PR book On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney
Mutual satisfaction phase of public relations
© 2002 Michael Turney Table of contents Practicing Public Relations home page About the author

The mutual satisfaction phase of public relations encourages organizations and their publics to compromise and make complementary adjustments to one another so both benefit from their relationship. It is as much concerned with receiving and interpreting in-coming messages which it uses to counsel management as it is with developing outgoing messages.

Practitioners in the mutual satisfaction phase see public relations as:

The efficacy of two-way communication fueled this evolution.

Public relations didn't mature beyond manipulative explanations until practitioners realized that the most meaningful and long-lasting relationships are built on two-way give and take rather than one-way persuasion.

Explanatory approaches to public relations could, and still can, solve a lot of problems and put out a lot of brushfires, but their reliance on one-way communication is ultimately a very self-centered approach for an organization to take. It was very aptly described by practitioner Dick Tarbrough in pr reporter's "plain talk" (2/04/02) as thinking that operates "inside out." The public relations team works closely with top management and others inside the organization to come up with an explanation that suits their purpose and sounds right to them and then they disseminate it to everyone. They simply assume that "if it makes sense to them, then ipso facto, it has to make sense to the public." All you have to do is tell them. But, in real life, it doesn't always work out that way.

Explanatory approaches to public relations can, and often do, work, but only up to a point. They're similar to a smooth and persuasive pick-up line that can lead to a pleasant one-night stand but rarely to a successful marriage. And, just as serious-minded spouse-seekers have matured beyond pick-up lines, sophisticated public relations practitioners have moved beyond explanatory approaches after realizing that one-way public relations could produce occasional publicity coups but rarely led to long-term relationships.

Just as marriages and long-term friendships succeed because the partners respect one another and willingly adjust to meet each other's needs, practitioners learned that public relations can more effectively build long-term relationships when it's interactive and helps organizations and their publics accommodate one another's desires. In the words of the PRSA:

Public relations helps an organization and its publics mutually adapt to each other.

Assembly of the Public Relations Society of America

It's taken over 100 years to reach this point.

Although some practitioners were espousing such views as early as the 1960s, it was more talk than action. There was little acceptance of the idea that organizations and their publics should try to mutually understand one another and be willing to adjust to each other until the late 1980s.

Throughout the 1990s, these ideas became increasingly evident in everyday professional discussions, at workshops and conferences sponsored by the PRSA, the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), and other organizations, and in countless trade journal articles.

Much of this attention was a result of The IABC Excellence Study directed and subsequently publicized by Dr. James Grunig. It was a major, multi-year research project that cost almost a half-million dollars and involved questionnaires and interviews with thousands of public relations practitioners and business executives around the world. It looked at how businesses and other organizations communicate with one another and with their publics and tried to identify the characteristics that set excellent public relations operations apart from run of the mill ones.

Almost without exception, public relations units, whether independent consulting firms or internal departments within large corporations, which were considered "excellent" because of their professional reputations and/or their performance measured in financial and statistical terms practice two-way, interactive public relations instead of relying on one-way publicity or explanatory approaches.

Interactive mutual adaptation is interpreted in numerous ways.

As was true during every other stage of its development, public relations during its mutual satisfaction phase has been interpreted and explained in countless different ways by its practitioners. Some are simple and to the point; others are pedantic. And some, like Peter Jeff's observations, are both clever and delightfully insightful.

Public relations is a distinctive management function which helps establish and maintain mutual lines of communication, understanding, acceptance, and cooperation between an organization and its publics.

Dr. Rex Harlow, director
Foundation for Public Relations Research and Education

Public relations practice is the art and social science of analyzing trends, predicting their consequences, counseling organization leaders, and implementing planned programs of action which serve both the organization's and the public's interest.

World Assembly of Public Relations
Mexico City Conference

Public relations is organizational programs that promote the exchange of influence and understanding among organizations' constituent parts and publics.

Otis Baskin & Craig Aronoff
Public Relations: The Profession and the Practice

A public relations professional is a bridge-builder . . . building long-term relationships between a company or organization and its publics based on two-way communication.

Peter Jeff, practitioner
Grand Rapids, Michigan

How important is compromise and self-adjustment?

Some of the preliminary reports about the then-incomplete Excellence Study suggested that the more willing an organization was to adjust its operations to meet the needs of its publics, the better its reputation was and the more highly regarded its public relations people were. Grunig, who had previously advocated such approaches in Managing Public Relations, a 1984 book he co-authored with Todd Hunt, emphasized these early findings and encouraged practitioners to try to modify their clients' behavior in numerous articles and presentations. But, further scrutiny revealed that this early assessment didn't hold up, and it wasn't included in the final report of the Excellence Study. To use Grunig's jargon, there isn't enough evidence to support the notion that two-way symmetrical public relations is more effective than two-way asymmetrical public relations.

It does, however, seem clear from the Excellence Study, numerous case studies, and countless anecdotal observations that the best and most effective approaches to public relations today are those that see it as a two-way interactive process which builds and maintains long-term give-and-take relationships rather than emphasizing one-way communication.

Some of the world's leading corporations, including MCI, Lexus, Kodak, Campbell Soup and Ford, have adopted this view. Ford, in particular, has been a vocal proponent of this approach. The Ford Motor Company's Annual Report for 2000 stressed "the process of building deep and lasting bonds between our company and customers, suppliers, dealers, society, investors and our employees -- every single one of our principal stakeholder groups." A follow-up article in pr reporter (5/7/01) quoted the then-CEO of Ford, Jacques Nasser, as saying he wanted Ford to "shift from a transaction mentality to a relationship headset -- from merely selling a vehicle to providing an ongoing stream of automotive-related products and services that suit a customer's needs over a lifetime."

Table of contents Return to
Three phases of public relations
Further reading on
Publicity phase of public relations
Further reading on
Explanatory phase of public relations
Practicing Public Relations
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30 Nov 10