Top Takeaways from International Public Relations Research Conference

27a53c_64d944d00ee84f17b362b74a375bb178~mv2.jpgI participated March 5-7 in the 23rd International Public Relations Research Conference in Orlando. This conference had its origins 23 years ago when two legendary PR professors launched it. The legend is that Don Wright of Boston University told Don Stacks of the University of Miami to start it.

I’m glad they did. I’ve been teaching full-time for nearly 20 years, and when I was a new faculty member, I remember finding this conference very useful. It is still my favorite of all conferences I attend for several reasons. For one, it is focused exclusively on public relations, whereas other conferences include PR sessions among a legion of other communication disciplines. I also enjoy the fact that academics and research-savvy professionals participate together in this conference.

But my main reason for liking this conference is the format, which allows for participants to benefit from volumes of research. The round-table format involves six tables in one large room. Each table has one research presenter (or team) for an hour, and they present four times in an hour. Presenters give a 7-minute overview and usually a handout, and then everyone gathered at the table asks questions and offers comments for 8 minutes. After 15 minutes a moderator calls for everyone to switch tables.

This format benefits all. Presenters get to engage and get feedback in an intimate fashion from four small groups of interested people. Attendees get to consume four research projects per hour. Over the course of three full days, it’s like a fire hose of research including more than 100 presentations.

I always advocate that research should be a bridge between the academy and the profession, that is it should have implication for theory and practice (as an alumna just told me, the theory she learned in class has been most practical in her job). The theme of this conference is all about blending theory and practice as well. With that in mind, I offer a bullet list of top take-aways from the conference. This in no way does justice to rigorous research projects that took one or two years to complete. But it will demonstrate even briefly the value of ongoing research in the field of public relations.

(I’m saving my research presentation at this conference for another blog post, hopefully once it’s published in a journal).

CEO Activism

  • A critical theory perspective led to the conclusion that most issues are political in nature and public expectations are for engagement so company’s may as well engage or let others dominate discussions.

Framing Environmental Issues

  • A loss-frame message strategy is best for internal messages aimed at persuading preventive action, where a gain-frame message attributing responsibility to others is best for external messages.

Crisis and Discourse of Renewal

  • There is opportunity in crisis for growth, renewal and reconstitution, and post-crisis communications can aim to benefit whole community not just an organization.

Fighting Disinformation

  • Refutation, not just denial, is the most effective response strategy, and professionals should remember that fighting disinformation is a marathon, not a sprint. Any response lowers an aggressors’ credibility, and imagery positively affects believability.

Impression Management

  • Public perception of change is the result of regulation, public sentiment, and corporate culture. Companies after missteps need to adjust messaging to engage in image restoration, respond to threats with visual and textual cues, and engage in preemptive measures such as self-promotion or exemplification.

How Publics Process Fake News

  • It is important to cultivate publics’ ‘persuasion knowledge’ (i.e. media literacy, explain how certain actors try to deceive and expose nefarious tactics). Point out credibility issues of social posts. Cultivate public understanding of corporate ability.

Social Media Responses to Public Tragedy

  • Pay attention to culture, tie communication to corporate purpose, saying nothing is better than something inappropriate.

Crisis and Risk Preparation

  • Three contributions to successful preparation in order of success rate: advance preparation (65%), communication access (25%), and training and testing (10%).

Behavioral Intent Toward Nonprofits

  • Nonprofits need to show concern for specific issue and evoke empathy. Design thinking and the Situational Theory of Problem Solving apply.

Visuals in Crisis Communications

  • Four types—none, logo, CEO at podium CEO reflecting brand characteristics. The later was most successful in reducing anger and enhancing reputation in two crisis response types—attack accuser and excuse.

CSR in Social Media

  • Legitimacy in eyes of public is key, and organizations need to do more interacting vs informing strategy or they risk raising suspicion.

Taking a Stand on Public Issues

  • The fit of the issue to corporate purpose matters, and a key strategy is to separate potential boycotters from buycotters. Congruence of corporate stance leads to brand loyalty.

Japanese PR

  • In a high-context culture, “kuukiyomu” means read the atmosphere in every situation, and avoid uncertainty.

Current State of PR

  • Consulting firms are encroaching on PR functions. Writing, storytelling and social media are seen as top skills needed. Community relations is still mostly staying in-house

Social Media Influencers and Customer Response

  • 5 key qualities of social media influencers identified include: credibility, uniqueness, similar interest, cultural power, expertise.

