A public relator’s personal relationships network has always been considered an essential (when not the essential) part of her/his professional assets. Where and when it is also described as a model of practice, it seems to be the most universally adopted, quite contrary to the stereotype that it is mostly practiced in Asia.
“I think that PR has always been about relationships, but it has changed fundamentally in that relationships have almost become the primary responsibility of a PR practitioner–and it’s not just with the Wall Street Journal or New York Times–it’s relationships with everyone who has a significant influence on the reputation of your company. I think it’s great for the function, for the profession, and it’s much more exciting for me to think about managing relationships and issues rather than practicing stereotypical PR, which is, ‘Get something from the marketing team that they want to sell, then put a press release together and call a few reporters.’ It’s a very good development. Relationships with stakeholders are incredibly important and becoming more so every day. The era when you could control the flow of information from a company, or at least control the expectations of what a company would provide from an information sharing perspective, is over.
“A big part of the hiring process is about the relationships the candidates have. I assume that, at the level I hire, they have the technical skills. I’m probing for their ability to be a self-starter but also who they know, how they’ve worked with them and what they’ve been able to get done as a result.”
Gary Sheffer, General Manager, Public Affairs and Employee Communications, General Electric Company
“You’re hiring individuals for more than technical skills; at certain levels, if you bring certain people in, you are gaining relationships, intellectual property, and the ability to open doors. The idea of taking personal relationships that employees may have with existing and potential stakeholders, and applying these relationships to the organization, is very powerful. The value of what we [as public relations professionals] do is in relationships–that’s where the currency is. Firms like Edelman, much like management consulting firms, are the strongest when all the entities, all the individuals, add up to something great. This idea of how do you keep the relationships, even when the individual goes, is probably what keeps Richard Edelman up at night.”
Gary Grates, President of Employee Engagement, Edelman
“More than fifty percent of [working in the PR function] is how you manage a client relationship and the intricacies of different client cultures, which is hard to teach except by experience.”
Robbin Goodman, Executive Vice President and Partner, Makovsky + Company
A public relator’s personal relationships network has always been considered an essential (when not the essential) part of her/his professional assets. And this by clients/employers, colleagues/competitors and most other relevant stakeholders from the business, media, active citizenship and public policy communities. To the point that, where and when it is also described as a model of practice, it seems to be the most universally adopted, quite contrary to the diffused ethnocentric stereotype that it is mostly practiced in Asia.
It’s an untold ‘truth’ that embarrasses scholars, educators and professionals alike, as it implies that the ‘people I know’ and the ‘little black book’ modes of practice may bear more relevance for a successful career in the public relations profession than any other professional competence. Possible explanations of this embarrassment by scholars and educators are two-fold.
First, it is difficult to explain to students that, if they wish to succeed, they need to nurture (at least perceivably and reputation-wise) powerful personal connections. Second, academic peers from other, more or less established disciplines already tend to question whether the existing public relations body of knowledge is truly scientific in nature. If we were to accept the principle that personal networking is so relevant, it might increase questions about the validity of public relations as a profession, instead relegating our work only to an ‘art’ or ‘trade’ nurtured by going to the right schools, mingling with the right individuals, joining the right clubs, having both direct or indirect access to the right introductions.
The embarrassment also resides amongst professionals, who are generally very well aware of the relevance of their personal relationship networks but: a) realizing that their success depends so much on this, they are unhappy when, as often occurs, other professional skills appear undermined or underappreciated by clients and other stakeholders; and b) they are not generally willing to share their personal networks, let alone with employers or clients, for the (unfounded?) fear that if and when these networks were to be passed on, it might impoverish their own added value and perceived competitive advantage.
This widespread implicit and understudied confidence in the power of personal influence might also help explain why so few public relators (less than 10%) belong to professional associations; why so few participate actively in professional training courses, as if one’s ‘little black book’ is sufficient for success; and why amongst reasons cited by practitioners who do become members of associations, the most frequently cited is invariably networking.
The aim of this paper is to explore the role of personal influence in the public relations profession, drawing heavily on three sources:
- A brief analysis of recent literature conducted by Candace White, Associate Professor, University of Tennessee.
- My effort, supported by the excellent research work done by Antonio Lorenzon for his final PhD work on Knowledge Management and CRM (customer relationship management) recently finished for IULM University of Milano, Italy.
- And work by Kristin Johnson, recently graduated from New York University’s with a Master of Science in Public Relations and Corporate Communication, who conducted a substantial research effort by interviewing senior professionals and by an online questionnaire (research already published by the Institute for Public Relations) to argue that by adopting and adapting recent approaches, systems and processes of Knowledge Management it is realistic and possible to substantially transfer the value of this (understudied, intentionally forgotten but) greatly valued asset from an individual to an organizational bottom line, thus dramatically increasing the value that public relations brings to any organization.
