Laying Down a Research Track, Part Two

My previous post spoke about the Institute for Public Relations (IPR) redoubling its focus on research that matters to the practice.  The IPR Board of Trustees, after debating dozens of research topics relevant to the practice of public relations, has identified its five highest priority topics.

  • What drives choice and changes behavior? What can we draw from behavioral sciences, sociology, psychology and neuropsychology to apply to public relations practice?  What are the emotional and rational drivers of belief, commitment and behavior?  How do different stakeholders – and different generations – process differently in this regard?
  • Organizational communication. Our new Commission on Organizational Communication is developing an agenda as knowledge aggregator, model innovator and thought leader in the area of employee engagement.
  • A broader context for social networking and what it means. While others churn out benchmarking, best practices and metrics around social media – and IPR may have a role in aggregating that knowledge – our main interest is digging deeper into the true mechanisms of relationship-building, trust, influence and the socialization of ideas across the fragmented world of social networking.
  • Restoring reputation in an environment of extremely low trust. Beyond the benchmark trust studies that track ups and downs, what can we learn from the deeper social science of trust?   What makes one organization seemingly infallible while another seems always at the breaking point?  What reliable data exist to identify the levers that most influence reputation today?  What is the future of organizational trust in a younger, G-20 world?
  • Models to predict the probability of public relationship outcomes. Across countries and cultures, audiences and generations, what are the research-proven models to reliably predict whether and when public relations can affect outcomes?

All of these topics are huge.  They lend themselves to deep secondary or summary research as a starting point, conducted by a volunteer or paid researcher steeped in the subject matter and able to communicate effectively with business people.  The summary reports themselves should represent important publication/dissemination opportunities while helping to define the needs for additional original research.

This direction should become increasingly obvious in everything IPR does.  It is driving a flow of detailed research proposals that IPR and its partners will consider funding (so bring us your ideas).  Perhaps you have already noticed changes in the IPR research letter as we focus on our roles as aggregator and interpreter of important research.  We are rethinking the structure of our website, the purpose of every award bestowed or funded by IPR, even the roles of the IPR Research Fellows established by the Board to be advisors, sources and reviewers of research initiatives.

I am sharing this with IPR friends and family not only to be as transparent as possible, but because we need your thinking.  Talk to me – and thank you!

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14 Comments

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  2. Good idea. Here’s one from the AEJMC papers I would read:

    “Corporate Social Performance and Reputation: Effects of Industry and Corporate Communication” Weiting Tao and Mary Ann Ferguson, University of Florida.

    I confess that I can’t come up with three, because what I see of academic PR research usually doesn’t seem relevant to practice. And there are professors out there who believe that they are preparing students for service to society and don’t need to bother with PR practice.

  3. Good to hear from everybody, and great ideas.

    Bill, I couldn’t agree more about the need to focus more academic research on topics that matter to the practice of public relations. In addition to research grants for defined projects, IPR will be re-examining all of its awards programs (there are 11) to determine how they might relate better to our research direction.

    Meanwhile, here is a challenge for you and for other IPR friends. How about naming three academic research papers you’ve seen this year that best relate to IPR’s priority topics? Research you’d want to share. If you can do that, we’ll get it in IPR research letter and on this blog to encourage others to do likewise. Thanks!

  4. Frank:
    I’m glad that you posted these thoughts. They seem quite sound, but may I suggest that you include an effort to get the academics on board? If you take a look at the most recent crop of papers presented at AEJMC, you immediately get the idea that public relations research lacks any kind of direction, focus or coherency.
    Here’s a link to the AEJMC abstracts site:
    http://www.aejmc.com/home/2011/06/pr-2011-abstracts
    Perhaps the Institute could suggest some topics, or sponsor some papers, or participate in some way.

  5. Frank, this goes a long way to helping focus our own research on what will matter the most. Like Fraser, I’m intrigued by the concept of aggregating the body of knowledge in organizational comms — particularly employee communication, which appears to again be more about the rather nebulous concept of “engagement” than outcomes which will support more concrete business objectives.