Page Society Progression Model Tested on CCOs

  • A study showed a method to determine where CCOs are on a model of performance progressing from professional, to pathfinder, to pacesetter.

PR With Authority

  • It’s. not about popularity, it’s about authority—how do you know, not just what you say.

Fortune 500 Companies on Instagram

  • Conversational human voice is most successful in increasing brand engagement, and there are 6 markers—humor, emotional word choice, treat users as real people, positively address questions, invite followers by hashtag, first-person narrative.

PR Can Create Ritual Narratives to Ease Pain and Stress of Modern Live

  • Use stories, not just facts
  • Listen, don’t just tell
  • Limit the amount of information

Workplace Discrimination and Employee Communications

  • Transparent communication can lessen workplace discrimination and lead to organizational justice and better employee-organization relationships
  • “Justice” = procedural, distributive, and interactional
  • “Transparent” = participation, substantiation, accountability
  • Sometimes discrimination is perceived, but don’t just assume that.

Can Advocacy Posts Break the Facebook Echo Chamber?

  • Acknowledge that publics have contrary views
  • Strategically show there is agreement on other issues
  • Strategically evoke empathy and avoid evoking high negative emotions
  • Remember the goal is mutual understanding, not always persuasion

Hearing Organizational Human Voice

  • Remember the book “Cluetrain Manifesto”
  • Social presence and interactivity were the variables in this study most significantly associated with an organization being perceived as trustworthy

How to Combat Fake News on Social Media

  • Refutation of fake news about your organization is more effective than denial
  • An external source is more effective than an internal source

CSA and Perceived Corporate Hypocrisy

  • CSA (Corporate Social Advocacy) or “taking a stand” on social issues that are less relevant to a corporation could lead to perceptions of hypocrisy
  • “Relevant” = consistent with corporate values and behaviors (high-fit)
  • Strategy is to take stands on issues for which a corporation has already demonstrated concern and not jump on bandwagon of popular sentiment

CSR Fit and Message Framing

  • CSR is always better if the cause/activity is a fit (see above entry)
  • Thematic message frames work better if there is a low fit (emotional and general)
  • Episodic message frames work better for high fit (information about specific instance)

Theatre and PR

  • The skills of theatre lend themselves to PR practice, from staging to acting

Employee Commitment to Change Through Uncertainty Reduction

  • Transparent communication is more likely to lead to employee commitment to change
  • Channels should be mostly interpersonal vs mediated (rich vs lean)
  • Communication quality (transparency) matters more than channels

Increasing Reader Engagement

  • (A study done in the skin care industry specifically)
  • Article types that increase engagement most are how-to, advice
  • Human visuals are better than product visuals (or combination)
  • Medical influencers are the most effective compared other types of influencers
  • Multiple influencers help
  • Optimal word count is 1200-1600

Ethical Engagement of Marginalized Publics on Social Media

  • Offer an ethic of care
  • Ensure privacy and anonymity
  • Transparency and accuracy
  • A tone of authenticity and empathy

Expectation Management in Media Relations

  • Consider not only product, but process, roles, relationships

Digital Marketing and the PR Curriculum

  • CEPR (Commission on Education in Public Relations) schools have 86 “digital” courses, while marketing programs have 57
  • A future study will consider how they are taught

Perceptions of CSR as Traditional or Profit Scheme

  • A level of knowledge correlates with support for CSR
  • Positive attitude about “portion of profits” approach correlates with positive attitude about the corporation (i.e. transparent cause-related marketing)

Research, Measurement and Evaluation in Job Ads

  • Most have terms with “male” characteristics vs female
  • More job ads for research and evaluation require Com/PR degree than business

Using AI to Test Effectiveness of Crisis Response Options

  • In testing, AI can identify crisis, type of crisis, and potential response

What Amounts to a Crisis?

  • Semantic network analysis was used in this study
  • Implications are to: track reference points, detach and disconnect, respond to social tagging, extinguish emotion

Parents Don’t Trust Ugly Schools

  • People judge relationships with organizations based on sensory, spatial, symbolic factors

Network Analysis of Latin Countries’ PR in the US

  • Country image in another country is dependent on multiple actors, not just government
  • American PR agencies do much work for Latin countries on behalf of business, tourism, government and embassy

Online Risk

  • Social media risk is often mislabeled as crisis
  • ‘Paracrisis’ = situation preceding crisis
  • 6 ‘paracrisis’ clusters emerged in this study, and 7 paracrisis response strategies,