Research Review: The Role of Personal Influence in Public Relations
Scholarship about personal influence in public relations falls into three schools of thought: that personal influence is individual influence based on attributes and status of individuals; that personal influence is a dimension of relationship management and is based on relational activities; and that personal influence is a model of public relations found primarily in Asian cultures, indicating that public relations models may vary based on cultural determinants.
Personal influence as interpersonal influence
The notion that personal influence results from traits or attributes of an individual is grounded in the disciplines of social psychology and interpersonal communication. Toth (2000) believes that interpersonal communication is at the core of personal influence, and suggests that the public influence model of public relations could be more aptly called the individual influence model since the power of personal influence lies in the status, trustworthiness, and credibility of a person. She suggests that the role of personal influence depends on the motives of the individuals who are communicating with one another and the desired outcomes of the communication, and refers to public relations motives to develop individual relationships for the benefit of both the organization and its publics as interpersonal-individual influence, while attempts to cultivate individual relationships to benefit only the organization are referred to as personal influence strategies.
Schriner (2008) looked at the personal influence of spokespersons in organizations from a multidisciplinary perspective and developed the concept of a public role model, or an individual of influence in a social network that includes the external environment in which an organization operates. Her conceptualization of a public role model characterizes personal influence as opinion leadership. The public role model influences the media and public opinion through the professional role of the individual, but also by possessing personal traits such as self-assuredness, competence, empathy, innovative disposition, and leadership abilities. Trustworthiness and expertise, components of source credibility, contribute to personal influence.
Individual influence affects personal relationships in professional workplace settings. Gallicano (2008) looked at how personal relationships are cultivated, and what outcomes occur as a result. She found that personal relationships in business are cultivated by an individual’s actions such as personally responding to requests rather than delegating, through constitutive rhetoric that promotes bonding and identification with an organization (see Charland, 1987), and task sharing and partnering with key constituents. The outcomes of personal relationships in her study were the creation of emotional bonds and affective commitment, political leverage, social capital or the ability to obtain “buy-in.” The outcomes of personal relationships identified by Gallicano (2008) as affective commitment and social capital are rooted in organizational and social psychology. Persons with high levels of affective commitment are emotionally bonded to an organizations, which results in a higher level of participation with the organization (see Allen & Meyer, 1990). Social capital is resources and assets embedded in social networks which can be used to achieve favourable outcomes (see Lin, 2002).
Personal influence as a dimension of relationship management
Public relations scholarship increasingly points to the importance of relationships as an indicator of successful public relations (Grunig & Huang, 2000). Public relations from a relationship management perspective is an organization’s ability to develop and maintain mutually beneficial relationships (Ledingham, 2003). Relationship-building is a complex process, and all relationships have a personal dimension that is based on social networking and interactions with other individuals. Therefore, personal influence is an important component of relational communication and a dimension of relationship management. The relational perspective of personal influence considers how the influence of individuals contributes to successful public relations as a result of strong personal relationships with key constituents upon whom the success or failure of the organization depends. Personal relationships are based on trust, reciprocity, legitimacy, credibility, and mutual benefits (Grunig & Huang, 2000). Outcomes of personal relationships include an increase in media coverage and decrease in negative media coverage (Downes, 1998; Jo & Kim, 2004; Taylor, 2004), successful community and political relations (Gallicano, 2008; Yudarwati, 2008), and improved internal communication (White, Vanc, & Stafford, 2008).
In a study that looked at how the mining industry in Indonesia used personal influence to build community relationships, Yudarwati (2008) found that building personal communication and relationships with key actors in the community allowed the mining companies to seek favours when they needed them. In Indonesia, interpersonal relationships used to build trust between companies and communities were based on the cultural variable of power distance (Hofstede, 1984). Indonesia has a high power distance index that has resulted in a low level of trust. Collectivism, another culture dimension as defined by Hofstede, was strong in the community groups. Yudarwati’s study found that interpersonal relationships, rather than simply personal influence were important to the public relations effort. Aspects of the relationship process included friendships outside the workplace such as playing sports, entertaining, and gift giving.
Most studies that have explored the role of personal influence from a relationship management perspective have considered it in a boundary-spanning context, focusing on practitioners’ relationships with external stakeholders such as journalists, activists, and government officials. Jo and Kim (2004) also found that personal relationships played a critical role in media relations in South Korea where personal influence was often used to mitigate negative media stories. Other studies have focused on personal influence as the use of favours to cultivate media relationships in Asian cultures (Huang, 2000; Sriramesh, Kim, & Takasaki, 1999). White, Vanc, and Stafford (2008) found that personal influence of the CEO and top managers is a factor in internal communication that affects information satisfaction, and consequently how employees speak about the organization to external stakeholders when there was a sense of personal relationships between employees and members of the dominant coalition. Even though their study was conducted in a Western organization, the concepts of power distance and collectivism are important in large, hierarchical organizations, more so than in Western society at large.
