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.

Rockford Construction Program Integrates Employee, Community, Consumer Relations

I was intrigued to see a LinkedIn post by Mason Nichols, Communications Manager at Rockford Construction, about a new program the company has called Rock Perks.

The program offers special perks to residents of Rockford Property Management, the urban apartments and condos the company has built, members of the company’s Blue35 co-working spaces, as well as employees of Rockford Construction.

The perks include special discounts at a number of local business partners, ranging from restaurants and coffee shops to an array of services.

This is a wonderful  example of the synthesis of three forms of public relations–employee relations, community relations, and consumer relations.

Employees gain from the obvious and unique benefit program. It’s great community relations because the company is partnering with other local businesses and serving as a business driver. And it’s a great extension of consumer relations because the work space tenants and living space residents have a deeper connection with the company.

It’s a win-win-win program that illustrates stakeholder theory, or how smart PR can balance and integrate the common interests of multiple stakeholders.

‘Media Relations Writing’ Book Available Now

Penning Kindle Front CoverFor two reasons I have written my own textbook.

First, students and I were not happy with the variety of textbooks about public relations, PR writing or media relations writing available now from academic and other publishers. They didn’t find them useful, and they weren’t reading the assigned book.

Second,  I am often asked by professionals–in public relations or in other roles who sometimes need to write a press release or do some other form of media relations—if they can pick my brain, have me give them some advice, or otherwise tell them about how to work with journalists.

So I turned my lectures into a book that could be useful in a college classroom, a PR department at any organization, or as a guide for anyone working in other professions who nevertheless have to try to gain publicity for something and they are not sure how.

The result is “Media Relations Writing: A Guide for PR Pros (or anyone who just wants publicity). Yes, it’s a long title and subtitle but it covers the market.

I’ve been field testing it on students in my media relations writing course this semester. They are reading it, and they like it for its clarity and practicality. They also like the price–free!

For others, the price is also right. It ranges from $4.99 to $14.99 depending on format (e-book or paperback) and the platform. The book is out now on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Apple Books.

To find out more, see the books page on my Penning Ink website.

From the Journals–Defining ‘Public’, Social Media Influencers, Employee Relations

Periodically I write a blog post about the latest articles and research in public relations journals. Too often, professionals disregard theory and academic research as too abstract to be practical. I find the opposite to be true—theory and practice are far more grounded in reality than isolated experiences, however valuable experience can be. Journal research represents the scientific examination of multiple experiences and/or deep and well-reasoned conceptual thought and can help us explain and predict phenomenon in the public relations field.

Here then is a brief recap of some recent journal articles I found particularly useful (some articles may require subscription or university library access to see full text):

What is a public?

In Looking back and going forward: The concept of the public in public relations theory by Magda Pieczka, in the September 10, 2019 Public Relations Inquiry, the old issue of defining “public” in public relations is addressed and extended. For more than 100 years, intellectuals and public relations professionals have debated the concept of “public” as a group of people. Is it a public or the public? John Dewey and Walter Lippman debated the nature of public and public opinion in the context of journalism and democracy in the 1920s, about the time “public relations” was first being used to describe the field. Pieczka’s article redefines the public in three ways: an audience as a public of shared spaces, a self-organized public of shared attention, and the public as a political and social imaginary. Going beyond defining publics by their relationship to an organization (eg employees, customers, investors, etc.) can expand public relations theory and practice in terms of both strategy and ethics in communicating to build and maintain relationships.

Social Media Influencers

A special issue of The International Journal of Strategic Communication is devoted to social media influencers. Articles look at the key groups within the process of strategic influencer communication: (1) influencer clients, e.g., client organizations and agencies; (2) social media influencers themselves; and (3) audiences. Takeaways include the need to be authentic, strategic, and ethical to avoid crisis and actually achieve objectives that go beyond attention.

Employee Relations

With an increasing number of public relations professionals focused on internal or employee communications, a study of leadership and message styles is helpful. In Relational Communication Messages and Leadership Styles in Supervisor/Employee Relationships (October 2019, International Journal of Business Communication), authors Alan C. Mikkelson, David Sloan, and Colin Hesse show that both for “intimacy” and “dominance” forms of messages are needed whether a leader is task- or relationship-oriented in style. For PR pros in employee communications, this can affect how to counsel managers and the tone of communications written for internal audiences.

A related topic in an article in PR Journal titled Employee Perceptions of CEO Ghost Posting and Voice: Effects on Perceived Authentic Leadership, Organizational Transparency, and Employee-Organization Relationships by Tom Kelleher, Rita Men and Patrick Thelen tackles the issue of PR pros ghost writing posts for CEOs on social media. The authors found that employees expected and tolerated CEO ghost posting, but the voice in those posts was more related to their perceptions of authentic leadership, which inb turn led to better perceptions of organizational transparency, and employee-organization relationship. In other words, employees assume CEOs approve of messages even if they don’t write them. Specifically, when CEO communication on social media was perceived as natural, engaging, personal, conversational, and relationship-oriented, employees tended to perceive the CEO as more authentic, truthful, and genuine and the organization as more transparent. The lesson for PR professionals is that the issue is not whether or not to ghost write, but to work on how you write CEO social posts in an appropriate voice.

Ethically Speaking, Are You a Child Or an Adult?

September is PRSA Ethics Month again and it brought to mind a memory.

Years ago, long before I was a professor, I was speaking about public relations at an event and brought up the subject of ethics. An audience member sneered: “you can’t teach ethics.”

Well,  now I actually do teach ethics. So I could say that gentlemen was wrong. But his implied point is worth considering. What he really meant to say. is that you can teach ethics classes but that doesn’t mean people will behave ethically.

To that I say, of course. You can preach the gospel, but not all will believe. You can teach the importance of research, but not all will do it. You can conduct a fundraising campaign, but not all. will give.

In any of the above examples, of course the individual has their own will and responses will vary. That does not mean NONE will respond favorably, and therefore does not mean the activity is pointless or without merit.

So, in teaching ethics, the goal is inspiration, to make conscious the ethical implications of what we do in the profession, and then to instill a curiosity about the right thing to do and a motivation to be ethical in all professional practice.

There are two things that help my students internalize a lot of the ethical theories, concept and issues we discuss in class: the four motivations for being an ethical professional, and the three levels of ethical character.  I would encourage any PR professional to consider these in their daily practice::

Four motivations for being an ethical professional:

  • Personal = characterized by self-regulation, driven by personal conscience
  • Organizational = a concern for the corporate or organizational reputation, could be driven by policy or internal ethics code
  • Professional = to enhance the profession of public relations, in keeping with the 6th provision of the PRSA Code of Ethics
  • Societal = characterized by a big-picture concern for others, driven by a desire to contribute to the well-being of society (also called the professional role morality)

Three levels of ethical character:

  • “Child” – Acting ethically because of a fear of  punishment. (No developed internal ethical character)
  • “Adolescent” – Acting ethically to confirm to perceived group norm. (Which means can be easily persuaded by colleagues, boss,  or clients to engage in unethical practice).
  • “Adult” – Individual grasp of moral issue, personal principle. (Has internalized ethical principles and acts on basis of integrity and character more than external influence).

I’ll let people consider these for themselves. But I would say that some degree of all four motivations should be a basis for ethical behavior. And as for the levels of ethical character, I encourage all who practice PR to act like adults, and against the pressure from peers and others, be the ethical adult in the room.