Beyond Finding Social Media Influencers

  • In a crisis, the level of involvement (from the Elaboration Likelihood Model) affects information search by the public
  • Utilitarian or hedonic motivation affects information search
  • PR pros should consider public attitude toward influencer, organization, and other negative word of mouth

Toward a Theory of Rebranding

  • This study applied Diffusion of Innovation Theory to rebranding
  • There was an initial negative sentiment
  • There is a need to move people through steps in a proicess to adopt new brand, not all at once
  • Eg: period of priming, exposure, implementation

DTC Ads and Legitimacy of Organization

  • Most media about direct to consumer advertising is negative
  • There is a “legitimacy” gap between an organization’s ability to address the issue and public permission

Crisis and Sincerity

  • Sincerity is directly related to an organization’s account of a crisis being accepted
  • Sincerity is derived from reputation, established prior to crisis

Viral Videos

  • Virality is dependent on video being funny, having value, a triggering event, a call to action, sociological response, and sometimes fame of person in video helps
  • Virality can be measured in hours; less than 3 hours is peak for virality
  • Integration of channels and messages enhances virality

Influencers and Distrust

  • Distrust = negative feelings regarding expected conduct;
  • Society is now centered on distrust
  • Distrust happens when influencers are perceived to be commercialized, offer bad content, or due to characteristics or actions
  • Micro-influencers are more useful, and then mostly for agenda setting

Preparing for a Fake News Crisis

  • Disinformation means deliberate
  • Misinformation means incorrect or misperception
  • Fake news is often misinformation in in news format
  • To respond consider: is it a re-emerging past issue, is it brief or gaining traction, what is the status of the source,
  • Also consider if the information topic is a threat to mission
  • Good practice is to engage in social listening by senior people in organization

Challenges of Competing on Social Purpose

  • People across all age groups think companies should address social issues
  • Why companies do it—keep consumers loyal, advocate for cause related to mission
  • What issues are popular: job growth, privacy and internet security, access to health care, sexual harassment, diversity
  • Considerations: stay relevant to core mission, consider employee sentiment, how to take action (beyond words), cost of inaction

Transparency in Crisis

  • Messages viewed as high in transparency are viewed as more credible and more effective across all crisis types and crisis response strategies
  • The “diminish” strategy is least effective
  • Transparency comes from clarity, accuracy, and disclosure

CSA and Brand Fit

  • Study looked at Nike as case
  • Leadership matters—not just adopting popular cause
  • Align with values and product
  • Know audience and stakeholder values
  • Be intentional about social branding

CSA and Deliberative Democracy

  • Deliberative democracy = those affected by decisions should have the opportunity and capacity to participate in making them
  • There is room for corporations and NGOs to have an increased role in public discourse since nation-states are losing legitimacy
  • Ex: Patagonia’s ‘Action Works’ platform for citizens to engage in environmental policy

Listening and Evaluation for Internal Communications

  • There are intangible contributions of internal communications
  • Social capital theory involves structural, relational, communicative dimensions
  • Internal communications impacts culture, building community, collaborations, confidence
  • Measure employee engagement in terms of personal/professional growth, confidence in company direction, feeling enabled and empowered.

MLK and the Character of Our Content

Like many Americans, I have long admired the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. There are many reasons to admire the man. One reason I admire him most is for his speeches, beautifully crafted and delivered with compelling cadence and style. And of all his speeches, one line from his “I have a dream” speech comes back to me most frequently: his dream that one day “we judge each other not by the color of our our skin but by the content of our character.”

I often think that as professional communicators, we would do well to adapt and amend that and measure ourselves not by attention and sales metrics but by the character of our content.

Journalists should eschew click bait, sensationalism, rushing to judgment to be first rather than right, partisan and prejudicial in what is not covered, what is covered, and how it’s covered.

Advertisers should reconsider pandering to the perceived social cause of the moment to piggyback on public sentiment, and instead work to reflect authentic sentiment of brands and organizations they represent. They should hold back on inserting questionable language in a Super Bowl ad with the intent of getting it withdrawn so they can get more attention in a social campaign. They should value not edgy copy that polarizes their “market” but consider the effect of content on all stakeholders, whether customers or not.

Public relations “practitioners” should aspire to be public relations professionals and adopt a model of practice that stresses mutual relationships, not mere attention. They  should work not to craft an image, but to earn a reputation. They should seek not to distribute volumes of commodified content, but selective and appropriate messaging that serves a legitimate, specific and ethical organizational objective.

Now, some might say this is all naive. They would point out that there are significant competitive pressures, client demands, the boss’ expectations. Yes, but professionals can respond with character and resolve, can counsel not just fulfill, speak truth to power, influence organizational cultures and not be influenced by them.