While not always labelled as “personal influence,” evidence of the phenomenon has been found in the practice of relationship management in Western societies. Grunig, Grunig, Sriramesh, Huang, and Lyra (1995) provide examples of personal influence, which include former government officials working in firms in which their influence is a commodity, as well as other examples of practitioners providing favours and contacts. Toth (1988) found that “chemistry” and personal relationships between clients and practitioners was important in the decision to hire external public relations agencies, even when the decision was more expensive or inconvenient. Taylor (2004) found relationships between practitioners and journalists in Croatia to be based on personal influence with heavy emphasis on personal invitations, social contacts, and other relational variables, similar to the findings of Jo and Kim (2004) in Korea.
Personal influence as a model of public relations
The widely-accepted four models of public relations as press agentry-publicity, public information, two-way asymmetric and two-way symmetric practice (Grunig & Hunt, 1985) was followed by a fifth model, the personal influence model of public relations. Identified by Grunig, et al. (1995), the personal influence model of public relations referred to practitioners’ relationships with key individuals in media, government, politics, or activist groups as an institutionalized model to cultivate relationships between individuals to achieve an organization’s objectives. In this sense, personal influence is based on a person’s position and power in a social network. Further evidence of the model was found by Sriramesh, Kim, and Takasaki (1999). In their study, personal influence was used by practitioners as a quid pro quo favour-granting and favour-gaining role. In the Asian cultures in their study, personal influence sometimes relied on social class and power.
Many of the studies that found evidence of the personal influence model of public relations have been conducted in Asian cultures where power distance and collectivism are stronger than in Western cultures, suggesting that the personal influence model may have more currency in more rigid cultures in which power and social class have more bearing on decision making. According to Huang (2000), the personal influence model emerged in authoritarian cultures as a way to cope by exploiting individual relationships. Examples of personal influence practices include providing entertainment, food, drinks, and gifts and are often based on informal relationships (Shin & Cameron, 2003), the propriety of which may hold more importance in Asian cultures. Sriramesh, Grunig, and Dozier (1996) suggest that personal influence model of public relations exists when the right person (one with social class or power) is in the right position.
This review would indicate that both the attributes of the individual and the position (role) that the individual fills are components of personal influence. The interesting questions about the difference between individual influence and personal influence raised by Toth (2000) are worthy of further exploration. Does personal influence reside in the individual or in the position the individual holds? Does the personal influence model of public relations model rely on covert or overt power, and is it a culturally determined phenomenon?
Transiting Value From the Professional to the Organization?
Over the last fifteen-twenty years, the application of information and communication technologies has greatly expanded the practice of ’knowledge management‘: a business process by which one may assemble and rationalise, on a specific issue, relevant knowledge existing within an organization (in our case public relations/ communication managers and departments) or its boundary publics (in our case public relations consultants and agencies) and make it available to other members of the organization so that it may transit from being mostly a personal added-value of the individual, to becoming an asset of the organization and therefore adding to its overall immaterial or symbolic capital.
One might well argue that an internal practitioner or, even more so, an external consultant or agency will always wish to protect their specific competencies from becoming a permanent asset of the client/employer. This is psychologically understandable, but seems to forget that organizations remunerate selected individuals in exchange for their professional competencies; and that, if the selection of a specific professional is also (if not mostly or solely) based on the perceived quality of his/her relationship network, the organization actually remunerates this network and, in principle, has full legitimacy in wishing to add it on to its assets.
More so, as mobility within organizations, inside and amongst agencies/consultants is accelerating, it is only wise for organizations to collect and rationalize the contributions they receive, and consider these as part of the value they receive, in exchange of salaries/fees they distribute.
Clearly, though, these elements should form explicit part of contractual agreements before recruitment or consultancy based assignments. The question then, of course, is how do you go about doing this?
The hypothesis we explore here is that, by applying appropriately adapted knowledge management criteria, methods and instruments, an organization is capable of internalising and capitalising as an organizational asset, personal influence and networking relationships of its public relations employees and consultants, as well as those of other relevant managers.
Much of the text which follows is inspired, and in some paragraphs entirely taken from a doctoral thesis written by Antonio Lorenzon dedicated to CRM and Knowledge Management, at Milano’s IULM University.
What needs to be explored has to do with how – on one hand – an organization may adapt its knowledge management systems to implement the formulated hypothesis and – on the other hand – whether and how public relations professionals and consultancies/agencies should endorse and actually incentivate this to happen.
Knowledge Management is a process by which organizations create and use their knowledge:
a “fluid mix of framed experience, values, contextual information and expert insight that provides a framework for evaluating and incorporating new experiences and information” [Davenport/Harris/Kohli 2001], and is based both on the development of knowledge assets, but also on managing the processes which act upon those assets (which is what we are specifically investigating).
Badaracco and Hamel [Badaracco/ Hamel 1991] and Edward T. Hall [Hall 1996] distinguish two types of knowledge: explicit knowledge (words and numbers shared in the form of data, scientific formula, specification and manuals) and tacit knowledge (rooted in an individual’s actions, experiences, ideas, values or emotions, and expressed in two dimensions: technical know how and cognitive ideals, beliefs, values, etc.
