Research, science starting to mean more to PR pros

No occupation attains the status of a profession without a substantial body of research-based knowledge.

No occupation attains the status of a profession without a substantial body of research-based knowledge.

This is as true of PR as it is of medicine, law, or teaching. There is science behind the art, and the best pros combine a working knowledge of that science with their own creativity.

As research literature continues to expand, there is an increasing supply of new science that matters to PR professionals. Here are four great examples:

Are activists "giving off sparks" regarding their relationships with your company, signals of a major conflagration ahead? Elizabeth Dougall of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill offers a framework for tracking relationships over time based on signal statements delivered through the media.

Long-term analysis of the patterns of such statements has major advantages over opinion surveys to track relationships because surveys generally focus on short periods of time, says Dougall. In a case involving Australian banks, she found that as relationships moved toward conflict, banks increased their output of cooperative statements. But activist signals of conflict were much better predictors of what was to come.

"This study's outcomes call into question the value of advice that encourages organizations to deal with issues of concern and contention by seeking to downplay such issues," says Dougall.

Beyond proving the value of PR, can fully automated media tracking also be our ticket to the boardroom? Clarke Caywood of Northwestern University believes so. He sees the data-mining potential of these new tools as creating new opportunities for professional use, as well as for academic research.

Today's massively rich databases represent nearly 100% sample size in terms of what the media are saying. Caywood believes this could advance the PR profession the way that economists flourished when reliable economic and demographic data became available.

Continued innovation in the field will yield opportunities like near-instant analysis of how a product launch is going, whether top executive spokespeople are staying on message, and of environmental threats facing your business. But with new tools come new challenges. If a company can track a billion media hits in a year, how will it absorb the meaning of all that, let alone define success?

Industrial companies whose plants involve inherent risk will not be surprised to hear that informed communities trust their corporate neighbors more. That is a long-held tenet of community relations, say Michael Palenchar of the University of Tennessee, Robert Heath of the University of Houston, and Emily Dunn of de La Garza Public Relations. Their research explores risk communications in a community situated in a highly concentrated area of petrochemical plants.

The post-9/11 era has brought a new sense of risk, with warnings that such facilities could be terrorist targets. Along with that came new rules about what information can or can't be shared.

If residents of such communities know less today because of anti-terror rules, does that mean their trust in corporate and government officials will decline? Worse still, in case of an emergency, will residents lack proper information on what to do?

"When critics caution against communication because it could aid terrorist planning, advocates of effective risk communication need reinforcement that their efforts can lead to an empowered, rather than a cowed, community," the researchers say.

If it's hard to reestablish good communications in a broken company, what do you do when a country experiences a meltdown? Carl Botan of George Mason University and Maureen Taylor of Rutgers University are exploring strategic communications channels for rebuilding civil society in a war-torn nation.

Shortly after the war in Bosnia, the authors conducted a project for USAID to determine levels of trust in interpersonal communications from government officials, old state-controlled media, and alternative media (which in any failed country are often fledgling initiatives).

In Bosnia, no channel was accorded more than a modest level of trust. The time-tested wisdom that interpersonal communications are the most persuasive was turned on its head. Even the state-controlled media were more trusted than local government officials. The alternative media, despite obvious weaknesses and untested quality, came out on top.

The authors believe their findings may contain good news for the global community, NGOs, and multinational enterprises. "People starved for useful information in a crisis may assign trust to any formal source they encounter," say Botan and Taylor.

  • Frank Ovaitt is president and CEO of the Institute for Public Relations.
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