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Southern Journal of Communication ISSN: 1041-794X (Print) 1930-3203 (Online) Journal homepage:

Southern Journal of Communication

Southern Journal of Communication ISSN: 1041-794X (Print) 1930-3203 (Online) Journal homepage:

ISSN: 1041-794X (Print) 1930-3203 (Online) Journal homepage:

Using a relational approach to retaining students and building mutually beneficial studentuniversity relationships

Stephen D. Bruning & Meghan Ralston

To cite this article: Stephen D. Bruning & Meghan Ralston (2001) Using a relational approach to retaining students and building mutually beneficial student‐university relationships, Southern Journal of Communication, 66:4, 337-345, DOI: 10.1080/10417940109373212

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Stephen D. Bruning and Meghan Ralston

The practice of public relations at most universities has been relegated to a single office concerned primarily with managing institutional reputation. When public relations is conceptualized as relationship management, however, the role of public relations is expanded to include a campus-wide approach to initiating, developing, and maintaining relationships with key public members who can affect the institution economically, socially, politically, and culturally. In the current investigation, 164 students were surveyed to determine whether student-university relationship attitudes differentiated those who indicated they were planning on returning to the institution from those who were not or were undecided. Respondent student-university relationship attitudes were measured using the Bruning and Ledingham (1999) organization-public relationship scale, which examines the respondent's personal, professional, and community relationship attitudes. Also, focus groups were conducted to define student-university personal, professional, and community relationships. The results showed that community relationships were strongly related to the criterion and personal and professional relationships were substantially related. Implications of these findings for the practice of public relations, suggestions for managing student-faculty relationships, and limitations to the investigation are discussed.

C olleges and universities can no longer be passive in attracting and retaining stu- dents to campuses, but rather must be aggressive in their efforts to attract and retain "students whose educational goals and interests are compatible with the

institution's strengths" (Fife, 1990, p. xvii). Research shows that when student goals and interests are not consonant with institutional specialties, students become dissatisfied with their experience and transfer before completing their educations, creating a loss for both the student and the institution (Hossler, 1991).

Enrollment management strategies first were developed in the mid-70s when it became clear that the number of traditional 18- to 21-year-old students was projected to shrink by 21 to 25% (Carnegie Council on Policy Studies in Higher Education, 1980). Most of the early strategies focused on increasing student enrollment, creating a stu- dent body that met the goals and expectations of institutional policy makers, and the achievement of better institutional graduation rates (Paulsen, 1990). Enrollment man-

Stephen D. Bruning and Meghan Ralston, Department of Communication, Capital University. The authors thankRobert Mertensfor advice in interpreting the discriminant analysis results,as wellas thoseundergraduate students who served as research assistants. Correspondence concerningthis articleshould be addressed to the first author at 2199 E. Main Street, Department of Communication, Columbus, OH 43209-2394, or by electronic mail to


Volume 66, Number 4, Summer 2001, pp. 337-345




agement strategies of today often center on marketing, academic programming, finan- cial aid, advising, institutional research, and alumni relations (Penn, 1999). Although enrollment management research has examined a wide variety of factors that may influ- ence retention, one area that has received very little research attention has been the role of relationship-building. In general, the practice of public relations has been experiencing an evolution from the production of communication to the building and management of organiza- tion-public relationships. Prior to the mid-1980s, the practice of public relations cen- tered on product publicity, media relations, and employee communications (Cardwell, 1997). Led by Ferguson's (1984) call, some public relations scholars began to examine relationships as the central unit of study in public relations. Since then, an increasing number of scholars and practitioners have adopted the relational approach, leading Lindenman (1998) to suggest that public relations today should focus on "building those good relationships with both internal and external constituencies" (p. 18). Ehling (1992) has characterized the focus on relationship-building as "an important change in the primary mission of public relations" (p. 622). Recently, the relational approach has been utilized with success in the study of crisis management (Coombs, 2000), issues management (Bridges & Nelson, 2000), healthcare (Lucarelli-Dimmick, 2000), community relations (Wilson, 2000, 2001), city government (Ledingham, in press), global public relations (Kruckeberg, 2000), telecommunications (Bruning 8c Ledingham, 1998, 2000a; Ledingham & Bruning, 1998a, 2000), international govern- ment (Grunig & Huang, 2000; Huang, 2001), banking (Bruning & Ledingham, 1999, 2000b), education (Broom, Casey, & Ritchey, 2000), and insurance (Bruning & Ralston,


