The Psychology of Building Relationships

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Published on April 9, 2019, at 4:25 p.m.
by Emma Bannen.

Some of the most common definitions of public relations include a reference to relationship building. Building and maintaining relationships between an organization and its publics is key to an organization’s success, thus making it a critical skill for a PR practitioner.

The Public Relations Society of America defines PR as “a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”

PR practitioners can improve their competence in relationship building by looking to the fields of interpersonal communication and psychology. Understanding what makes interpersonal relationships successful allows PR professionals to apply these concepts to the larger context of building relationships between organizations and their publics.

Dr. Jennifer Becker, assistant professor and researcher of interpersonal communication at The University of Alabama, believes “the heart of public relations and interpersonal communication is about building mutually beneficial, healthy relationships — there is transcendence between the two fields.”

There are aspects of interpersonal communication and psychology throughout the practice of PR. Understanding how people and relationships work is indispensable in crafting effective messages.

Building new relationships
In an interpersonal context, forming a new relationship may come down to proxemics, said Dr. Becker. For example, you’re more likely to befriend someone who lives near you or someone who has a class or works with you.

Dr. Ah Ram Lee, a Ph.D. from The University of Florida, echoed this sentiment in her research on psychological distance and its impact on PR. Dr. Lee studied how psychological proximity to an issue — cognitive and emotional closeness — engages people to actually act on that issue.

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The Construal Level Theory is one of the main theories of Dr. Lee’s research. It claims the closer someone is to an issue (emotionally, physically or otherwise), an event, an organization, etc., the more concretely they can think about it.

“If you are asked to think about a picnic happening tomorrow, you will be able to think about it in a concrete way: what to bring, what to wear. But, if you are asked to think about a vacation happening a year from now, you will only be able to think about it in abstract ways,” explained Dr. Lee.

Another factor in relationship building is mutual satisfaction. People pursue new relationships because they feel they are lacking something or they need something new, like emotional companionship, satisfaction, affirmation or control. When people form relationships with organizations or loyalty to brands, it is because they feel rewarded from their interactions with that organization.

Relationships can also accomplish instrumental goals, said Dr. Becker, such as an organization providing someone with information or a partner doing their share of the work during a group project.

Proximity and mutual satisfaction are critical factors in initial relationship building. After this stage, PR practitioners must cultivate these relationships in order to keep them going.

Maintaining relationships
At the core of mutually beneficial relationships is creating strategies to maintain them. In their research paper, Dr. Eyun-Jung Ki and Dr. Linda Childers Hon suggested several strategies for relational maintenance.

Positivity. Relationships are more beneficial when the parties involved enjoy them. This strategy strives to maintain a balance of greater positivity to less negativity, an idea Dr. Becker explained as positive sentiment override. In a PR context, positivity may be interpreted as how much a public feels it is benefiting from a relationship with an organization.

Openness. This strategy suggests that when both parties in a relationship feel comfortable and supported, they are more likely to disclose things about themselves. A key public might feel more comfortable voicing concerns or sharing opinions when they feel they are in a relationship rooted in openness.

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Networking. Social networks encompass the people who interact in interpersonal relationships. When social networks overlap between relationship partners, this can be extremely beneficial for the relationship. Organizations can create networks with other groups that are important to their publics, such as community or activist groups.

Relationship maintenance is perhaps the most important part of the relationship-building process. Using strategies such as positivity, openness and networking allow organizations to preserve these vital connections with their publics.

Social media and relationships
PR practitioners of today have an incredibly useful tool in their arsenal — social media. Social media allows PR professionals to create and cultivate relationships, regardless of physical distance.

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Dr. Lee said in order to effectively use social media, PR practitioners must think critically about the source. The Elaboration Likelihood Model suggests that different paths of persuasion can be taken based on someone’s level of involvement with a topic. If someone has a low level of involvement with a topic, they will focus less on the actual argument and more on peripheral cues like the source of the message. Because of this, people will respond more positively to social media that comes from someone with whom they have a close relationship.

Visuals on social media can also create psychological proximity, according to Dr. Lee. By choosing photos of people who look like a target public, organizations make the public feel that they can relate to the issue or topic.

Though PR professionals may not research principles of psychology and interpersonal communication, it is advantageous to have these principles in mind. Knowing how to create mutually beneficial relationships and to maintain these relationships enable PR practitioners to effectively communicate with their publics.

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