• Joseph Brennan

Measuring an Organization's Relationship with a Key Public: a case study

Presented at the American Marketing Association's Symposium on the Marketing of Higher Education (2009) with John Della Contrada, University at Buffalo - SUNY.


In today’s new economic reality, higher education marketers are feeling more pressure to demonstrate the value they create.  Yet measuring marketing outcomes has never been easy, especially when the outcome is defined as “having a good relationship” with stakeholders.  In the higher education industry, students and their parents, alumni, donors, faculty and staff, and local community members each have an interest in the decisions and actions of an institution. The perceptions and behaviors of each stakeholder group can either help an institution achieve its goals or prevent it from doing so.  Maintaining positive, beneficial relationships with these stakeholders obviously is very important to a college or university.


The good news is that higher education marketers need not reinvent the wheel when attempting to measure their institution’s relationship with its stakeholders. Public relations researchers James Grunig and Linda Hon in 1999 developed a simple, yet powerful, technique for measuring how key stakeholders view their relationship with a college or university.  The technique is based on what the researchers identified as the “six dimensions” — or components — of organization-stakeholder relationships. These dimensions are:

  1. Control mutuality: The degree to which parties agree on who has the rightful power to influence one another. Although some imbalance is natural, stable relationships require that organizations and stakeholders each have some control over the other.

  2. Trust: Defined as one party’s level of confidence and willingness to open oneself to the other party. There are three dimensions to trust: integrity — the belief that an organization is fair and just; dependability — the belief that an organization will do what it says it will do; and confidence — the belief that an organization has the ability to do what it says it will do.

  3. Satisfaction: The extent to which each party feels favorably toward the other because positive expectations about the relationship are reinforced. A satisfying relationship is one in which the benefits outweigh the costs.

  4. Commitment: The extent to which each party believes and feels that the relationship is worth spending energy to maintain and promote.

  5. Exchange relationship: In an exchange relationship, one party gives benefits to the other only because the other has provided benefits in the past or is expected to do so in the future.

  6. Communal relationship:  In a communal relationship, both parties provide benefits to the other because they are concerned for the welfare of the other — even when they get nothing in return. For most public relations activities, developing communal relationships is much more important to achieve than would be developing exchange relationship.

To assess stakeholders’ perceptions of how well an organization maintains each dimension of the relationship, Grunig, Hon and E.J. Ki developed a short survey that can be administered to stakeholders.  This simple technique has been used, for example, to measure students’ relationships with a university, to measure a healthcare non-profit’s relationship with donors and a telecommunications company’s relationship with its customers.  In each case, insights gained from this technique can be used to improve the effectiveness of communications and marketing programs designed to foster stakeholder relationships critical to achievement of organizational goals.


The researchers’ survey consists of 13 straightforward questions to assess how stakeholders perceive their relationship with an organization.  Each question is a measurement of one of the six dimensions of a relationship. Stakeholder responses to this questionnaire can be scored and analyzed by simply calculating the mean score of each question.  This analysis will help pinpoint where an organization is effective in building relationships with stakeholders and where it needs to improve its relationships.


The survey questions can take the form of a simple five-point scale to asses whether stakeholders strongly agree, agree, disagree, strongly disagree, or whether they are uncertain about their response to the question.  These survey questions, listed below, can be modified to include the name of the institution or they can use a general identifier, such as “the college” or “the university.”   Note that the relationship dimension measured by each question is listed with the question.  In the actual questionnaire provided to stakeholders, the relationship dimensions would not be listed.


The OPR Scale (Hon & Grunig)

  1. The organization can be relied on to keep its promises. (Trust 1)

  2. I believe the organization takes my opinion into account when making decisions (Trust 2)

  3. The organization believes the opinions of people like me are legitimate.(Control Mutuality 1)

  4. The organization really listens to what people like me have to say. (Control Mutuality 2)

  5. The organization wants to maintain a relationship with me. (Commitment 1)

  6. There is a long-lasting bond between the organization and people like me. (Commitment 2)

  7. I am happy with the organization. (Satisfaction 1)

  8. Generally speaking, I am pleased with the relationship the organization has established with people like me. (Satisfaction 2)

