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.

Poll Dancing: PR’s Perceived Image

A new Gallup poll, as reported in PR Daily, reveals that more people have a negative view of  PR and advertising. Such polls about the public’s view of PR  and other professions are common. That PR is viewed “negatively” is also not unusual. But that’s the quick conclusion and not the full story.

First of all, a little critical thinking about polls, which are often taken as gospel or solid science but are really a mere snapshot. First, this  poll could have a context effect in that PR is considered along side  other professions. Is this a valid view of PR or one relative to other professions?

Also, PR and advertising are lumped  together. While the professions overlap (our major at GVSU combines them), the public view of each may be different.

The scale–positive, neutral, negative–also indicates  this is not a real measure of attitudes about the various professions. Mere positive/negative reaction is not an indicator of valence, or strength of opinion. The high neutrals  on most responses could indicate a lack of knowledge. Put yourself in a survey-takers position: are you positive/neutral/negative on the “retail industry”? I worked in a grocery store during high school and college and I shop for groceries–I have no idea what my opinion is about the grocery industry. Far more people have experiences with groceries than they do with PR, so on what basis do they rate PR?

That’s the biggest question, which goes unanswered in this poll–what are the CAUSES of public opinion about PR. I can answer  that a bit from other research.

This summer I was part  of a panel at the annual Association of Educators in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) in St. Louis discussing “PR in Pop Culture.” The panel was based off the work of Joe Saltzman who directs the Image of the Journalist in Pop Culture (IJPC) at  the University of Southern California. Professor Saltzman also completed an impressive and comprehensive DVD of the portrayal of PR in movies and television. Others on the panel shared their own research on PR’s image in broadcast entertainment as well as novels. Essentially, public relations has been portrayed negatively or incompletely over the years. However, the researchers did say it was getting better more recently. But we can conclude that the entertainment media stereotypes of PR is a partial cause of the public’s perception.

Lots  of other research shows that the news media doesn’t give fair shake to the reality of what PR people do. Journalists typically encounter only the media relations aspect  of the job and tend to portray that as the full story. They are also prone to describing PR with negative cliche such as “stunt” or “gimmick,” or they diminish the value of PR by saying “just” PR or “mere” PR.

However, while media cultivation theory would say this affects the public’s view about PR, a recent academic study shows it’s not so bad. Respondents to a telephone survey viewed PR as having an important role in society and disagreed that it is damage control or an attempt to hide something. They did see it as primarily media relations, but at least the view wasn’t mostly negative as the recent Gallup poll suggests.

As I noted on the panel about PR in pop culture, public attitudes are not usually strong. People with no real understanding or experience with PR answer the survey because they were asked to and quickly select an easy response, often with little considered thought. Because attitudes are not strong, they also are not stable–they can change quickly. I’ve witnessed this more  than once, such as when a colleague in a faculty meeting comments that something they saw was “just PR” and then after the meeting asks me if one of my students can help them promote something they’re working on. It’s like people who are critical of lawyers until they need one.

So the lesson is don’t get too emotional about these polls. Maybe what we need is a poll about the public’s attitude about polls.

Finally, if you want to help improve the public’s education and therefore  perception of the PR profession, I have two suggestions:

  • Get a copy of the book “It’s Not Just PR” and route it through your office and share it or recommend it to friends;
  • Pay attention to PRSA’s campaign “The Business Case for Public Relations” and participate as you can by sharing information with colleagues in your organization or with your clients. Rosanna Fisk (@Fiskey on Twitter), a fellow panelist  with me in St. Louis, is leading this effort.