    As an employee comms specialist, I focus more on combining employee understanding with action, though prospective clients appear to be more tactical than that, and appear also to be unwilling to pay for the research that would establish such linkages. Were we to do the research, we likely could establish a predictive model — thus making employee communication more indispensable and fulfilling multiple goals in the IPRs’s priority list. That’s not even to mention the measurement component of such a model.

    As a member of the Commission on Research, Measurement and Evaluation, I look forward to working toward these goals.

    Cheers!
    Sean

  6. Frank – as a member of the IPR Commission on PR Measurement & Evaluation, I am excited by the idea of distilling existing research in these various areas and putting them into forms that are understandable to our industry peers. Having said that, I am particularly interested in the recommendations of Geoff Barbaro regarding the existence of mathematical models for social media networking that are already in existence and can move us forward in new research. Our own work correlating media coverage with business outcomes showed a simple way, through math, to link outputs to outcomes. What else can we do with that discipline to tie the results of our efforts to real results?

  7. All excellent ideas. I hope we can find the money to do what needs to be done to make even a fraction of our wishes come true. Regarding the final product, regardless of what is finally done, I hope we can focus the results in a definitively practical manner — short, simple, clear and to the point, with appropriate references to the sources. Most practitioners don’t have the need or time to read and digest scholarly treatises. We must work hard to deliver what they want in forms they can use most efficiently with their staff, management and consultants.

  8. [CORRECTED]
    In the area of “What drives choice and changes behavior?” I believe we have a duty to focus some resources on analyzing, defining and “refining” political discourse. True issues-oriented political discourse in the country has reached an all-time low, with the same name callling and playing to the stands we associate with middle-school political campaigns. In simple terms, a good mission for professional communicators in terms of driving choice and changing behavior would be to concentrate some effort on helping our citizenry develop good “BS detectors,” since there is so much out there. (It won’t hurt our practices either, as we routinely advise clients on separating wheat from chaff.)

  9. In the area of “What drives choice and changes behavior?” I believe we have a duty to focus some resources on analyzing, defining and “refining” political discourse. True issues-oriented political discourse in the country has reached an all-time low, with the same name callling and playing to the stands we associate with middle-school political campaigns. In simple terms, a good mission for professional communicators in tyerms of driving choice and changing behavior would be to concentrate some effort on helping our citizenry develop good “BS detectors,” since there is so much out there. (It won’t hure our practices either, as we routinely advise clients on separating wheat from chaff.)

  10. My thanks to all of you for this thoughtful input.

    Tatevik, we do have a Commission on Global Public Relations Research, but it has not been very active in recent years. See: http://www.instituteforpr.org/research/commissions/global-pr/. That fifth point sort of begs for the revitalization of this group.

    Germán, there are efforts underway (involving AMEC and IPR’s Commission on PR Measurement and Evaluation) to flesh out the Barcelona Principles with regard to social media. You are so right about the need to do that.

    Fraser, as always, your words are thoughtful, challenging and right on target. There is so much IPR can do for public relations practice through intense focus on our aggregation and interpretation roles. I’d like to speak with you about your own role in that.

  11. There is a mathematics discipline known as social network analysis which provides the techniques for the identification of true social networks, including hidden influencers and alliances among many other features. I would love PR researchers to form a partnership with a major mathematics faculty to create mutually useful frameworks for group, organisational and business communication. We seem to be busy trying to re-invent the wheel and, as a result, we talk about the simple numbers of social media. There is a scientific basis for social media and we need existing research to be translated and gap research conducted to create a framework useful to ourselves and our clients.

    I note you are looking at a broader context of social networking. I’m not convinced that we properly understand the foundations and I think we have been wonderful at ignoring what the mathematicians have to tell us. They already have foundational, operational, specific and broader contextual research and views. Can we please find ways to combine their work with ours?

