The Balance Scale

12 11 2007

This past Thursday night I was presented the Ketchum Excellence in Research Award at the Institute for Public Relations’ Distinguished Lecture at the Yale Club in New York City. After getting to meet some of the most renowned CEOs, and hobnobbing with some really interesting people (you know, the type you read about in Fortune magazine…fun stuff!), we were treated with a short message from Lawrence Foster, who headed up the very first public relations department in the U.S., when he left journalism and joined Johnson & Johnson over 50 years ago. Foster was receiving a lifetime achievement award, but his message is what really stood out. And what was odd is it wasn’t anything new. He said to look at communication (marketing, PR, etc.) on a big balance scale. One right side place all your cell phones, black berries, email, and technology, and watch the balance dip. And then on left, put simply relationships, and watch the balance rise to the right. He went on to say that no one knows how much heavier the left would be than the right, but it would be noticeable. Speaking from experience, he mentioned how he had nothing but a rolodex and a lot of face time in “his” day of public relations, and to consider the weight of such relationship building.

My wife afterwards said that was quite a profound message, and I had to agree with her. But it made me think…this isn’t anything new. Everyone is talking about it…and yet, what is the real weight of relationships?

It reminded me of a conversation I had with my friend the Metrics man a few weeks ago. He often argues that you can’t measure relationships, and they are not an end in an of themselves. Rather, they’re a tactic…even a strategy, but not an objective.

And it makes me wonder…which one is it? Can you measure relationships or can’t you? Now, perhaps the two anecdotes about relationships I’ve just cited is like comparing apples and oranges, but it causes one to think. If we’re moving towards relationships in business communication–marketing is becoming more about brand relationships, word-of-mouth, and relationship marketing than it is about ad dollars these days–how will we track our success? Now I don’t pretend to know the answer to this question, because I’m one to believe that relationships are vital in any business. But I wonder how far we can get in quantifying the value of relationships. You can quantify things like marketing spend and the result on sales, but what about relationships. Can the value of relationships ever go beyond the “we have built great relationships that are contributing to our success” metric? As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, it’s often a matter of testing a company’s strengths in consumer trust, satisfaction, commitment, and involvement. But does this satisfy the demand for quantification? And can you really link it to company performance…better yet, should you? I don’t have an answer to this, but if you do, post your thoughts.