In order to practice public relations using a relational approach, practitioners have been required to re-conceptualize how they think about key public members. Key pub- lic members should no longer be considered to be passive recipients of communica- tion, but rather "active, interactive, and equal participants of an ongoing communication process" (Gronstedt, 1997, p. 39). The role of the public relations prac- titioner, therefore is "to make information available in a user-friendly way, rather than shoving it down their throats, and to support an ongoing relationship rather than trans- ferring information" (Gronstedt, 1997, p. 39). Moreover, because the relational approach is predicated upon building mutually beneficial relationships between orga- nizations and key publics (Ledingham, in press), public relations practitioners should design programs that fulfill both organizational and key public member needs (Brun- ing, in press-b). If the relational perspective is to be accepted within managerial structures, public relations practitioners must demonstrate not only that their programs affect the rela- tionships between organizations and their publics, but more importantly must measure the ways in which programmatic initiatives have influenced key public member atti- tudes, evaluations, and behaviors (Broom & Dozier, 1990). As the practice of public relations has shifted to the relational perspective, evaluation research likewise has evolved from measuring communication flows between an organization and key public members toward measuring and understanding the variables that influence the cre- ation, development, and maintenance of mutually beneficial organization-public rela- tionships. Botan (1992) suggested that public relations should concentrate on the communication process, and that communication should be used to adapt relation- ships between organizations and publics. Toth (2000) recommended that interpersonal communication processes should be used to build organization-public relationships. Although a part of the field has shifted its focus to relationships, Broom and Dozier (1990) have noted that "conceptually, public relations programs affect the relationships between organizations and their publics, but rarely is program impact on the relation- ship themselves measured" (p. 82).



In an attempt to address a relative lack of organization-public relationship attitude measures, Bruning and Ledingham (1999) created a scale that measured organization/ key public (a) personal relationships—engaging in actions that build a sense of trust, and demonstrating investment and personal interest in key public members, (b) pro- fessional relationships—delivering services in a businesslike manner, insuring that ser- vices meet the business needs of the key public member, and demonstrating a financial investment in the organization-public relationship, and (c) community relationships— the organization being open about future plans, active in community development, and involved in improving social and economic aspects of the community. Research uti- lizing the scale has shown the personal, professional, and community relationship atti- tudes of key public members influenced their evaluations of satisfaction with the organization (Bruning & Ledingham, 2000b), intended behavior toward an insurance agency (Bruning & Ralston, in press) and a community (Ledingham, in press), and dif- ferentiated those who identified themselves as in relationship with an organization from those who felt they did not have a relationship (Bruning, in press-b). As Coombs (2001) notes, organizations that purposefully cultivate relationships with key public members and adopt an organization-wide commitment to excellent relationships find higher levels of key public member loyalty. Moreover, many universi- ties claim that relationships are at the core of their functioning, and much of the reten- tion literature suggests that the relationship between the individual student and the university that the student attends is very important (Dolence, 1991). The linkage, how- ever, merely has been suggested, not demonstrated. Because the influence of student- university relationships on student retention has not been explored in any formal way, the current investigation was designed to examine student-university relationships by posing following research question:

RQj: Do student-university relationship attitudes distinguish between those stu- dents who would stay at a university and those intend to transfer or are unde- cided?


Both quantitative and qualitative data were collected for this investigation. Under- graduate students enrolled in an introductory communication course were asked to complete a questionnaire in order to determine students' attitudes regarding the stu- dent-university relationship. In addition, students in focus groups were to operational- ize their personal, professional, and community relationships they have with the university.

Survey of Student Attitudes

Participants. The participants in this investigation were 164 students enrolled in an introductory communication course at a small private mid-western university during the spring semester of 1999. Women made up 62% of the respondents; 91% were first- year students, 7% were sophomores, and 2% werejuniors. Data were collected from an

course because first-year students are most likely to trans-

fer and because this required liberal arts course enrolls students from across the univer- sity. By conducting this phase of the study in mid-to-late spring, the respondents had been able to experience nearly a full year of a relationship with the institution and, in all likelihood, were deciding whether they would or would not return.

introductory communication

Surveyinstrument. Student perceptions of the professional, personal, and commu- nity organization-public relationship attitudes were measured using the 16-item Brun- ing and Ledingham (1999) Organization-Public Relationship Scale. Coefficient alpha for the professional relationship dimension was .73, .77 for the personal relationship



dimension, and .82 for the community relationship dimension. Coefficient alpha for the overall organization-public relationship scale was .88. Additionally, students were asked to indicate whether they were planning on transferring to another university, staying at the current institution, or undecided. Finally, demographic questions of sex and class rank also were asked.