In our specific case we are more interested in exploring the tacit knowledge model because personal relationship and influence networks are usually highly personal and therefore tacit. However, as we will see later, this is not necessarily so in every case, and therefore we proceed to explore both dimensions of the concept.
Nonaka and Takeuchi [Nonaka and Takeuchi 1995] indicate a dynamic model to help explain the process of knowledge creation: the “knowledge conversion” model where Tacit and Explicit Knowledge interact amongst each other. In this model there are four steps:
- Socialization (tacit to tacit knowledge).
- Externalization (tacit to explicit knowledge).
- Combination (explicit to explicit knowledge).
- Internalization (explicit to tacit knowledge).
In our specific case, we refer to tacit knowledge (both technical and cognitive) and we attempt to turn this into explicit knowledge (therefore we are talking about the externalization step of the conversion process):
i.e. knowledge usable by others, regardless of how exclusive and restricted access may be within the organization.
Looking at Nonaka and Takeuchi’s work [Nonaka/Takeuchi 1995] and that of other authors, to better understand the idea of knowledge management, one may identify four main concepts: knowledge acquisition; knowledge storing; knowledge sharing; knowledge using. These four processes are the main pillars upon which all knowledge based acquisition is built.
The process is related to an organization’s ability to acquire data, information and knowledge. As illustrated by Edward T. Hall (Hall 1996) in his ‘Beyond the Culture,’ a knowledge value chain is composed of:
- Data (each single informative contact with the reality that surrounds the individuals).
- Information (the interpretation of the data inside its contents of reference).
- And knowledge (the elaboration of the information based on an individual’s personal experience and capability).
To gain knowledge it is therefore necessary to have all the necessary information, and to create that necessary information, it is necessary to acquire as much data as possible.
In our specific case this implies that an organization’s database related to its relationship systems should not only rely on data reported by its public relations professionals or consultants/agencies but also on many other available internal and external sources.
This process inevitably requires a qualitative evaluation of the acquired data. Depending of the adopted knowledge sharing strategy (personalization vs codification), this process can significantly change when moving from a human to digital data base.
In a scenario such as the one we are exploring, where tacit knowledge is much more used than explicit knowledge and the majority of processes follow a personalization strategy, the really sensitive knowledge is most frequently stored in the brains of individual managers, employees and external consultants.
In some organizations which follow this strategy (such as Bain, BCG, McKinsey, HP, etc.), the knowledge is closely connected to the person who developed it and share mainly through person-to-person contacts. On the opposite side, in an organizational culture characterized by an intense use of explicit knowledge shared through a codification strategy (such as Accenture, Ernst & Young or Dell), the process centers on digital networks and knowledge is carefully codified and stored in databases.
By using a people-to-documents approach, knowledge is received from the individual who developed it, made independent of that person, and stored in a digital memory device. In this way organizations develop ‘knowledge objects’ that allow others to retrieve codified knowledge without necessarily contacting the persons who originally developed it. (Hansen/Nobria/Tierney 1999).
Knowledge sharing is the process of sharing data and information with the specific purpose of creating a common and diffused knowledge.
In 1999 Hansen and Nohria identified two knowledge sharing strategies: the personalization strategy (based on a people-to-people approach) and the codification strategy (based on a ‘people to documents’ approach. In the first, knowledge remains stored in people, and the role of technology is to create people-finder tools which help the organization contact the individuals who created the initial knowledge. A strategy which implies that the information is shared directly between individuals.
In our specific case this would mean creating in the organization and intelligent and dynamic database a single individual’s relationships is stored so that, by digitizing a potential relationship, the list of individuals who entertain that relationship would appear.
In the codification strategy, knowledge is instead stored in databases and the individuals who create the knowledge transfer specific data and information into documents and store them in memory devices. This strategy is based on a people-to-documents approach and implies that information is transferred so that, when the organization needs to acquire such information, it will use document-finder tools to identify those documents which contain that information, and not necessarily the individuals who actually created it.
In our case this strategy would imply that each person’s relationships network be fully captured in as many details as possible so that the new user may make the best use of the stored information without necessarily relying on the original contributor.
It seems clear that both strategies may be applied in our case, possibly through a two-phased approach, as long as a net distinction, according to its specific nature, is made on the sensitivity of the acquired information. When dealing with sensitive relationship networks and/or when the original owner of that network is and will presumably remain available to the organization for an adequate period of time, the personalization strategy is probably preferable a) because relationship networks reflect the mobility of relationships; b) because it is clear that many aspects of information related to a personal relationship may not, and in many cases, should not be captured by sophisticated databases. However the codification strategy may also effectively be adopted:
- when a relationship network is not particularly sensitive (for example, a professional’s network in a highly specialised area);
- when the original owner of that network is no longer going to be available to the organization.
