The Best of IPRRC 2022: Lessons for Startups, QAnon, Tweeting the Pandemic, and Proving the Value of PR


As much as I wanted to attend this year’s International Public Relations Research Conference (the 25th!) It was not to be. A combination of COVID, family obligations, and Sir Lancelot, the new Knight Protector or  Shankhassick Farm kept me away. 

Sir Lancelot at his “desk” in my office
He’s not quite ready to be left without his mom for very long.

Nonetheless, thanks to the magic of friendships and the excellent staff of the IPRRC, I was able to find some research gems that I really wanted to share with our readers.

1. Who knew you could use relationship theory to better understand QAnon? 


Kalyca Lynn Becktel is now an Assistant Professor of Public Relations at Middle Georgia State University. But when I first met her she was an impressive graduate student with an equally impressive ability to keep me up until the wee hours of the night. Last I saw her we were both working on developing  metrics around authenticity and empathy. So it was not really surprising that she is still tackling  the hard-to-measure stuff, like applying relationship theory to QAnon. Don’t worry, we aren’t getting into conspiracy theories, but her research offers some good lessons for many a startup. Intriguingly, she modeled her study on the notion that QAnon is a relatively new organization with no products and little history of tangible actions, yet a lot of media attention and strong relationships with a wide group of people—something that many startups are trying to do these days. 

Her research questions were:

  • Who are the active stakeholder publics for QAnon?
  • How do you predict stakeholders’ relationships with QAnon?
  • How do active stakeholders differ from those who are not part of QAnon?

Substitute the name of your favorite consumer startup and these are questions that its marketing team is probably asking.

She gathered 579 valid responses that skewed slightly more female 52% than male (42%). Another 3% identified as non-binary. Respondents were asked a variety of questions around their sense of belonging, their need for recognition, their perceptions of QAnon’s credibility, their level of cynicism, and their media literacy, belief in conspiracy theories, and consumption.

While some of the responses fit common assumptions, the 30% that believed in QAnon shared a likelihood to believe in conspiracy theories, low media literacy, and high cynicism. As well as a media diet that included 4Chan and SnapChat. But what was was not present in their findings was party affiliation. Statistically there was no relationship between strength of their belief and party affiliation. Nor was there any relationship to social media use, other than 4Chan and SnapChat.

But what the study did find was that we may need to rethink the way we analyze relationships. Rather than seeing a good relationship as the result of something an organization does, an even stronger indicator of a good relationship is the way the organization makes you feel. QAnon gains its strong relationships by making its followers feel a sense of belonging and validation. Once again, we need to start our communications from an audience-first perspective.

2. Covid communications: what worked and what didn’t

Jeanine Guidry is one more of my favorite scholars. She and a team of researchers dove into another hot topic: the use of Twitter as a way to disseminate public health information. (See Tweeting a Pandemic: COVID-19 Communication Across the Globe.) They continued the research they started in 2020 that found that no one was doing a particularly good job of using best practices around pandemic communications on social media. 

Specifically, those best practices include adhering to the Health Belief Model (HBM). It says that for someone to actually believe that they should follow your health guidance, they need to perceive:

  • that they are susceptible,
  • that the consequences are severe,
  • that there are benefits to following the health guidance,
  • that they can overcome barriers to taking action,
  • that they have the ability to take preventative measures, and
  • a trigger, be it a symptom of the disease or advice on social media.

Once again, the research found that HBM constructs had been inconsistently communicated. The good news is that prevention measures were communicated far more frequently, and the scary stuff, disease severity and susceptibility, were also referenced. The problem was that the benefits of following Public Health guidance were absent. Information about testing and treatment were also lacking.

But most astonishing was that there was virtually no attempt to address misinformation, even though it is one of the biggest barriers to vaccination and prevention. Also interesting was that the level of engagement declined from 2020 to 2021, presumably as part of the fatigue we felt with the whole pandemic. 

3. In a crisis? Don’t worry about the channel, just communicate early and often.

ChannelRetest IPRRC 2022Handout

A few IPRRCs ago we heard a paper that addressed the question of whether the likelihood to recommend a brand after a crisis varies by crisis type or by type of social media used to address the crisis. Now several years later,  crisis gurus W. Timothy Coombs & Sherry J. Holladay, Texas A&M University reran the study, updated the numbers and concluded that there is none. In other words, if you’re dealing with a crisis, use whatever social platform your stakeholders are on regardless of what type of crisis it is. The content of your post is far more important that the type of social media you use.