  9. The organization is very concerned about the welfare of people like me. (Communal Relationship 1)

  10. The organization helps people like me without expecting anything in return. (Communal Relationship 2)

  11. Whenever the organization gives or offers something to people like me, it generally expects something in return. (Exchange Relationship 1)

  12. Even though people like me have had a relationship with the organization for a long time it still expects something in return whenever it offers a favor. (Exchange Relationship 2)

  13. The organization will compromise with people like me when it knows it will gain something. (Exchange Relationship 3)

The authors of this paper used this survey instrument in 2008 to measure a large public university’s relationships with more than 5,000 stakeholders who said they were interested in supporting the university’s plan to grow and increase its regional economic impact. This group was called the university “Believers,” and consisted of alumni, students, faculty, staff and community members. Believers received regular email communications from the university concerning its growth plan and how the university’s activities benefited the community.  These communications supported an advocacy campaign launched by the university to secure state funding needed it needed to achieve its growth plan. During this campaign, Believers were asked participate in certain activities in support of the university’s plan, such as calling or emailing legislators, writing letters to the editor or attending university events.


To the 13 questions listed above, four others were added. These were designed to gauge the attitude, intentions and behavior of the stakeholders, as well as gather demographic information about the respondents.


The objective was to assess stakeholders’ perceptions of their relationship with the university, and to investigate what relationship dimensions were strongly associated with stakeholders’ attitudes, and especially their supportive behaviors.  The results provided direction for how the university could alter its communications in order to improve relationships with each stakeholder group and, ultimately, engender their active support.  The survey was completed by 1,100 stakeholders, a response rate of about 23 percent. Among this group, 44.7 university alumni, 27.4 percent were university staff, 18.3 percent were university students, 10.4 percent were members of the local community unaffiliated with the university, 10 percent were university faculty, 8.1 percent were a parent of a student,  and 7.3 percent were “other” (adjunct faculty member, graduate of a non-credit program, members of local professional groups, etc).

The results indicated that stakeholders who said they supported the university’s growth plan, and those who engaged in engaged in supportive behaviors, scored very highly on relationship dimensions of satisfaction and commitment. There also was a strong correlation between supportive behavior and the dimension of trust.


Specifically, 87 percent of Believers who reported asking others to support the university agreed or strongly agreed that “the university wants to maintain a relationship with me” (commitment) and that they were “happy with the university” (satisfaction).


In contrast, the approximately one-third of stakeholders who said they did not engage in supportive behavior scored low on the communal relationship dimension.  Some 80 percent either disagreed, strongly disagreed or were uncertain that “the university helps people like me without expecting anything in return,” while 74 percent did not agree that “the university is very concerned about the welfare of people like me.”


The university’s weakness in the communal relationship dimension – particularly during a campaign attempting to highlight the mutual benefit of the university’s growth – suggested that the university needed to modify its approach to influencing stakeholder attitudes and behavior.  Public relations researchers have pointed out that those strategies which emphasize communal relationships usually encounter less stakeholder opposition and more support over the long term.


The findings of this research were presented to university administrators responsible for oversight of the “Believers” campaign and for development of messages to stakeholders.  As a result of these findings, the campaign’s outreach and messaging were altered to more strongly convey how the university’s growth would benefit the entire region and why the university’s plan should be supported as the community’s best opportunity for economic growth. In addition, the university began regularly communicating with Believers simply to share information, rather than always asking them to contact elected officials.  In 2009, this approach appeared to be having its desired effect, in the face of a statewide economic crisis, which could have completely derailed the university’s advocacy campaign and growth plan.


In May of 2009, stakeholder support for the plan led to the state Senate’s passage of a bill to reform state law, giving the university new financial strategies to pursue its growth plan.  This bill will go before the state Assembly during the 2009-10 legislative session, and the university’s Believers campaign has swelled to more than 9,000 stakeholders.


References

Hon, L. C., & Grunig, J.E. (1999). Guidelines for measuring relationships in publics. Retrieved from http://www.instituteforpr.org/research_single/guidelines_measuring_relationships

Ki, E. J., & Hon, L. C. (2007). Testing the linkages among the organization–public relationship and attitude and behavioral intentions. [Electronic version]. Journal of Public Relations Research, 19(1), 1-23.

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