Free research! Doctoral dissertations offer unparalleled insights into the future of PR. Being a dissertation advisor is a time consuming, tough, and sometimes frustrating job. Yet, ultimately, it is a gratifying process. It allows you to see down the road, into the development of PR theory and future publications. It is a bit unsettling, too, because dissertations often focus on what we, as an industry, are not doing right.
Social media – in its various best uses, ideal approaches, ethics, and efficacy – is commonly studied by PR academics. The aim of most PR dissertations focused on social media is to help practitioners enhance their strategies. A number of theories have addressed social media, yet none have focused on the idea of shared space so much as a recent doctoral dissertation by my University of South Carolina colleague Diana Sisson: Authentic Relationship Management to Heighten Control Mutuality in Social Media (an unpublished doctoral dissertation).
There is real demand for relationship management practices rooted in ethics and authenticity, due to the rise in inauthentic communication online – astroturfing and so on. Her research used prior publications from PR, marketing, interpersonal communication, and organizational communication to build a framework focused on the effects of authenticity – an ethical concept – on relationship management outcomes in social media efforts.
Sisson worked with five regional nonprofits focused on animal welfare to send out more than 14,000 invitations to donors to participate in the survey, based on the scales of prior studies. She garnered 1,076 responses – admirable in today’s spam-rich email environment.
This dissertation focused on one of the only "relationship variables" that is under-studied: Control mutuality. Yes, I know, academic jargon, but control mutuality simply means shared control (i.e. whether publics interested in the organization feel as if they have a "say" or some input into organizational policies and decisions).
This dissertation revealed that genuineness and veracity were the most important (read: statistically significant) ethical variables of authenticity for donors in their evaluations of the participating organizations. By giving publics a voice in decision-making, control mutuality (or shared control) has a real bearing on why publics chose to follow the social media feeds of – and interact with – organizations. If organizations designed their Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and other feeds based on the idea of soliciting input, the PR world would change overnight.
From this new research, most importantly, control mutuality was the most crucial relationship mediator between social media engagement and the ethical variables of authenticity (Bowen, S.A. . The nature of good in public relations: What should be its normative ethic? In R. L. Heath [Ed.], Handbook of public relations [p. 569-583]. Thousand Oaks, CA Sage).
In other words, to make publics care about your social media efforts, you must give them some power in what is going on. They need input, voice, and a feeling their say is incorporated into organizational policy, thereby fostering greater psychological ownership (McIntyre, N., Srivastava, A. & Fuller, J. A. . The relationship of locus of control and motives with psychological ownership in organization. Journal of Managerial Issues, 21(3), 383-401.)
Heightened control mutuality is inherently ethical because practitioners are showing respect to their publics through consideration of their values, dialogue, and including those views in organizational policy. Sisson explains: "By crafting or incorporating strategies aimed at heightening control mutuality, PR practitioners can show their organization cares by listening and valuing publics for their opinions and suggestions rather than a financial contribution." Authentic relationships should follow.
In turn, publics will not only attend to the message, but also share it with friends and followers. Isn’t that what effective PR is all about?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.