Coombs’s advice: “It is unlikely the channel causes people to view the same crisis message significantly differently. Use all available channels; each one is beneficial, and repetition is helpful in a crisis. (For more about what type of response is best in a crisis read How To Prepare for, Respond to, and Measure a Crisis.)

4. If you only have enough budget for one tactic, chose PR.

Proving the “value” of PR is what we spend most of our time writing about. So I thought it important to write about the latest research on which has a greater impact on purchase intent, exposure to positive news or advertising. A decade ago, Don Stacks and David Michaelson studied the issue and found at the time that earned media is more effective in providing knowledge and building relationships between brands and consumers, but that overall, the “relative value of public relations and advertising is similar.”

This year Angela Dwyer chose to use purchase intent as the measure of “value” and used YouGov Brand Index survey data to study the issue. YouGov’s Brand Index captures brand metrics like ad exposure, positive news exposure, and purchase intent.

Dwyer found that, not surprisingly, consumers who were exposed to both positive news and advertising reported the highest purchase intent. But in contrast to the Michaelson Stacks data, Dwyer found that purchase intent is significantly higher among respondents who saw positive news but not ads versus those who saw only ads and not positive news. In other words, if you only have enough budget for one effort, chose PR.

5. PR + AI: Together for ever.

Dr. Nathan Gilkerson of Marquette University and Dr. Rebecca Swenson of the University of Minnesota decided to take out their collective crystal ball and examine the future of AI in PR measurement and evaluation. They started with a content analysis of all the case histories and client testimonials on 42 AI vendor websites. (See, “Beyond Sentiment Analysis, to Machine Learning, Natural Language Processing, and Analytics Software-Driven Insights: Assessing the Current State, and Near-term Future, of Artificial Intelligence on Public Relations Measurement and Evaluation Practice.”)

They found that clients were using AI to help them sift through the enormous volume of data that they were monitoring. AI was particularly useful when speed was of the essence, which is most of the time these days.

AI helped these organizations to customize and hyper-target their content as well as develop better data-driven strategies. Additionally, in an era when skilled labor is in short supply, AI enabled organizations to be more efficient, use scarce resources more efficiently ,and automate tasks wherever possible.

In these case studies AI was seen as a tool that helped organizations be nimbler, stay on top of trends, and keep tabs on existing and emerging competitors. Automation of the marketing function in particular was seen as helping the bottom line.

Gilkerson’s team also interviewed 25 of AMEC’s 2021 “Stars of Communications Measurement” on their view of AI within PR. Most felt they were at the early stage of adoption and used it mostly to sort through unstructured data. Not surprisingly, it was seen as particularly useful in a crisis, as we’ve seen ourselves.

Finally, they posed an intriguing question that they are continuing to try to answer: “Does AI call for new or different models of AI-driven relationships within PR?” We can’t wait to hear their answer.

6. No matter how controversial your business, you still need dialog.

Ran Ju of the College of Media at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne tackled a topic that I am familiar with from personal experience: The challenge of advocating for two-way dialogic communications in the oil and gas industry. Generally, this industry isn’t a fan of communicating at all, unless it is through their lobbyists or when ordered to by government officials.

Ran Ju interviewed 21 PR professionals who worked in Canada’s oil and gas industry to explore the extent to which they used two-way conversations as part of their strategy and to understand the barriers to the practice. (See “When Controversial Businesses Embrace Dialogic Communication: Insights from Public Relations Practitioners in the Oil and Gas Industry.“)

Ran Ju discovered that these Canadians, unlike many oil and gas executives I’ve known, understood the importance of feedback, engagement, listening, and responding. (Okay, I won’t suggest that it’s just because they are Canadian, but it would be interesting to study whether that culture has an impact.) 

They actually find conversation with stakeholders most useful for discovering what issues are and how to resolve them. They saw understanding different viewpoints as essential to developing empathy.

Some respondents understood the value of transparency although they acknowledged that it was rare in their industry.

In terms of how they actually conduct these dialogs, they advocated tailoring the dialog to the specific stakeholder group – typically employees, “neighbors” who live near a pipeline or a facility, investors, and community groups.

Employees were seen as the highest priority group, and they used town hall meetings to connect employees with executives, Most of the dialog with the “neighbor” group was in person, either through site visits, in town hall meetings, kitchen table sites, or neighborhood suppers.

With investors and stakeholders the dialog was less personal, but still in person, as in meetings around conferences and trade shows.

Missing in all these methods was social media. Most saw it as a one-way channel, indicating that they use it to broadcast messages, but not necessarily listen to their constituencies.

Interestingly given the public image of this industry, the biggest challenge is lack of resources, specifically not enough people to actively communicate in person or online.

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