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.

The Practical Importance of Theory

Unknown-1Yesterday the Association of Educators in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC), an organization of professors in various communication fields including advertising and public relations, adopted a resolution that educators should “forge relationships between educators and media professionals.”

I heartily endorse the notion, partly because that’s what my colleagues and I in the Grand Valley State University Advertising and Public Relations program have long done. In fact, our many adjunct professors come from industry every day, and all of us who are full-time and tenure-track professors have experience in the field and even consult still today. We also remain engaged through our active involvement in associations and organizations that mix academics and professionals, including PRSA, AAF, the Institute for Public Relations, and the Arthur W. Page Society.

This effort recognizes the fact that academics can still learn much from professionals in the trenches, that the field is in constant change, and that we need to connect our students to their future colleagues and employers. In other words, we need to connect theory to practice.

But as we say in PR, any relationship should be mutual, or two-way. And so this professor-professional relationship should involve mutual learning, and that should include professionals having a healthy respect for and understanding of theory.

I’ve been in numerous conversations in person and online where a professional will poo-poo theory or put the word “theory” in quotes as a way of expressing their disdain for theory. What’s ironic is they then hold forth their own….theory, without realizing it. Professionals believe they have “experienced” something and that trumps theory. But theory is often based on multiple experiences, not a single example.

Types of theories are critical, based on reason; normative, proposing what ought to be; or empirical, based on solid, replicable and generalizable evidence that meets scientific standards well beyond one person’s personal experience.

A theory, properly understood, is an explanation. In advertising and public relations, as social sciences, theories explain and predict human behavior.

Much professional research is only descriptive in nature–valuable, but not useful as a generalized and reliable prediction. In other words, there are numbers and percentages of responses to key questions. The academic research that over time produces theory is based on large scale, repeatable cases in the real world. Professional research most often provides the “what,” whereas scientific research that leads to theory provides the “why.” This is its practical value.

At the end of the day, professionals and their experience provide validity (an accurate reflection of reality) while professors and their research and theory provide reliability (consistency and generalizable to the larger population).

Academics have long acknowledged the need for both validity and reliability (practice and theory). It is time for professionals to come to the same conclusion and apply theory to their practice.

I may some day write a book about practical PR theory for use by professionals. It would offer explanations of various media, persuasion, attitude, behavioral and other categories of theory and give their corresponding applications.

Til then, look for the occasional blog post espousing the value of a particular journal article or theory. I would hope professionals in the trenches have as much respect for theory as we academics do for their practice.

Reluctance to Wear Apple Watch–Theory in Practice

I read with interest this article in Fortune about people who bought an Apple watch not wearing them.

If you look at the specific reasons why people aren’t wearing the latest tech gadget, they match the key concepts of the Diffusion of Innovation Theory. In addition to spelling out the main types of adapters of innovation, the theory addresses the five specific factors that influence–or inhibit–adoption of technologies. Those five factors seem at play in the Apple watch owners:

  1. Relative Advantage – The degree to which an innovation is seen as better than the idea, program, or product it replaces.
  2. Compatibility – How consistent the innovation is with the values, experiences, and needs of the potential adopters.
  3. Complexity – How difficult the innovation is to understand and/or use.
  4. Triability – The extent to which the innovation can be tested or experimented with before a commitment to adopt is made.
  5. Observability – The extent to which the innovation provides tangible results.
Relative advantage relates to “missed my old watch.” Compatibility relates to the various “didn’t like” comments. The other specific comments fall into complexity. While these owners have conducted their own trial and observation of the watch, you can see how those factors did not in this case compel them to “adopt” (i.e. wear) the watch.

I teach this theory in several of my PR classes, and like to point out to undergraduate students that theory is not boring, abstract or irrelevant. It is immensely practical in explaining human behavior, and in forming strategies as a result. 

So, I thought I’d use the latest real-world example of adoption–or rejection–of new technology to illustrate the practicality of theory once again.