Every March for 22 years the International Public Relations Research Conference (IPRRC) has presented hundreds of interesting papers and new public relations research results. This information-dense get-together strains one’s brain, what with listening to all those academics and practitioners presenting over just a few days. (Here is the program for this year’s conference, and you can see what the action is like in that photo above.)
Many of the papers are a bit esoteric, dealing with PR and communications theory. But each year there are a few that stick in my mind as both interesting and with potential for practical application. Here’s the pick of this year’s crop (and see this article for this year’s research on crises):
About internal communications
Internal social media pays off in improved perceptions, engagement, and synergy
A couple of years ago, internal communications research made its debut at IPRRC, most notably with the launch of proposed standards for internal communications measurement. Since then its status has risen considerably with several papers focused on employee metrics and even a PRSA-sponsored annual award. This year’s PRSA award winner in the Internal Category was an examination of the impact of internal social media on employee engagement.
Researchers Rita Linjuan Men, Associate Professor of the University of Florida, Julie O’Neil, Associate Dean and Professor at Texas Christian University, and Michele Ewing, Kent State University explored the influence of internal social media (e.g., Yammer and Slack) on various ingredients of organizational success, including employee engagement and perceived organizational transparency. They surveyed 1150 employees from U.S. organizations that were using internal social media to stay up to date on events, or for job-related advice, socialization, and voicing opinions.
Not surprisingly, they found that employees that interacted the most with social media were the ones most likely to perceive the company as transparent and also were most likely to feel engaged and feel a sense of belonging. The results showed conclusively that the use of internal social media increased engagement, perceptions of transparency, and organizational identification (feeling at one with the company).
They suggest that leadership needs to be involved both in the actual use of social media and as a role model for others in leadership to participate. “When management assumes an active role by responding to employee voices, they help to foster transparency, build employee communities, and enhance organizational identification.”
PR is a good training ground for CEOs
Junichiro Miyabe, of Hokkaido University, and Koichi Yamamura, head of Cision/Prime Research’s Japan office, collaborated to study the potential of the public relations function in fostering corporate executives. I’m not sure it would fly in this country, but their arguments make a lot of sense. They show that when you compare the skills and learning needed by today’s senior corporate managers to those practices in PR, there’s a close match. Interestingly, in Japan more than half of the top 50 companies have at least one board director or executive officer with experience in PR.
They argue that the communications, reputation, and relationship-management skills required by PR are all equally necessary in a CEO. They suggest that if corporate leaders spend time working in PR they are more likely to acquire the company-wide perspective, awareness of the issues, and the human network inside and outside the company necessary to be effective. They would also learn how to articulate the corporate vision consistently and coherently. The authors advocate for PR as a training ground for future CEOs, or selecting your next CEO from the ranks of corporate communications.
About political PR
Press releases and email blasts were most effective in getting Florida politicians elected
In a fascinating analysis of Florida’s 2018 gubernatorial and Senate races, Phillip Arceneaux, Osama Albishri, Pamala Proverbs, and Spiro Kiousis of the University of Florida, and Tanduo Zhang, of Fordham, used content analysis to determine how communications strategies influenced media coverage and public opinion. They examined the gubernatorial race between Andrew Gillum and Rick DeSantis, and the Senate race between Bill Nelson and Rick Scott. Even a political junkie like me was awestruck by the size of their analysis: 2516 campaign messages, 1466 news stories, and 3311 tweets. They identified ten distinct campaign issues and 42 unique stakeholders around which all that communication was addressed.
Their results showed that Twitter and issue statements were really only effective at reaching the media and not the public. Email and press releases were effective at reaching both the media and the public. They also argue that the multiplicity of issues and stakeholders in the campaign weakened candidates’ ability to set an agenda.
About the state of the PR industry
Business literacy, recruitment, and measurement are key to PR industry success
Arunima Krishna, Donald K. Wright, and Raymond L. Kotcher, of Boston University, conducted what they say is one of the most comprehensive surveys of the public relations industry ever conducted. The 1500 respondents were drawn from subscribers to PRWeek, plus member of PRSA, IPR, and PR Council. The survey included 72 questions designed to assess the attributes that today’s PR managers and executives need to perform their jobs effectively.
Results showed that:
- PR/Communications place significant importance on the ability to recruit and retain talent.