As mentioned, the organization must be very clear from the outset in its contractual dealings with the original owner of the relationship network, so that a predefined and ongoing process is adopted to capture the desired knowledge before it dissolves. The first things that come to mind when exploring the operative feasibility of transforming personal influence into organizational influence by applying knowledge management systems are, beyond the basic issue of its very desirability, caveats related to privacy and to intellectual property. It is clear that, in such a context, the dimension of how the personal relationship network is eventually transferred to the organization needs to be well addressed.
But at the same time, it is also evident that the argument needs to be reversed: i.e., when an internal or external public relator operates on behalf of an organization, he/she also benefits from the personal relationships of other members of the organization, and when and if he/she, for whatever reasons, leaves the organization, their personal relationship system, admitting it is of value (but this is the whole premise of the paper), will have been enhanced. So the argument goes both ways.
Having said this, it is clear that privacy is the first major issue to be addressed. What, when and how may a public relator transfer his/her personal relationships to the organization? There are different levels of elementary information which do not breach privacy regulations. Name, professional position, relevant statements /decisions taken on the organization’s specific issues, options for direct and indirect access, members and roles of staff, and so on… are all part of a common data base that each professional should have no trouble in transferring to the organization.
A second level has to do with direct access by the organization. There is no reason for the professional not to volunteer to introduce his/her relationships to other members of the organization. Also, more personal information (normally covered by privacy regulation, such as preferences, special attention, sexual orientations, special friends, any other info..) which is not publicly available should not be part of whatever form of contract between the parties involved. Yet, we know that in many cases public relators jealously protect their ‘little black books’ and refrain from sharing them with others, even within their same organization, let alone, if they are consultants, their clients.
A similar approach can be taken for the intellectual property issue.
Undoubtedly every little black book is different from another and pertains to a professional’s (internal or external does not matter) intellectual property. But this, together with many other competencies which he/she brings to the organization, is precisely a value that the organization pays for either through salaries or consultant fees. Again, as mentioned, the organization could also claim that it enhances the professional’s value by giving him/her the opportunity of using and capitalizing on the relationship network of his/her client employer which a public relator will certainly not deny being the case.
A third level has to do with the relationship process (phases, difficulties and outcomes) between the public relator and a stakeholder related to an activity carried out on behalf of the client or the employer.
In this case there seems to be no reason whatsoever that whatever contractual agreement is in place it include detailed reporting procedures which allow the organization to capitalize on the information collected during the process.
How to Collect and Store Personal Relationships
The next question then is: How can an organization collect and store personal relationship networks of employees or consultants?
In a first phase, it makes sense to ensure that each professional member of a public relations department compile a detailed questionnaire requiring elementary and basic information on each personal network of relationships obviously used by that professional to implement his/her professional activities for that specific organization. The same requirement also stands for public relations consultants. In addition, the organization could enlarge that same process and include members of top management and of other functions assigned to develop stakeholder relationships on behalf of the organization even if they are not part of the public relations function. Typically the questionnaire would require the compiler’s name and function, a list of names and accessibilities of their networks their function, their role, their relevance on the basis of specified issues relevant to the organization, number of contacts in the last year, format of contacts, relevant items discusses and results.
This data base (with limited and well reasoned opportunities to access) can be extremely valuable to an organization if projected upon a carefully detailed list of organizational stakeholders. The result is a frequency and intensity map which may supply the director of public relations and top management with an intelligent and convincing status of where the major gaps in stakeholder relationship systems lie. This system would need periodic updates, given the growing mobility of individuals and organizations, and the accelerated dynamics of issues affecting an organization. Such a data base would allow the organizations to capitalize on its direct and indirect relationship networks, to develop coalitions, and to better and more effectively communicate with their stakeholder through a one-with-one, one-with-few and one-with-many approach.
Clearly the system will function only if its contributors and users (often they are the same individuals) are convinced that they will benefit from its efficiency. Therefore, rational and incentive-based training and recall programs are necessary, also because such a system is effective only if periodically updated.
The contributor accesses the system where the organization will have segmented specific and different stakeholder groups which are the most relevant (i.e. journalists, analysts, public policy makers and influencers, key suppliers, key industry representatives, opinion leaders, relevant celebrities, community leaders…). The contributor writes a profile for each existing relationship with specific company stakeholders and, facilitated by the architecture of the system, will also indicate not only which company issues are normally the subject of the specific relationship, but also the typology of relationship, its intensity (how often, channel of relationship such as phone, email, face-to-face), its quality, plus the opinions voiced by the stakeholder on those relevant issues. The profile will also contain contact information such as electronic and snail mail address, land and mobile telephone numbers, relevant staff names and numbers; and will indicate whether the compiler prefers to be involved, or just informed or even not informed, in the case of anyone else contacting that same stakeholder.
As for the assessment of the quality of the relationship, the system will require the participant to indicate, from 1 to 10, the levels of trust, satisfaction, commitment and power balance (or control mutuality) she/he rates the relationship to be. Also, a reverse question such as ‘if you asked her/him to rate her/his relationship with you, what would these rates be? This allows anyone to grasp relationship gaps which need to be improved.
