The relationships between an organization and its publics represent a central concern for the research and practice of public relations. Relationships influence the success or failure of an organisation. Why have relationships become so important for companies and for PR?
• Reach corporate goals: To reach their goals, companies and organizations need the support of people or groups of people, so called publics. The most common publics are employees, customers, journalists and politicians. Through PR a company tries to convince and motivate their publics to support the corporate goals with their own specific contribution. In order to achieve this, the company offers a clear and rewarding relationship to these targeted audiences based on communications. This is expressed in the terms Employer Relations, Customer Relations, Media Relations, Investor Relations and Political Relations. PR-Expert James E. Grunig argues that in order to have public re- lations valued inside organizations, the PR practitioners must be able to demonstrate that their efforts are part of reaching the objectives of organizations by building long term behavioral relationships with strategic publics.
• Positioning in market and society: more and more companies recognize the potential relationship management offers for differentiation from competitors in the market place but also in society. In times of saturated markets and interchangeable products, rewarding relationships are the only opportunity for a clear positioning.
• Relationships within the company are key: They enable employees to build a clear picture of what their company stands for and in turn an understanding of what their work contributes to accomplishing corporate goals.
• Relationships outside the company are important because the emotional proximity to customers, journalists and financiers increases with each exchange. The reason is that intense exchanges call for a mutual level of commitment and understanding. The more intense the exchange between company and stakeholder, the stronger the trust toward the company grows. We know the phenomenon from relationship psychology. The identity of the self and of the other move nearer to one another and ideally reconcile.
Shaping relationships to customers of services is clearly essential to the success of a company. One reason for this is that the service provider is often in direct contact with the customer. Another reason is that there is no physical product to serve as perceptual anchor. A properly maintained relationship translates as corporate accountability. Perceived risk of disappointment sinks in the eyes of the consumer and other stakeholders.
Peculiarities of Digital Media
Every medium possesses a unique combination of features. Digital technologies provide a combination of four peculiarities – the Big Four: integration, accessibility, connectivity and interactivity. The two most important for Global Relationship Management are Connectivity and Interactivity.
Connectivity: Connectivity means that the building blocks of devices, technologies, applications, media assets, etc. are connected with one another and communicate. Connectivity with and within the digital realm has increased dramatically in recent years.
• Media Convergence is the consolidation of traditionally distinct disciplines like print, tv, radio, digital.
• Devices and Technologies: people mail with their phones, go online with their televisions and listen to radio online. Mobile end devices like smartphones and tablets open up new user scenarios and multi-screen experiences via apps and digital utilities like Location Based Services.
• Social Networks and Sharing Platforms enable new forms of communication where every individual can access, forward, rate, comment and themselves create content. Marie-Laure Ryan talks about networking computers in physical space in order to bring users together in virtual environments.
• Connecting with the space outside the Digital Media: the digital realm is increasingly connected with the spaces outside of digital media.
Users have three possible modes of navigation: first, the haphazard pursuit of links through which the user drifts; secondly, goal-oriented travel along a certain path and thirdly, a concrete search for a particular piece of content undetermined by a particular path.
• Interactivity: Interactivity is closely tied to integration and connectivity. Many authors see interactivity as the essential difference to traditional media. Interactivity can either be described as selective, from clicking on a link, or productive, from participation in a story plot with dialogue or gesture.
Accordingly, PR in digital media entails a very active user in contrast to classical PR, which consists of an active narrator and a passive audience. Users in digital media aren’t required to wait until something happens, rather they can make something happen. The digital PR user can influence the relationship directly: users can reach into the communication and help shape it. The question is as follows: does the user select a story (human interacts with machine) or tell a story as user-generated content? (human interacts with content).
Organized and collective consumer movements against a company are a part of the risk of interactivity. The examples in recent years of how interactive critical discussions have gravely damaged corporate images are many.
Relationship Management and Social Media
Social media have radically changed communication behavior and created new means to manage relationships. In particular, social media platforms grant companies opportunities to contact and engage with existing and potential customers. Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Google+ have radically altered the possibilities for engagement of publics and relationship management. Social media enable users to participate, both passively and actively, in communication, such that they can integrate and co-create brand messages.
Passive and active participation on brand pages both have measurable effects on the customer–brand relationship and consumer behavior. Thus, managers who invest in social media brand pages open an efficient channel to communicate brand messages, engage customers, and strengthen individual bonds with the brand.
Social networking sites provide constant connectivity among consumers and PR-managers are focusing on leveraging these social interactions among customers to achieve benefits for their customer relationships. In today’s connected world, online content is an integral part of a customer, and sharing online content can have a big im- pact on sales and the development of customer relationships.
Social media and relationship management
All in all, social media seem to be the perfect channels for corporate relationship management:
• The company uses channels that already exist
• Enormous reach
• High usage
• Many active users searching for corporate and brand information
Belonging to the challenges is that human behavior has changed dramatically: users have evolved from passive receptors into active participants. Social networks are places where relationships arise, but also where they may end as quickly as they began.
Global relationship management
Although there seem to be many opportunities for relationship management with target audiences there are some important problems in regard to Global Relationship Management:
• Social media channels vary widely worldwide
• Enormous cultural differences worldwide
• Regulatory differences
• Language differences
• Differences in design: pages are too colorful, loud and tacky for our tastes (China)
• Many channels we use in Europa are censored or restricted in use (“Great Firewall of China“ like for Facebook, Twitter and Google+)
• Popular users get arrested like the Sina Weibo user Charles Xue (12 million followers)
• Governments claim a „Real Name Policy“
Buy-in from all managers
Global relationship management demands buy-in from all the PR managers in concerned countries in order that clear imagery can be achieved with publics. For this to happen, global relationship management must be systematically planned and precisely executed. Guiding principle: because of the many differences among countries, global relationship management is extremely differentiated. Synergies arise in no small degree from the alignment of such differences along the path to the sought-after brand image.