Focus Groups

Participants. Focus groups were conducted withjunior and senior students in the fall of 1999 in order to discover their conceptions of the personal, professional, and com- munity relationships they have with the university. Juniors and seniors were selected because they have had several years of experience at the institution, and they would be better able than younger students to articulate the subtleties of their relationship with the university. Twenty-five randomly selected undergraduate students participated in two separate focus groups (12 students in one focus group, 13 in the other), and partic- ipants were rewarded for their participation with pizza and soft drinks. Facilitation. The focus groups were moderated by students enrolled in an upper divi- sion public relations research course. The moderators received training in focus group techniques (Ledingham & Bruning, 1998b), and moderated two mock focus groups with students enrolled in the public relations research class prior to conducting the focus groups reported upon in this investigation. The moderator instructed partici- pants to come to consensus with regard to how they would define the personal, profes- sional, and community dimensions of their relationship with the university. The focus groups were tape recorded and transcribed. Finally, both of the focus groups were observed by three students enrolled in the public relations research course who received training in focus group observation techniques to note any vocalics and non- verbal messages that may not be captured in the tape recording.


Analysis of the Student Relationship Attitudes

Discriminant analysis was computed to determine if student personal, professional, and community organization-public relationship attitudes distinguished those who would stay at the university and those who would leave or were undecided. One signifi- cant discriminant function resulted (Function 1: Wilks A,= .78, X 2 = 36.88, df= 6, p <

.001; Function 2: Wilks X =.98, % 2 = 2.63, df= 2,p< .268), with an eigenvalue of .26 and

a canonical correlation of .452. The group centroid means on the first discriminant

function show that relationship attitudes separate those students who indicated they

intended to stay from those who were planning on transferring or were uncertain. This

is supported by the different centroid values for community (.286) vs. personal and

professional (-.943 and -.808 respectively). See Table 1 for the mean and standard devi-

Table 1 Relationship Mean and Standard Deviation Scores for Stay, Uncertain, and Transfer Students



































ation personal, professional, and community relationship scores, Table 2 for the classifi- cation function coefficients and structure coefficients results, and Table 3 for the classification results matrix. As can be seen in Table 2, the community relationship is strongly related to whether students stay or transfer, while the professional and personal relationships are less strongly, but still substantially related to whether the student planned to stay or transfer or was undecided. Moreover, the classification function coefficient analysis reveals that those who indicate they were going to transfer reported weaker personal relationships; those who were uncertain reported weaker professional relationship scores. Correct classification into groups was 67% (prior probabilities were 33%).

Focus Group Findings

Personal relationships. Focus group participants agreed that personal relationships are facilitated when faculty and staff engage in actions that help to build a sense of trust and respect between students and university personnel. Some of the behaviors that are associated with effective personal relationships revolve around the employee being will- ing to invest time, energy, thoughts, and feelings into their interactions with students. Finally, participants indicated that those employees who effectively manage personal relationships engage in actions that demonstrate a personal interest in the student's academic and personal well-being. Moreover, focus group participants agreed that the tenor for good faculty-student personal relationships is set early in the term by the fac- ulty member. Participants reported the faculty with whom they have good relationships are approachable, willing to provide counsel in and outside the classroom, remember student names, greet students outside of class, make themselves available to help, and provide multiple methods for contact such as web page, e-mail, office phone, and home phone. Participants noted they appreciate faculty members who provide guidelines with regard to preferred methods of contact, as well as establishing parameters for using some of the more "invasive" forms of communication (e.g., no calls at home before or after a certain time). Professional relationships. Focus group participants indicated that professional rela- tionships should be predicated on the notion that students and university officials are working together toward a common goal; students should be listened to, respected, praised, and given assistance in problem solving whenever possible; and the university should be willing to invest financially to enhance the professional aspects of the learn- ing environment. Moreover, focus group participants suggested that the faculty with whom they have good professional relationships are professionally competent, con- cerned about the professional development and education of students, encouraged the expression of ideas in classes, and managed interactions with kindness, mutual respect, and a sense of humor. Interestingly, participants believed that those faculty who listed their home phone numbers were more dedicated to the professional development of students than those faculty who did not.