Even at that, I’m sure some will call me an idealist. Yes, I have professional ideals. That’s another way of saying I have a dream.



Starbucks Diversity Training Exposes Bias…About PR

There has been a lot of froth surrounding the decision by Starbucks to close for part of today to offer “diversity training” to its band of barristas in 8,000 stores.

The move comes after a well-publicized incident where two black men at a Philadelphia store who hadn’t bought anything used the restroom and were arrested.

There’s much to discuss about the incident from a diversity as well as retail policy perspective. But there is another level of bias here, not against a particular race, but against the profession of public relations.

Many media accounts I’ve read include some quote or comment that the closing of stores to do diversity training is….”just PR.”

The use of the diminutive and pejorative adjective “just” with the name of the profession is a bias of its own. It implies that ALL PR is minimal or not genuine. Attribution theory would say that people don’t judge by a person or organization’s actions as much as they do by speculated reasons for them. That’s what’s going on here. People assume the ONLY reason Starbucks is doing this is to cover a bad incident.

This kind of dishonest stereotype of the PR profession by the news media goes back to its emergence in the 1920s. (See my article on the subject). One would think that journalists who criticize PR professionals for being less than complete with the truth would endeavor to demonstrate the appropriate tone with their coverage of PR.

But we don’t know that for sure. It could be a genuine response. And it could be fundamental PR, not “just” PR. Consider:

1. It’s about maintaining brand reputation. In open letter full page ads today, on its web site and in other tactics Starbucks CEO shares his vision when launching the company that its stores be a ‘third place” between home and work where all are welcome. The training is an attempt to return to that culture and maintain the atmosphere that was as much a part of its culture as the coffee. People who assume otherwise confuse image with reputation.

2. It’s classic crisis communication. The various crisis communication theories advise doing what goes against what people unschooled in PR would suspect. In this case, Starbucks was quick to admit a problem, own it, apologize, and move to rectify it.

3. PR is more than media relations. While much publicity has occurred, Starbucks is acting on the premise that most with broad experience in PR realize–it’s about building and maintain mutual relationships with all publics, not just managing the press. Coverage of this incident is secondary. Starbucks wants patrons and community members to have a positive relationship with each store. They are working toward this long after the story fades in the media.

4. It’s about stakeholder theory. Other novices and those who don’t bother to learn what PR really is would suspect it’s core purpose has to do with customers. But this is a classic case of balancing the often competing interests of multiple publics–customers, stockholders, employees, and the community or public opinion. Allowing anyone to use the bathroom, whether paying customer or not, sounds generous. But  some customers have complained that the flow of non-customers in and out to use the toilet will be disruptive. Starbucks is working to handle a real diversity issue while keeping in mind the cost of closing for a half day and maintaining relationship with paying customers and keeping barristas happy and on message.

5. It  really is about diversity. Anyone who knows anything about the PR profession would have to know about the heavy emphasis on diversity in the last 10 years. It’s reached a point where it is not a bend to public sentiment but it is a critical business imperative to be competitive in everything from recruiting talent to attracting investment to sales.

So I’d watch the story and it’s fall out over the next few days and weeks. Anyone who says what Starbucks is doing is “just” PR just doesn’t get it. Or worse, they’re just a journalist.

Advice on Nonprofit Annual Reports

A few months ago, I spoke to a group of nonprofit executives about the types of information nonprofit donors prefer. You can read more about that in a previous blog post.

I received an email following that presentation asking for some advice about whether or not to do an annual report. I thought I’d share my response here.

First of all, why should a non-profit organization do an annual report? They are not required by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) as they are for public companies. This could be seen as a good thing if you’ve ever read the SEC’s instructions for an annual report, called a 10K in government parlance.

But many nonprofit organizations do annual reports anyway, and with good reason. One reason is simple accountability. Donors who contribute money in various amounts all want and deserve to know how well it was spent, and what was the return in terms of organizational mission. Staff, recipients of services, government agencies, and other publics may also expect to know what the organization did in the past year.

The annual report also serves as a fine promotional tactic and should be seen as a strategic aspect of the organization’s ongoing communication plan. Donors feel compelled to give again–or for the first time–when reading about accomplishments and seeing who else gave. Community members have a deeper understanding of the organization as opposed to just name recognition. This can lead to referrals for services and partnership opportunities as well as support.

