PR is all about relationships. But how does it work?

Understanding relationships is fundamental to understanding strategic communications and to crack the code of public relations. But is it really possible for a business to de-code something as complex as a relationship with a brand?

Let’s give it a try:

The Canister Example

Envision a relationship as a canister for energy. If the canister is empty, then there’s simply no relationship in place:

An empty canister means that there is no relationship at all.

As long as the canister is empty, there’s no relationship. And if there’s no relationship, your business doesn’t exist in anyone’s mind.

An empty canister is a lack of awareness problem.

However, if you (or your brand) can manage to establish a positive relationship with someone, the canister get topped up with positive energy:

When someone has this type of relationship with your brand, this person will also have good things to say about you. However, this doesn’t mean that this person will go out of their way to proclaim just how awesome your brand is.

But, if you can manage to push this relationship passed a certain level, then suddenly, this person becomes a promoter of your brand:

Having a super-positive relationship with people is, of course, immensely powerful for any brand.

Of course, relationships can be negatively charged as well. If positive energy takes a long time to top up, then negative energy can be added much more easily:

Having negative relationships, especially super-negative relationships, well, that’s kryptonite to your bottom line. 

But this is where it starts to get a little bit complicated.

There’s an ongoing argument about whether it’s all bad to be negatively perceived


in the marketplace compared to not being perceived in any way at all.

Swedish author Hjalmar Söderberg wrote:

Maybe this line of reasoning applies to brands, too?

To get a better understanding of this, we must add another dimension to the Relationship Energy Theory.

Let’s have two relationship canisters; one for friends (the type of customers the brand wants) and enemies (the type of customers the brand don’t want):

In this case, the brand has positive relationships with its publics all the while it’s potential enemies are unaware of the brand’s existence.

Some brands suffer from having the wrong kind of audience:

For instance, if a brand builds a following on Facebook by running giveaways for a long time, they will have built a base of people only looking to get free stuff. The brand could have thousands and thousands of “fans” on Facebook, without anyone of them being potential buyers.

However, if instead, the “enemies” develop negative relationships, their sentiment will reinforce and strengthen the relationships of a brand’s existing friends:

It’s an interesting effect, to say the least.

It’s a mixture of psychological effects, such as Amplification Theory and Conversion Theory. In certain circumstances, opposing arguments will only serve to strengthen those who are already believers. This is a common effect often seen in politics, religion, and lifestyle products.

Hence — not all negative relationships are damaging to a brand by default.

There’s also a possibility for the opposite effect; if the “wrong” people start developing more positive relationships with the brand, this might “cool off” their core audience:

Different types of brands are, of course, more or less sensitive to this effect; customers generally care less about whether or not other consumers favor a certain type of soft drink over another, whereas such choices can turn the tide for a trend-sensitive lifestyle brand.

The Persuasion-Distance Hypothesis

From the model with relationships as positive/negative energy canisters, we can deduct two key insights for cracking the PR code:

1. A brand must at all times know exactly who their publics are and what type of relationship energy-level they are currently in. 

2. A brand must have a strategy for exactly how to influence publics depending on what type of relationship energy-level they are currently in.

Looking closer at 2), it becomes clear that some PR objectives are easier than others. The shorter the distance between two energy levels, the greater the chance of success in influencing someone:

By focusing your PR strategy on short persuasion-distances, the brand will methodically be strengthening its relationships with key publics with much greater success.

In turn, this type of sharpness in focus will help decide what type of PR activities to plan for and who to direct them towards:

A few finishing notes on cracking the PR code:

The media landscape is, as we all know, changing rapidly. And it has been changing for a long time. However, we are still humans and we do take our time to form trusting relationships. And that trust is still lost just as quickly as it ever was.

When it comes to relationships and the internet, the difference today is that people of the same persuasion will connect with each other across geographical boundaries at a speed that is unprecedented in human history.

Whether people love or hate your brand, the surround effect of people doing so together is what will make or break any business.


Clarkson, J.J., Tormala, Z.L., & Rucker, D.D. (2008). A new look at the consequences of attitude certainty: The amplification hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 810-825.

Moscovici, S. (1980). Toward a theory of conversion behavior. In L. Berkowiyz (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 13, 209-239. New York: Academic Press.

Chryssochoou, X. and Volpato, C. (2004). Social Influence and the Power of Minorities: An Analysis of the Communist Manifesto, Social Justice Research, 17, 4, 357-388.


  1. The saying “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” has stuck around for a long time and is generally attributed to the 19th-century showman and circus owner Phineas T. Barnum. Maybe the saying has stuck around because there’s a grain of truth to it — at least in certain circumstances?

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