It seems I am going back to basics these days, reexamining the words we use to describe the practice of communications. Today, I found myself thinking about trust and relationships. This was sparked by my reading of a recent paper on Trust and PR Practice by Brad L. Rawlins. It is an interesting and useful article, particularly for its review of the literature of trust and its role in relationship building, a primary goal of public relations. It got me thinking about relationships, however, as it didn't really address the content of them: Who is involved in a relationship? Is it only people? Or is there truly an ability to have a relationship with an abstraction, such as a brand or corporation? What would "relationship" look like at this abstracted level and what could PR do here?
I followed a trail of breadcrumbs at the Institute for Public Relations website, which has lots of good research. Clicking on "Relationships" I found a number of articles, mostly about measurement. One was particularly interesting, by Elizabeth Dougall, Tracking Organization-Public Relationships Over Time: A Framework for Longitudinal Research. In her review of the literature about measuring relationships, she identifies a weakness: measurement of relationships usually is based on the perspectives of the people involved. But the question is, can relationships be measured as an entity in itself (abstraction or not)? It seems it can, primarily through looking at the formalization of structures, the intensity of flows (information and resources), standardization and outcomes (effectiveness, reciprocity). Dougall's paper actually looks at corporate conflict with activist groups, and she identifies "relationship-signaling statements" as part of analyzing the flows.
This helped me think again about my questions above. Perhaps there are two layers to relationships and PR needs to address both: the personal side and the infrastructural side. But before I get to that, I have to backtrack a bit. One thing that neither Dougall's nor Rawlin's paper offered was a definition of relationship. So, I headed over to my usual first source, the Mirriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Here's what I found: relationship -- "the relation connecting or binding participants in a relationship." Also, "a state of affairs existing between those having relations or dealings." Finally, "a passionate attachment." Obviously, I had to look at the word relation in order to make any sense of this. There are two definitions of relation I like: "the attitude or stance which two or more persons or groups assume toward one another" and "the state of being mutually or reciprocally interested (as in social or commercial matters)." And interested: "having the attention engaged" or "being affected or involved."
Let's synthesize a bit: A relationship is a state of affairs connecting or binding mutually or reciprocally interested (affected/involved) people/groups. The "state of affairs" is the structure and processes (flows). Mutual/reciprocal interest ties us back to trust:
"Trust is one party’s willingness—shown by intention and behavior—to be vulnerable to another party based on confidence developed cognitively and affectively that the latter party is (a) benevolent, (b) reliable, (c) competent, (d) honest, and (e) open." [Link]
Trust has also been identified as a key factor in persuasion, along with competence and goodwill. (I have previously written about how social media can help to foster trust, as it is particularly good (structurally) for creating goodwill.)
If the job of public relations is to foster trusted relationships, there is certainly a variety of best practices out there that can be followed. These practices work both from a mass communications level (competence, trust) and on a more individual/networked communications level -- where social media tactics tend to play out (competence, trust and goodwill). It doesn't seem, however, that these tactics really get at how to foster trusted relationships at the infrastructure level.
This is where I think the tools of social media can really help. I think that particularly in the area of information and resource flows, social media can amp up the intensity, both in terms of more channels as well as more "buzz" or conversations. By identifying and open new channels of communication between an organization and its publics, for example, particularly for mutual influence and mutual exchange -- communication that moves in both directions -- we can potentially impact the level of trust on both sides of the communications. This is without even considering the content of the channels themselves. We also need to better identify the signs of relationships at the infrastructural level, so we can more accurately identify and measure them, as well as trace them backwards to the individuals or groups involved.
Perhaps that is a good research project for someone: putting some rigorous thought into the infrastructure of relationships in a world of social media, and the impact on organizational trust. Perhaps then we can betting figure out what PR can accomplish at the abstraction layer.