Now let’s see what the user may receive from all this. You access the data base and you can read the information related to a specific stakeholder public or an individual stakeholder with all the recommendations from the different colleagues who have inputted the data and act consequently. This is an enormous advantage for the organization.
Clearly the access to this interactive database needs to be highly selective according to different corporate cultures. Organizations will want to introduce segmented access. Those who consult may, wiki-like, add, correct and modify the info. But it’s essential to determine who can access the general profile, who may access the more sensitive info, and so on.
Original Research: What Organizations Think and Are Doing
Through face-to-face and telephone interviews with several senior managers of the communication function at large organizations, Kristin Johnson explored issues related to current knowledge management processes, as well as thoughts on whether or not knowledge management tools could be used in public relations to transform personal relationships into organizational relationships. Specific questions fell under the following three headings:
- Information on knowledge management practice, focused on relationships with stakeholder publics.
- Information on knowledge management practice, specifically as it relates to public relations and communication objectives.
- Organizational structure, culture, and capabilities.
Interviews were extended to 25 professionals working in senior positions within the communications function at their organization. Eight executives agreed to speak with the researcher. Participants included (in alphabetical order by last name):
- Robbin Goodman, Executive Vice President and partner, Makovsky + Company
- Gary Grates, Senior Vice President of Employee Engagement, Edelman
- Toni Griffin, Director, Public Relations, MetLife
- Rob Imig, Vice President, Corporate Communications, Kiehl’s
- Jim Issokson, Senior Business Leader, Reputation and Issues Management, Worldwide Communications at MasterCard
- Ray Jordan, Corporate Vice President for Public Affairs and Corporate Communications, Johnson & Johnson
- Jennifer Sargent, [insert title], Ernst &Young LLP
- Gary Sheffer, General Manager, Public Affairs and Employee Communications, General Electric
Interviews were conducted first with the strategic intention of informing the ultimate design and material in the online questionnaire. Following the interviews, the online questionnaire was developed and extended to 92 communications professionals at top global and U.S. organizations in multiple sectors. There was a broad pool of industries represented, including consumer goods, energy, financial, health care, industrial, academia, technology, utilities, consulting, and research.
To introduce the questionnaire, an e-mail was sent by Peter Debreceny, Co-Chair of the Institute for Public Relations, and the Chair of the Institute’s Commission on Global Public Relations Research. Within 24 hours, a follow-up e-mail reaffirming the objectives of the research was sent by New York University master’s candidate and author Kristin Johnson to the same pool of recipients with a link to the questionnaire. The questionnaire received 32 individual responses in total, with 29 (31.5 percent of questionnaire pool) of the respondents completing the questionnaire in full. Some participants included (in alphabetical order by last name).
- Gianluca Comin, Executive Vice President, External Relations, Enel
- David Kistle, Senior Vice President, Padilla Speer Beardsley
- David Monfried, Senior Vice President, Corporate Communications, Safeco Insurance
- James S. O’Rourke, Professor of Management, University of Notre Dame
- Helen Ostrowski, Chairman, Porter Novelli
- Doug Pinkham, President, Public Affairs Council
- Ernst Primosch, Senior Corporate Vice President, Henkel
- MaryLee Sachs, U.S. Chairman & Worldwide Director of Marketing Communications, Hill & Knowlton
- Dave Samson, General Manager, Public Affairs, Chevron
- Arthur E.F. Wiese, Jr., Vice President, Corporate Communications, Entergy Corporation
The results of the questionnaire were never intended to provide statistically significant data but rather, to contribute to an overall body of knowledge that was not formerly in existence on the practices and ideas that exist within the public relations function on the topic of knowledge management as it relates to relationships. The opinions and practices outlined in the research are neither exhaustive nor conclusive, but present powerful insight into trends and challenges that the leaders in the public relations industry are confronting in their organizations and the organizations of their clients.
The Organization: Differentiated Through Relationships
Capturing and rationalizing relationships within an organization is not a revolutionary idea. It is likely being done intuitively in one way or another at most organizations. What makes this specific hypothesis unique is that it calls for formalization of the process, and doing so within the public relations and corporate communications function.
Organizations need to be mindful of relationships. According to John Doorley and Helio Fred Garcia, ”Human capital is increasingly a key competitive differentiator. The ability of companies to copy even the most proprietary products and produce them at lower costs has led some business thinkers to suggest that over time the only differentiator will be the knowledge and skills of an organization’s people” (Doorley, J. & Garcia, H.F., 2007, 133).
In an organization, there is a tendency for employees to think of relationships within the context of their own personal networks. Based on those, they have insights into how relationships could benefit their organization. However, if an employee were to leave the organization, the organization would lose the relationship network of that employee. Knowledge management tools could be used to help capture and rationalize such relationships, so that in the event that the initial relationship holder was no longer available, there would still be a ‘map’ that the organization could rely on to investigate opportunities that may still exist with potential stakeholders.