Table 2 Classification Function Coefficients and Structure Coefficients Results

Classification Function Coefficients






Structure Coefficients


















Table 3 Stay, Transfer, and Uncertain Classification Results Matrix

Predicted Group Membership

Actual Group Membership




No. of Cases


87 (76.3%)

17 (14.9%)









5 (45.5%)










Community relationships. Focus group participants were asked to operationalize com- munity relationships. Participants indicated that community relationships are built through events and people who facilitate the development of a connection between the

university and the student. The result of this connection is a sense of pride in theuni- versity, a feeling that students are an important part of a significant organization, and a belief that the university is committed to the personal and professional development of students. Students indicated that community relationships could be facilitated byuni- versity programming that brings students together and allows for friendships to develop in relaxed atmosphere, by quality academic discussions in which divergent opinions are respected and encouraged, and by faculty, staff, and administrators engag- ing in a part of student everyday life, such as by helping during move-in day, eating

to stu-

meals with students in the student dining halls, and acknowledging and talking dents in "non-official" situations.


Previous retention research examining the role of the faculty member in student retention primarily revolved around the academic progress of the student (Howard & Rogers, 1991). Although the current investigation is limited because students of only one university were studied and because faculty-student interaction is a significant com- ponent of student expectations and faculty evaluations at that institution, many of the findings regarding interaction strategies between students and faculty seemingly would be important at all universities. For example, the results from this investigation suggest that faculty members play a far more significant role in student retention than simply being an expert who provides instruction and evaluation in a discipline. Rather, stu- dents enjoy relationships with faculty members who serve as mentors, wise and trusted counselors, available for both formal and informal communication, and concerned about both the personal and professional development of the student. Moreover, the importance of the community relationship dimension suggests that faculty should maintain an active professional life because focus group participants felt that faculty who were actively engaged in their profession enhanced the reputation of the institu- tion, which in turn gave students a feeling that they were affiliated with an institution where exceptional people and activities are the norm. The results from this investigation also illustrate some of the benefits of building organization-public relationships, and suggest that a relational approach to public rela- tions can provide a useful framework for managing public relations. Although the basic tenets of interpersonal theory are modified somewhat when applied to a organization- public relationships, research shows that organization-public relationships develop and decline in phases (Bruning & Ledingham, in press), that chronological time affects key public member relationship attitudes and commitment (Ledingham, Bruning, & Wil- son, 1999), that public members have relational needs and expectations (Bruning, in



press-b), that effective organization-public relationships are predicated upon the notion of mutual benefit (Ledingham, in press), and that certain axioms of communi- cation likewise operate in organization-public relationships (Bruning, in press-a). Therefore, adapting personal relationship-building principles to an organization-pub- lic relationship can be rewarded in terms of positive public relations outcomes. In the context of student-university relationships, the positive outcome of building good rela- tionships would probably be expressed in the form of increased retention rates and enhanced student satisfaction. The relational approach also provides practitioners with a theory upon which the practice of public relations can be built, and focuses evaluation on the effects that pub- lic relations activities have on key publics. For too long, measuring public relations suc- cess has been based upon the communication efficiencies of the practitioner rather than determining the effect that the communication has had on key public member attitudes, evaluations, and behaviors. When using the relational approach, rather than measuring communication efficiencies such as broadcast placements, clip counts, and the like, practitioners will be evaluated based upon whether their actions/activities have built good relationships. Moreover, if relationship building programs are tracked over time, practitioners can begin to understand what the communication does to key public members (specify the ways in which relationship-building activities have affected key public member attitudes, evaluations, and opinions) as well as what key public members do with the communicated messages (determine how relationship-building activities are linked to key public member behavior). Associating public relations activi- ties with key public member attitudes, evaluations, and behaviors would be an impor- tant step for public relations practitioners, and would help them demonstrate the value of public relations activities to overall organizational functioning. Leichty and Springston (1993) suggest that "if the relationship management meta- phor is to be taken seriously, we need to develop a theory of how relationships between organizations and publics develop, change, and are maintained" (p. 334). The results from this investigation coupled with other relationally-based public relations research suggests that public relations practitioners benefit when they use modifications of inter- personal theories in the pursuit of public relations objectives. Although the particulars of many of the interpersonal theories will not transfer directly, research that has been conducted to date indicates that organization-public relationship attitudes do play a role in key public member evaluations and intended behavior. Public relations practi- tioners who conceptualize the practice in relationally based terms, and manage organi- zation-public relationships by modifying some of the tenets from interpersonal communication theory should find their efforts rewarded in terms of enhanced key public member relationship attitudes and increased loyalty toward the organization.


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