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.

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.

Steelcase Demonstrates Importance of Research

It was a unique surprise when I was in the UK last week and read about a company in my hometown conducting international research. I was catching up on magazine subscriptions via my iPhone when I came across an item in BusinessWeek about research being conducted by Grand Rapids-based Steelcase.

The research is a study of corporate cultures in 11 countries, which Steelcase will apply in manufacturing and selling its various lines of office furniture. It’s an interesting study, and a good example of the fact that research is vital to communication success and therefore an important skill set for PR professionals and students. This is particularly true in international contexts for NGOs, governments and MNCs.

What jumped  out at me right away in this concise graphic representation of research results is the obvious adaption of Dutch scholar Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions. In international PR courses, as well as many communications courses, this theory is taught as a way of comparing cultures through specific scales, such as the degree to which cultures are individualistic or collectivist in nature. This should help communicators tailor messages appropriately to avoid cultural misunderstanding or even crises.

I plan to use this article in future classes as a great illustration of research, and this theory, being applied by a major global company. The example is useful in both research and international PR classes.

The Steelcase research is also impressive because it is shared. As Don Stacks of the University of Miami wrote recently for the Institute for Public Relations, it is too often the case that business research is proprietary. So it is nice to see Steelcase not only doing the research but making it available. While some might argue it gives away a competitive edge, I would argue it also positions Steelcase as a thought leader in its industry and international business in general.

What I Learned at the International PR Research Conference

I attended the 14th International Public Relations Research Conference in Miami March 9-12. The conference is coordinated by faculty and graduate students at the University of Miami and is associated with the Institute for Public Relations. Check out the web site if you never have before—it’s a great resource for PR practitioners and scholars alike, especially the archived research. See this recent IPR blog interview with BYU Professor Brad Rawlins about the importance of research.
At this year’s conference there were PR faculty and students, as well as PR practitioners, from the U.S. as well as other countries, including England, Germany, Turkey, Spain, Brazil, Japan and Korea. More than 100 presentations were given in roundtable format, also called the “speed dating” version of academic research presentations. Each hour participants can visit four of six tables to hear and briefly discuss current research in public relations.
I’m giving a rapid fire, bullet list rundown of only some of the key research reported. I would hope this is interesting for my PR students as well as PR professors and professionals who may be interested. You can check for the proceedings of the conference—i.e. full copies of all papers presented—on IPR’s web site in a few months.
  • A representative from Determinus explained their Metric Model for measuring engagement and influence on a simple 1-5 scale;
  • Work is being done to automate trust and relationship measurement, but more refinement is needed and it only works for organizations with lots of social media conversations;
  •  Practitioners have very vague and mixed notions of what ROI (return on investment) means for PR. Writing guidelines for ROI measurement standards supported by best practice models was suggested;
  • Katie Delahaye Paine was present with her new book “Measure What Matters” which is infused with social media concepts.

  • PR professionals fall into three main groups in terms of their views about their role in handling ethics: managers of organizational values, autonomous and principled decision makers, advisors on the public interest.
  • In Brazil, where practitioners must be licensed to do what is defined as “public relations,” those with a license were no more ethical than those without a license. Personal standards and the organization where they work were larger influencers of ethics.
  • An examination of the government response to the BP oil spill crisis shows government communicators perceive ethical responsibilities in terms of accountability, reciprocity and social responsibility.

Crisis Communications
  • There is a natural tension and paradox of organizations wanting to be autonomous but also being dependent on their publics for success. Organizations should be authentic in their relationships—especially in crises when that tension is heightened–to recognize and understand this paradox rather than seek to suppress it.
  • An examination of the Toyota crisis found that blog coverage was more negative, less civil, and tended to blame Toyota more than newspaper coverage.
  • A positive reputation prior to a crisis, defensive response to the crisis, and CEO visibility in first response to a crisis led to the best stakeholder attitudes and purchase intentions.
  • Another study found that an initially negative reputation was actually improved during a crisis, which may be explained by sympathy (if not human error caused) and is called a “crisis bounce” in reputation.
  • Several studies called for more research and refined practice in international and multicultural aspects of crises.
  • A review of Robert Gibbs statements to the press show that the role of press secretary has evolved from journalistic/public information approach to one of continuous image maintenance or repair.

Social Media
  • One study identified five “tribes” of PR professionals in terms of how and why they are using social media: information gatherers, information promoters, social networkers, organizational outreachers, internal communicators.
  • Communal (vs exchange) relationships are more likely to increase the behavioral communication intentions of a public toward an organization. Interactivity also had a positive effect.
  • Corporations often want social media separate from corporate site because they fear complaints and open dialogue on their site. Also, they see staff time and capacity for required dialogue to be limited.
  • Most corporations talk about importance of social media measurement but only one-third do and it is mostly output vs outcomes measurement.
  • A PR pro’s years of experience in PR, years with an employer, a manager role, and being top level all lead to more relational vs promotional content in organizational blogs.

Sports PR
  • Attitudes toward a team and behavioral intentions (ie game attendance) were not affected by severity of a crisis or exposure to negative media coverage. This is especially true for those with high initial team identification.
  • The success of global team brands such as Real Madrid come from players creating content, segmenting publics, and turning regular events into massive spectacles.

International PR
  • Cross-border product PR requires intercultural thinking, local knowledge, and contextualized strategies.
  • Teaching international PR is enhanced when using a virtual model of learning (VMOL) in which classes from two countries collaborate to do campaigns for organizations in each others’ countries.

PR Education
  • A study of employers and young professionals largely confirms that we are teaching what should be taught in PR programs—more than tactics, criticial thinking, writing, video, research, knowledge of the workplace (business, nonprofit, or government), hands-on experiences as well as deep theoretical understanding.
  • Entrepreneurship is a “missing chapter” in fundamental PR courses. PR students need to know how to help entrepreneurs and also how to be entrepreneurs.
  • Teamwork needs to be formally taught within classes, particularly upper level campaigns courses.
  • Employers expect it, and there is ample literature on teamwork and small group communication.