Aside from investigating potential new relationship opportunities that may exist, collecting and rationalizing current stakeholder relationships would allow for relationship holders to have a broader, deeper understanding of the dynamic network in which they are already members. It is often the case that two people within an organization hold a relationship with an external stakeholder and do not even know it. How could that larger network–which already existed but was never before realized–begin to benefit the organization and reciprocally, the stakeholder? For one, it could certainly help to avoid overlap and misunderstanding, ensuring more efficiency and effectiveness in the organization. It could also aid both relationship holders to better govern the relationship they have with the stakeholder from an organizational perspective. Assuming that the stakeholder is in some way contributing to achieve an organizational objective, there needs to be consistent governance of that relationship in order to make it sustainable and mutually beneficial.
Most employees are not consciously brainstorming how their personal relationships could be transformed from personal relationships to organizational relationships, which is why it is important for organizations to raise the issue.
Focusing on Relationships with Stakeholder Publics
Through interviews, it became apparent that there is agreement within the public relations sector that there generally has not been significant discussion around the idea of capturing and rationalizing external relationships within the organization. ”It is a new conversation,” according to one executive who admitted that, ”I never really thought about it that way.” Ray Jordan, Corporate Vice President for Public Affairs and Corporate Communications at Johnson & Johnson said that ”for a class of stakeholders beyond media relations, there really isn’t anything.” Another executive noted in the interview that the organization is, “very good at processes but we still don’t have a process around [capturing and rationalizing personal relationships with stakeholder publics]. It’s ad-hoc at this point.”
Relationships with stakeholder publics were rated “important” or “very important” by 29 of the 32 respondents who participated in the online questionnaire, and everyone interviewed agreed that there is significant potential value to be gained from tapping into those relationships. Still, there was generally no single, organized function to transform personal relationships into organizational relationships. “Ad hoc” would not be an acceptable response if the question were related to how an organization manages its finances; yet, even with human capital translating in to real dollars, there is no formal process in place to manage the wealth of stakeholder relationships held by employees and consultants.
Relationships and Influence
Relationships have the ability to enhance the reputation and brand of the company. As a result, they are not overlooked when hiring managers in the public relations function.
Getting things “done” is the key desired outcome. Rob Imig, Vice President of Corporate Communications at Kiehl’s, views relationships as a “core competency.” Twenty-five out of 30 respondents from the online questionnaire reported that relationships with stakeholder publics play a role in the decision to bring someone on a team at least some of the time. All 30 respondents from the online questionnaire reported that relationships with stakeholder publics influence management decisions at their organizations “sometimes” to “always.”
“For me, it’s part of the job. I would almost look at it as, if they had these relationships, I’d be more willing to hire that person,” says Imig. However, he adds he has hired people without specific relationships to bring to the table knowing that people had the capabilities to cultivate and nurture relationships. This is especially true from a media perspective. “With editor turnover, you want someone who can continue to generate new relationships. As the media is regenerating faster than it ever has, we need people in this industry who are willing to grow with it and create content in new ways, growing the relationships as print editors become online editors.”
Gary Sheffer, General Manager, Public Affairs and Employee Communications, General Electric, agrees. According to Sheffer, “The PR office at GE has definitely changed in the last few years. The expectations of me from the people that I work for is not that I just have the technical skills, the writing and the verbal skills to communicate our story; it’s to help define the story and define the company. That means building relationships with the people who influence that story.”
In both the online questionnaire and in interviews, respondents were asked if organizations “should ask a new employee or a new consultant to share his or her relationships with stakeholder publics.” According to the online questionnaire, 19 out of 30 respondents agreed. Seven additional respondents agreed to the statement with caveats, such as “This should only be voluntary and it should come natural rather than part of an organized scheme” and “This is not something we do as a rule, but might make sense down the road.” Another respondent pointed out that “it makes sense with some level of employees, but a lot depends on how you will use the information.”
Ray Jordan, Corporate Vice President for Public Affairs and Corporate Communications at Johnson & Johnson, had mixed feelings. According to Jordan, he would not be entirely opposed to divulging the list of people with whom he has working relationships in a particular field. He also sees the value in sharing with an employer the stakeholders with whom he interacts with in a given space, such as health care. However, he points out that it could raise interesting conflicts related to non-compete clauses and privacy–especially once an employee moved on.
Gary Sheffer, General Manager, Public Affairs and Employee Communications at General Electric, thinks it is an interesting concept but is also quick to identify the challenges. ”I think it’s a difficult one in today’s environment. Being contractually committed to maintaining or sharing–that could be difficult,” adding, “I wonder, from a recruiting standpoint, what the fallout would be.”
Codifying relationships raises many privacy issues, but if the database is managed as an interactive tool, it can be a parallel of the company’s intranet. Jennifer Sargent from Ernst & Young LLP, works in a knowledge management role on behalf of her company and client companies. Despite the challenges, she can see the potential, noting that “It needs to be built into work processes with compliance or technical restrictions.”
