PR book On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney
Mutual satisfaction phase of public relations
© 2002; 2020 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 will benefit from their relationship. It focuses as much on receiving and interpreting in-coming messages which it uses to counsel management as it does on developing and sending outgoing messages.

Practitioners who believe in and practice mutual satisfaction phase public relations think of their work as ...

The efficacy of two-way communication fueled this stage of public relations 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" 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 assumed that "if it makes sense to them, then ipso facto, it has to make sense to the public." Essentially, it boiled down to: All you have to do is tell people. But, in real life, things don't always work out that smoothly or that easily.

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. So, just as serious-minded spouse-seekers have matured beyond using pick-up lines, sophisticated public relations practitioners have moved beyond using explanatory approaches to public relations once they realized that one-way public relations might occasionally produce a one-time publicity coups but rarely led to a long-term relationship.

Just as marriages and long-term friendships succeed because the partners respect one another and willingly adjust to meet each other's needs, public relations can more effectively build long-term relationships when it's interactive and helps organizations and their publics accommodate one another's desires. Or, as it was phrased by the Assembly of the Public Relations Society of America:

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

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 is defined, practiced, interpreted, and explained in countless different ways. Some are simple and to the point; others are pedantic. And some, like Peter Jeff's observations, are both clever and delightfully insightful. Below is a sample of such definitions.

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

It took public relations more than a century to reach this point.

Although some practitioners were espousing these 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.

During 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 the attention given to these ideas was a result of The IABC Excellence Study which was directed and subsequently publicized by Dr. James Grunig.

The Excellence Study was a major, ten-year research project that cost almost a half-million dollars, involved questionnaires and interviews with thousands of public relations practitioners and business executives around the world, and generated numerous books and countless journal articles. Its goal was to examine how businesses and other organizations communicate with one another and with their publics so it could identify and isolate the specific actions and characteristics that distinguished excellent public relations operators from run-of-the-mill ones.

The complete findings of The Excellence Study published in 2002 proclaimed that almost without exception, whether they were independent consulting firms or internal departments within large corporations, public relations units that were considered "excellent" because of their professional reputations and/or their performance measured in financial and statistical terms practiced two-way, interactive public relations instead of relying on a one-way publicity or explanatory approach. However, no mention was made of the distinction between symmetric public relations and asymmetric public relations something which had erroneously been publicized in preliminary reports of the study.

The final report written by James and Larissa Grunig said in part:

"In contrast to the common view that PR is a technical support function for other management functions, the excellence study showed that PR is a unique management function that helps an organization interact with the social and political components of its environment.

"These components make up the institutional environment of an organization which consists of publics who affect the ability of the organization to accomplish its goals and who expect organizations to help them accomplish their own goals. Organizations solve problems for society, but they also create problems for society. As a result, organizations are not autonomous units free to make money or to accomplish other goals they set for themselves. They are interdependent with stakeholders. They have relationships with individuals and groups that help set the goals they choose, define what the organization is and does, and affect the success of its strategic decisions and behaviors...

"Excellent PR departments were found to interact with publics in a way that is both two way and symmetrical. They disclose relevant information to publics; but, most importantly, they also listen to publics both informally and formally through qualitative and quantitative research. Excellent PR departments communicate symmetrically with publics in an attempt to balance their organization’s self-interests with the interests of publics. They understand that PR is dialogue and that its purpose is to manage conflict and build, maintain and enhance relationships. Through two-way and symmetrical communication, excellent PR departments become ethics counsellors to management and internal advocates of social responsibility."

There was an immediate bandwagon effect. Once it was released it seemed to be the only thing public relations people talked about when they got together. It filled the pages of trade journals and dominated the agendas of professional conventions for years. Everyone wanted to be seen as excellent and quickly bought into the recommendations the report proposed. Eventually, some of the hubbub died down, and The Excellence Study was no longer so widely talked about.

However, that does not change the fact that the mutual satisfaction approach to public relations is the most-highly regarded general philosophy of how public relations ought to be practiced. Thoughtful, intelligent public relations practitioners want to use a two-way interactive process that tries to build and maintain long-term, give-and-take relationships rather than one that emphasizes one-way communication.

Practitioners working for some of the world's leading corporations, including MCI, Lexus, Kodak, Campbell Soup and Ford, have adopted such views. Ford, in particular, has been a vocal proponent of this approach. Its annual reports have stress "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." And, an article in pr reporter quoted 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.

Three phases of public relations Return to
Publicity phase of public relations
Return to
Explanatory phase of public relations
Table of contents "What do you call yourself,
public relations practitioner?"
Practicing Public Relations home page