What can bring PR professionals and academics together? Research

Renowned PR scholar Jim Grunig often said, "There's nothing as practical as a good theory." The insights gleaned from the International Public Relations Research Conference can prove him right.

At a conference dinner last weekend, I admired the bravery and sheer tenacity of two key PR industry bloggers - Sean Williams and Katie Paine - to sit around with the academics, use our jargon, and talk about research findings. At most conferences, you’ll see a lot of sessions on technology updates and continuing education. You’ll have discussions with vendors. The International Public Relations Research Conference (IPRRC), held annually each March in Miami, is not that type of conference.

Many professionals participate in the conference, but the emphasis in the title should be on research with a capital R. This is serious, cutting-edge, theoretically driven academic research that intrigues a number of intrepid professionals who sit through the four days of 108 concurrent roundtable discussions and ask questions of the scholars relevant to their practice.

The term "intrepid professionals" is appropriate because this research is forward thinking and eminently practical, yet cased in hard-core academics ­- including all of the jargon and precise use of terminology one would expect in the ivory tower. For example, one award-winning paper was titled, "Social amplification of problem chain-recognition effect on risk policies: Escalated issue spillover from government distrust and media use." Don’t allow the complex title to distract you from some truly important findings.

The key takeaway from that paper is the government should work to instill trust as a key "regulator" of relationships. A large number of people facing risk perceive a higher level of problems when their trust in government is low. That finding can have enormous impact on the PR practice, not only for those who work in government relations, but those whose job it is to build trust in the corporate sector and manage issues of risk. And almost every industry has some component of risk.

Many PR pros talk about how building trust is one of the core responsibilities of their function, but now we have evidence. The theory presented in the "Social amplification" paper referenced above was tested in the real world with 748 people. At least in issues of perceived risk, such as proximity to a nuclear power plant, we now know how these relationships work and what factors were and were not important.

Nuclear power plants all over the world could revise their policy based on how people who perceive risk seek out information about them. Knowing that low levels of trust in government stimulates information seeking means that the nuclear industry, or any risky industry for that matter, can be more proactive in providing its own information about policies to those publics who want to know more. When people want information and are willing to seek it out, the job of PR pros becomes easier. The study identified a demand - and the PR industry can work toward supplying the information demanded.

That type of research finding is eminently practical. It also reinforced my belief that more PR practitioners should not only attend academic conferences, but occasionally pick up the academic literature and look for such key findings. The proceedings from the IPRRC will be available free online in roughly a month. In the meantime, open source research journals in PR exist. PR Journal and the Research Journal of the Institute for Public Relations are two prime examples. You can also read the blogs and tweets of those intrepid souls who ventured into academic territory.

The renowned PR scholar Jim Grunig often said, "There’s nothing as practical as a good theory." Perhaps the insights gleaned from the interaction between academics and professionals in this conference can prove him right. Academics greedily thirst for the input of professionals and theory-driven research has much to offer the practice. I welcome all of you to join us in bridging the chasm between academic research in PR and the communications industry.

Shannon Bowen, Ph.D., researches and teaches PR ethics at the University of South Carolina. She is a member of the board of trustees of the Arthur W. Page Society and the board of directors at the International Public Relations Research Conference. Her column will focus on PR education, ethics, and the C-suite. She can be reached at sbowen@sc.edu.

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