Research in Progress: Reimagining organization-public relationships through ethics of care

September 13, 2021

Melanie Formentin

By Melanie Formentin, Towson University

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a given for most organizations. What started as a model for helping companies embrace responsible business practices regarding environmental and employee welfare has evolved in nuanced ways.

As younger generations expect companies to be open about their stances on important political and societal issues, we’ve seen an increase in conversations about authenticity and purpose. Companies are becoming more invested in corporate social advocacy and action efforts. And as we continue to weather the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve also seen an increased discussion about the value of “caring” business practices.

However, ethics of care is more nuanced than simply behaving in a caring manner or being kind to others. As a relationship-based ethic, care privileges evaluating the quality of relationships by considering the presence of caring practices and values. Research has found that care provides a decision-making approach that emphasizes caring for others, empathy, and compassion.

Traditionally, when we think of ethical decision-making, we often think about the morality of an action. For example, virtue ethics suggest that ethical decision-making is based on the honesty and morality of the individual carrying out a decision or action. Care ethics, however, imagines decision-makers as existing in relationships and dealing with situations that are context-sensitive. In this way, care ethics become a perfect framework for reimagining what it means to practice good public relations.

Care, public relations, and OPR

The dominant public relations paradigm, relationship management theory (RMT), emphasizes relationship-building as being at the core of good public relations practices; yet a clear overlap exists between public relations and care values.

Both care ethics and public relations value concepts of trust, satisfaction, and mutual benefit. While organization-public relationships (OPR), a theory explicating RMT, highlights dimensions of control mutuality and commitment, care ethics privilege human flourishing and responsiveness to needs.

Further, similar to care ethics, scholars have grounded OPR in interpersonal relationship-building principles. This includes recognizing and addressing shared problems; identifying needs and fulfilling expectations; and deriving mutual benefit for all parties involved. Further, caring values often center on building relationships wherein those with power and resources (both physical and emotional) work to elevate others).

Why care in public relations?

An opportunity exists to consider how OPR can be reimagined in the context of care ethics. Through this research, I aim to develop and test a scale designed to highlight how caring practices and values overlap with and diverge from traditional OPR dimensions.

Specifically, by understanding the similarities and differences between care and OPR, we can begin considering how our current relationship-focused paradigm can be strengthened through ethical relationship-building practices. And this is where context comes in to play.

Taking us back to the concept of CSR, most research and popular writing about social responsibility focuses on the organizational benefits of giving back. For example, CSR can help build employee satisfaction, customer engagement, and organizational reputation. However, little research explores the impact of being a good corporate citizen.

Arguably, understanding and applying care ethics can shift our understanding of what it means to build strong relationships, and CSR provides a perfect context. Bluntly, if there were no benefits to practicing CSR, organizations wouldn’t—maybe even couldn’t—do it. What care ethics allows us to do is consider that organizations are part of a greater relationship with their publics. So, how can organizations reap benefits while also maximizing the impact of their giving efforts?

It can happen by embracing caring practices and values, which starts with understanding and privileging partner needs. For example, through CSR practices, organizations can consider how they can use their stature and resources to uplift others, respond to partner needs, and use their power and capacity to do good.

Ideally, however, this scale will allow us to consider the impact and ethical foundations of good relationship-building practices across multiple contexts—not just CSR. By expanding our understanding of what it means to evaluate the quality of relationships, and grounding that in care ethics, we can move beyond our basic dimensions of OPR to consider how caring practices and values both align with and extend best public relations practices.

For further information on this study, please email Formentin at This project is supported by a 2021 Page/Johnson Legacy Scholar Grant from the Arthur W. Page Center.