  12. Thank you for this most valuable initiative and continuous work in advancing PR research.

    The five-point priority topics succinctly summarize current challenges and opportunities where change and trust become pivotal. As IPR is taking steps to systematize and aggregate research methods and projects, I would like to know whether the organization undertakes to elaborate on research implications of international and global PR practices. Related to the fifth point about public relations outcomes across cultures, shall IPR encompass geographic and sociocultural specifics for PR research and measurement standards worldwide and how?

    As mentioned , “All of these topics are huge”. Since IPR encourages ideas and participation in this debate it would be helpful to delineate the role of international community in achieving the set goals.

    Thanks once again to IPR professionals and contributors for being so resourceful and inspiring.

  13. I totally agree with the proposal of Fraser Likely. In Colombia and in several Latin American countries, the disconnect between practice and theory of communication and public relations is much stronger. It would be a great contribution that could be done from the IPR, if that body of knowledge could be organized and examined from the way it has evolved in recent decades.

    Additionally, I think the IPR can make an extra effort to connect with Latin American countries, which generally lack process-oriented research to understand what is or should be the role of communication and public relations.

    Finally, I say that as social media are here to stay, the IPR could help to define what are the minimum required metrics to evaluate their effectiveness. Today there are dozens of models and evaluation methods. A statement such as Barcelona, ​​but adjusted specifically to social media, it would be very useful for everyone.

    Thank you for your attention.

  14. Frank, if ever there was a a need that has gone unfulfilled for too long, it’s the need to aggregate, then summarize, then interpret research and thus theory-building on various PR subjects. This applies to both academic and practitioner (or applied) theory building. And, dare I say, it is probably more important to aggregate, summarize and interpret applied theory building on various PR subjects. Let me give you two examples.

    I was on the editorial board of Melcrum Publishing’s Strategic Communication Management (SCM) magazine for over a decade. SCM was/is probably the most international and certainly the most deliberate at publishing practitioner or applied theory building than any other PR journal aimed at practitioners. Most of this theory building was on the subject of employee or organizational communication. Certainly, if there is one subject area where academics lag practitioners in theory building it is employee communication. It has been an interest of mine to aggregate and summarize the applied employee communication theory in the pages of SCM and see how that has evolved over the decades and then interpret that against other practitioner sources.

    My second example would be the IPR’s Commission on PR Measurement and Evaluation, of which I’m a member. Here again is the opportunity to aggregate, summarize and interpret the evolution of theory building – in this case both scholarly and applied theory. Yes, the history of measurement events, committees, commissions and conferences, on both sides of the Atlantic, exists – for the most part. But, how practitioner and academic thinking has evolved does not. Simply, for example, the evolution of terminology and taxonomies has not been documented and interpreted. Again, like the SCM example, much of the theory building in PR measurement has been done by practitioners. Who were/are they? How has their thinking evolved? How does this thinking compare to that of academics over the years? How has theory evolved in both camps?

    I’m suggesting then that a good part of the IPR’s research efforts go to the identification, aggregation, summarization and interpretation of the existing body of research and the subsequent evolution of theory building for certain PR subjects. And, that this effort include practitioner theory building with scholarly theory building. Research into the evolution of practitioner theory building has been long neglected. Then, the summarization and interpretation of new and original research can be done against this baseline of existing research and theory.

    All of us get a little saddened when we read blog posts, hear presentations at conferences and peruse journal articles on various PR subjects that seem to be out of context. These authors seems to have no appreciation for the evolution of scholarly and applied theory on the subject they are discussing and can’t place their own thinking within the overall body of knowledge. Of course, it has been difficult to identify and aggregate that body of knowledge, particularly practitioner theory building. So, if the IPR took on that role, it would have an immense and immediate benefit to the profession. Just think how the level of debate would be elevated if the IPR aggregated, summarized and interpreted the existing body of knowledge on employee comms or on measurement, both from an academic and from a practitioner theory building perspective, and made this freely available.

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