stakeholders, influencers or publics.

We cannot possibly build in-depth personal relationships with everyone in our complex, messy online networks. And even though organisations have always had thousands of connections, and extended connections, these are amplified in potential impact online. Jokes and poor taste, let alone a disregard for convention and legal niceties, prevail online.

Entering this dog-eat-dog world, organisations may be seen as tasty snacks, rather than respected as an alpha dog in the pack. They need PR practitioners who are familiar with contemporary relationship thinking to avoid suffering dog bites online. This means much more than simply collecting connections to really understand the consequences of the company we keep.


The analogy of dog bites in this post is not meant to belittle the serious impact of canine attacks

Elections are poor public relations

An election may seem to be the essence of democracy – with public participation in a decision making process demonstrating engagement and a method of the majority selecting who they wish to represent them within a particular system.

As such, it ought to be good public relations – a time of relationship building, consideration of well-made arguments, co-orientation around issues of common consent and an opportunity for the views of the masses to be considered by those seeking office.

Continue reading Elections are poor public relations

The PR Model of Excellence: a Greenbanana guide in 500 words

The following is intended as a quick revision guide to the PR Model of Excellence study undertaken by David Dozier, Larissa Grunig, James Gunig, William Ehling, Fred Repper and Jon White in the 1990s.  It is not a substitute for wider reading and reflection on the topic, but provides a brief overview – in 500 words.

In 1990, Grunig and colleagues undertook a $400,000 three-nation study funded by the International Association of Business Communications (IABC) Research Foundation to identify the essential elements of excellent communications, which applied globally to all organisations.

This Excellence Study surveyed 321 organizations in Canada, US and UK, followed by case studies with 24 participants.

The 10 year study tested a “general theory of PR” derived from literature, that had revealed much understanding of PR was based on presumptions. The researchers’ perspective was to look at PR “as a profession and a function in society as something that can be constantly improved”.

The Excellence Study’s general theory proposed analysis at four levels:

  1. programme – PR should be managed strategically to be most effective in meeting its objectives
  2. departmental – the common characteristics most successful communications departments are: an integrated PR function, distinct from marketing, practising two-way symmetric communications. With equal gender opportunities, the top PR person reports to senior management. The team has knowledge of the symmetric model, PR’s managerial role, is academically trained in PR and reflects professionalism.
  3. organizational – conditions associated with organisations demonstrating successful PR include reflecting two-way symmetric communications, power for PR with the dominant coalition (senior management), a participative culture, organic organizational structure, and a complex and turbulent environment with pressure from activist groups.
  4. economic – successful communications delivers a tangible value including achieving communication objectives, reduced costs of regulation, pressure and litigation and high job satisfaction among employees.

The study used Grunig & Hunt’s definition of PR as the “management of communication between an organization and its publics” – equating PR and communication management (ie PR is broader than media relations or publicity) as “the overall planning, execution, and evaluation of an organization’s communication with both external and internal publics”.

As a result of the study, communication excellence was defined as “the ideal in which knowledgeable communicators assist in the overall strategic management of organizations, seeking symmetrical relations through management of communication with key publics on whom organizational survival and growth depends.”

This encompasses three spheres of communication excellence:

  1. Knowledge base of the communications department
  2. Shared expectations of top communicators and senior managers about the function and role of communications
  3. Organizational culture which should be open and supportive of minorities

PR was seen as having a monetary value to the organization by “building quality, long-term relationships with strategic constituencies”. That is, reflecting the two-way symmetric model as a core practice of the PR function.

Cheney & Christensen criticised the study as relying on self-reporting by participants. L’Etang said the two-way symmetric model is idealistic, PR is “inherently partisan”, and relationships between organisations and publics are imbalanced in power and influence. Pieczka felt the study had an inherent bias favouring the two-way symmetric model.

Grunig reconceptualised the two-way symmetric model in 2001 drawing on Murphy’s game theory to identify a mixed motive continuum with symmetrical communications used to seek a win-win zone between the interests of the organization (pure asymmetry) and its publics (pure co-operation).

Useful sources: Excellence project summary, Excellence study books series, Google book search