Envisioning a Process
According to Toni Griffin, Director of Public Relations at MetLife, processes are not necessary in order to access relationships. Her organization has an open culture, and Griffin believes an organization’s culture is what ultimately facilitates getting answers to essential relationships.
According to Griffin, ”We don’t have to jump through hoops. We work with the presidents of our business and CEO on just about every issue. That openness trumps the need for an explicit contract. It’s based on our own reputation in the company. It’s something we’ve worked very hard on and built over time; it’s a reputation built on trust, expediency, of a mutual respect, it’s a comfort level on the part of all our senior executives that they can entrust us [in the communication function] with any information–even the most highly confidential–and any issue.”
It is true that culture plays a major role in facilitating knowledge sharing–especially when that knowledge is in the form of personal relationships. As mentioned earlier, the decision to share relationships is greatly determined by whether the organization has earned an employee’s trust (DeLong, 2004, 69). However, the suggestion of institutionalizing a process to capture personal relationships held by employees could benefit an organization by drawing out relationships that employees simply had not thought to share.
In each interview, the researcher was asked the same question: ”What would this look like?” The response is that there is no one single model that will work every organization. Furthermore, there is little that is currently in place and successful models are something that need to be explored.
In an organization where the director of public relations and corporate communications is already committed to the idea, and where there are already successful knowledge management systems in place, a model could start within the public relations function and ultimately expand to other functions within the organization. The ‘tool’ could take the form of a proprietary database, with access restrictions established for privacy. Employees would share their tacit knowledge of relationships they hold with other organizations or corporate stakeholders such as suppliers or media. Also, an agreement to share the relationships could be built into employee contracts to cultivate a new culture of relationship sharing.
Guidelines would need to be established for database fields, but examples may include:
- Relationship holder (employee)
- Relationship (name of stakeholder)
- Stakeholder group (financial, communications, etc.)
- Context of relationship (former colleague, college roommate, etc.)
- Nature of relationship (friendly, adversarial, etc.)
There are four characteristics that are especially important for defining the quality of relationships, according to public relations scholars Linda Hon, at the University of Florida, and James E. Grunig, at the University of Maryland. These characteristics include (Grunig, 2002, 2):
- Control mutuality, which is “the degree to which the parties in a relationship are satisfied with the amount of control they have over a relationship”
- Trust, which is “the level of confidence that both parties have in each other and their willingness to open themselves to the other party”
- Commitment, which is “the extent to which both parties believe and feel that the relationship is worth spending energy on to maintain and promote”
- Satisfaction, which is “the extent to which both parties feel favorably about each other because positive expectations about the relationship are reinforced”
The potential flaw of a database is that, as with all collaborative tools, it is dependent on the participation of employees and consultants. If no one uses it, then no one is interested in keeping it updated.
An alternative model of executing the identification of relationships may include a suggestion from Ray Jordan, Corporate Vice President for Public Affairs and Corporate Communications at Johnson & Johnson, who sees potential in using a system Johnson & Johnson already has in place for another knowledge management purpose. The system, according to Jordan, allows employees to opt-in to have email scanned for key words. This facilitates knowledge sharing for scientists, for example, who may be in different labs working on the same compound. It could be equally useful to help managers in the company identify existing relationships with stakeholders. However, there would likely be limitations to the access of personal, external stakeholder relationships held by employees, given that employees presumably do not carry personal correspondence over company email.
In any case, both models suggested above present ideas of how the concept could be institutionalized in an organization.
It’s not realistic to assume that gathering relationships of stakeholders through personal networks is easy, nor is this paper suggesting that it is a guaranteed tactic for enhancing an organization’s capital. Evaluation systems need to accompany the implementation of any knowledge management tool. Despite the challenges that accompany knowledge management, there is a substantial opportunity for organizations to identify and manage the wealth of relationships that live within employee and consultant networks. To date, little is being done to capture and rationalize these relationships.
As proposed in this paper, knowledge systems are not intended to replace internal communication. In fact, knowledge management tools are intended to enhance the sharing that takes place within an organization. The tacit knowledge that lives within employees and consultants, and the relationships that they posses cannot be fully codified in a database.
What a robust knowledge sharing system can do is help to connect people with information and relationships that can help them within their roles to serve the organization in a broader, deeper and more efficient capacity.
As they say…. the proof of the pudding is in the eating.
Suppose that only a few of the organizations that Kristin Johnson bravely interviewed for her research undertook the effort to experiment for some time with the hypothesis expressed in this paper, and the results were deemed convincing and effective. It is likely that the public relations profession would make another huge step forward by integrating the value of personal influence and relationships with knowledge management practices to increase the intangible capital of an organization.
The authors are anxious for this to happen and, at least in one case but – helas! – not in the English language, this is actually happening as we sign off on this section of the Essential Knowledge Project.
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