- Understanding business acumen and possessing business literacy is important, as well as research/measurement skills and the ability to measure behavior outcome and not just outputs.
- Among the most important skills cited were writing, listening, and the ability to relate to others.
- Scores on technology adoption and implementation were surprising low.
- Perceived importance of CSR is lower than expected.
About PR in higher education
Alumni require a humorous touch if you want them to engage
Hongmei Shen and Bey-Ling Sha, of San Diego State, did an extensive study of what alumni care about when their alma maters are communicating with them. They found that alumni are more likely to engage (e.g., donate and come back to campus) when their old schools:
- Reach out to them in a conversational voice;
- Encourage them to share their feedback;
- Are open and responsive; and
- Engage alumni in internship programs, guest speaking, mentoring, and networking to supplement communications.
About marketing and PR
Nick Sammartino at Rowan University conducted a fascinating bit of research that is highly relevant to these polarized times. He hypothesized that people with “fixed” mindsets (those who are not particularly open to learning new information) would be less receptive to advertising messages than those with “growth” mindsets (open and receptive to learning). He also tested whether people with a fixed vs. growth mindset were more likely to recall details of ads and what they actually recalled.
Sammartino conducted an online survey of 147 participants and found neither of his hypotheses were supported. Regardless of mindset, neither group were particularly receptive to advertising brand messages and there was no statistically significant differences in responses around advertising recall.
Given the small sample size, I wouldn’t cancel my ad campaign based on the results. But the research does raise some interesting issues relative to the impact of traditional ads in today’s media melee.
Your CSR campaign may have a longer life than you thought
A team of researchers from the University of Alabama—Steven Holiday, Yuanwei Lyu, Brian C. Britt, and Jameson L. Hayes—took a deep dive into “Mean Stinks,” an anti-bullying campaign developed by Procter & Gamble for the Secret deodorant brand . The campaign ran from 2011 to 2016 and included a wide variety of tactics, including competitions for the nicest school in America, events including the “nicest tour ever,” as well as aggressive social media activity.
The program was seen to be wildly successful, both in terms of boosting brand image and actual market share, but was ultimately scaled down in 2016. Needless to say, it wasn’t because the campaign had “cured” bullying, but rather their support for women and young girls morphed into different campaigns. While P&G continues to donate proceeds from the sale of Secret to causes that support girl empowerment, it essentially took itself out of the anti-bullying conversation.
Nonetheless, conversations around #meanstinks continued in social media for several years. The researchers found that the Mean Stinks campaign attracted new people to the Secret brand via the cause, and those people continued to engage with the cause long after the campaign itself was over.
The problem is that, when the campaign was over, the individuals who remained engaged with the cause weren’t happy about Secret’s decision to leave. The authors caution that when you attract people to your brand via a cause, they can become more loyal to the cause than they are to your brand.
Social media influencers have their limitations
YoungAh Lee of Ball State University and Hyunmin Lee of Drexel University provided a fascinating profile of the issue of Social Media Influencers (SMIS). After analyzing 223,260 tweets mentioning American Airlines, Coca-Cola, Kroger, and General Motors for the month of January 2019, they identified the top 30 influencers for each brand, 120 in all. Half were selected based on the number of followers, and half were selected based on the size/strength of their network ties.
The paper provides some interesting benchmarks for major brands. The average number of followers was 272,000, but the average number of people the influencers followed was only 1763. The median number of connections was 24.
However, for me the most interesting data points were political: there were more progressive SMIS (52.5%) than conservative (7.5%). And 40% did not express political views. The other fascinating factoid was that, in this group of influencers, 69% were men and only 22% were women. What’s up with that? It’s not like any of those brands have a gender bias in their customer base!
Beware the break up with your influencer
Loarre Andreu Perez of the University of Oklahoma interviewed 400 people to find out if their attitudes changed when a brand and its celebrity influencer parted ways. Five possible scenarios were tested: abrupt cessation initiated by the celebrity (with and without cause), abrupt cessation initiated by the brand (with and without cause), and natural cessation (when a campaign ends). After presenting each scenario to the respondents they were questioned on credibility, attitude, and purchase intent towards the brand. Not surprisingly, they found that a respondent’s relationship with the influencer had no influence on their perception, but the type of breakup mattered a lot.