The woman who emailed me also asked if an annual report could replace their newsletter. That’s a possibility, but you lose some frequency since annual reports only come out once a year. Another option is to make the annual report the fourth issue of a quarterly newsletter. It saves the money of an additional publication but maintains top-of-mind communication with key audiences and fulfills the purpose of an annual report. It could be an insert in the newsletter or a special issue format.

So then the question becomes, what sorts of content should you put in a nonprofit annual report? Here’s a suggested list:

  • First, have a theme each year that is told both in words and graphically. The theme should tie in to the organization’s mission generally but also be specific to unique success in the past year or a vision for the year(s) to come next.
  • Include a letter  from the president and/or board chair that reflects on the past year, looks ahead, and incorporates the theme. Go for personality and creativity as opposed to perfunctory, pedestrian language.
  • Include a list of board members and their affiliations as well as staff with titles. This is a form of transparency, but also personalizes the organization and provides implicit endorsement.
  • Donor profiles. Telling the stories of donors, including who they are and why they give, serve as both grateful recognition and powerful testimonials to motivate repeat and new giving.
  • Success stories. Nonprofits don’t exist to just gather funding, they have a mission. Telling personal stories about real people who benefited from that mission puts a face on the cause, treats the recipients of services with dignity, and provides all readers a deeper and more  accurate understanding of the organization’s work.
  • Finally, include the financials. This would include both sides of the ledger. For donations received, name donors (with permission) and possibly put them in tiers or categories of giving to show that all sizes of gifts are  welcome. If gifts were earmarked for specific projects or programs, show that also. Then, show how money was spent by category of mission, including administrative costs. This is again both a form of transparency and good promotion to show the need, responsibility, and diversity of organizational assets.

A good idea is to include an envelope or web address for additional giving. Track the responses that come from it, as well as comments from key publics for future reference.

What Makes for High-Performing Corporate Communication Teams

An issue of concern for any professional communicator is how well they are performing, but performance has to be considered not just in metrics of communication skill proficiency, but how well the communications functions contributes to the overall organizational goals.

Over the past year and a half I looked into this issue in a research project with Mark Bain, a top communicator in his own right who now does consulting as owner of upper90 Consulting. We conducted a series of phone interviews and then a survey of top Chief Communication Officers (CCOs) at top companies and organizations around the country. This resulted in a an article, “High-Performing Corporate Communications Teams: Views  of Top CCOs,” published in the latest issue of PR Journal (free online–a real benefit to professionals!). I’d encourage you to read it, but here are the takeaways:

From the interviews, these common themes emerged:

  • High-performing teams are adaptable;
  • High-performing teams are collaborative;
  • High-performing teams possess specific and appropriate forms and levels of expertise;
  • High-performing teams are analytical;
  • High-performing teams demonstrate leadership across the organization;
We also found that there are several impediments or barriers to high performing teams. One is a lack of clarity from top management about the roles, objectives, responsibility and accountability of each functional unit in an organization. This can lead to turf guarding or fighting over who owns what, such as communications and IT fighting over digital responsibilities, and other internal tensions that slow performance. 
Poor leadership, which relates to poor culture, were cited as other impediments to performance. Structural and organizational issues also were mentioned often, including the “silo” effect of internal departments or varied geographic locations not talking fluidly with each other. Finally, a lack of CEO understanding of and support of the communications function were a common problem indicated by top CCOs, as was an external environment of rapid change.
Taking the input from the interviews, we conducted a large scale survey to determine, among other things, what top CCOs valued as the key factors driving high performance in corporate communications teams. Of 20 factors that drive performance presented, eight had the highest value according to respondents. The top factors in order of importance by mean score are: 
  • function’s work is aligned with business goals;
  • people in the function collaborate effectively with others;
  • the communication function adapts quickly to change; 
  • demonstrate respect for others;
  • culture that allows people to do their best work;
  • people in communication understand the company’s business; 
  • a clear role in the company;
  • CEO support of the communications function; 
  • interpersonal skills.
It’s also interesting to look at common perceived impediments to high-performance of communication teams. Here, seven factors emerged:
  • A CEO who doesn’t value her/his employees;
  • lack of alignment around strategy;
  • unhealthy work culture; 
  • inability of organization to adapt to change; 
  • lack of clear vision for the organization; 
  • difficulty hiring and retaining talent; 
  • a silo approach to working in the organization. 
I’d encourage taking a look at these and seeing if they mirror the situation in your organization. Or use the results in goal setting as you counsel your CEO or other top management to develop the factors that drive performance. It will improve not just communications, but, since communication and public relations ARE a management function, it will improve the performance of the entire organization in terms of meeting strategic goals.