9 research revelations for the PR industry

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Attending the International Public Relations Research Conference (IPRRC) is like looking into the future; the research presented is a glimpse at the PR and measurement developments coming down the pike.

Here are nine developments that are on their way:

1. We’re fossils in the making.

Kirk Hallahan (“Publicity Under Siege: Content Marketing, Brand Journalism, Native Advertising and Promoted User Endorsements As Challenges to Professional Practice“) of Colorado State University delivered a depressing if timely warning to PR people: Your jobs are about to be made obsolete by advertising and marketing.

He argues that the traditional work of PR professionals—creating or curating useful or entertaining content, engaging constituencies, and promoting sites—have all been the responsibility of PR for years. Now that marketing and advertising have “discovered” the value of these tactics, marketing and advertising are filling those roles and PR is being marginalized.

Hallahan says content marketing, branded journalism, native advertising, and promoted user endorsements all encroach on the traditional PR role. When marketing sets up separate groups to create such content, it undermines professionalism in PR, devalues relationship building, and challenges transparency. Of course (and most important, from our perspective), that wreaks havoc on measurement and evaluation, confounding the standard assumptions about what is paid and unpaid.

2. But if we’re good, we might be recession-proof.

Is Public Relations Recession Proof?” (pdf) demonstrated that employment of PR mangers and specialists increased as total employment decreased and the unemployment rate increased. Weekly wages of PR specialists increased significantly as the unemployment rate increased.

Go figure. My hunch is that companies knew that it was more cost-effective to hire a good PR person than any other professional.

[RELATED: Qualify for a 15-minute demo of PressPage, the leading digital newsroom technology, and get a $ 15 Amazon.com gift card.]

3. CEOs don’t see PR people as advisors but as internal communicators.

Dr. Ansgar Zerefass of the University of Leipzig did some fascinating research of German CEOs and how they see their PR executives: Corporate communications from the CEO’s perspective: How top executives conceptualize and value strategic communication. The conclusions are based on the responses of 602 CEOs, most of whom are male, 50 years old, and with 20 years of leadership experience.

The good news is that 96 percent believe mass media coverage influences corporate reputation, and 72 percent feel that social media has had an impact. The bad news is that CEOs:

  • Turn to their peers far more often than to professional communicators when they need advice.
  • See speaking as more important than listening.
  • Do not see communications professionals as a first choice to get help, even when it comes to issues of public opinion. They are more likely to turn to their peers.
  • Believe that their personal communications contribute more to corporate success than that of the PR pros.

Of note, CEOs see motivating employees, fostering corporate trust, and supporting a positive image as the most important goals. They also perceive internal communications as the most relevant goal of professional communicators, but marketing communications gets the nod for being the best-performing discipline.

4. If you want to improve your public relationships, engage in social networks.

Rita Linjuan Men of Southern Methodist University and Sunny Wan-Hsiu Tsai of the University of Miami (“Why Does Social Media Engagement Matter? Perceptual, Attitudinal, and Behaviorial Outcomes of Organization-Public Engagement on Corporate Social Networking Sites“) studied 250 people who were already following a brand on Facebook to determine how that engagement affected their relationship with the brand.

Turns out it has a pretty positive effect. They found that the more audiences are engaged, the more likely they are to view the organization as transparent. Countless studies have shown that transparency leads to trust.

Other findings included:

  • Corporate social network engagement helps companies to be embedded in personal networks and communicate in a personal, intimate, genuine manner, thus being perceived as more authentic. So what? It turns out that authenticity demonstrated a larger impact on the quality of the company relationship than transparency does.
  • The value of social media engagement should be measured in terms of relationships. To be best in class in social media engagement, companies must embrace transparency, create up-to-date social content tailored to meet and gratify the needs of their audiences, and engage in conversations, collaborations, communities, and activities in an authentic manner.
  • Perceived transparency and authenticity significantly and largely contribute to an improved relationship between an organization and its audiences.
  • Respondents who were more deeply engaged with social network pages tended to be more trusting of, more satisfied with, and more committed to the organization, and to feel more empowered in the relationship.

5. Brand advocates vs. influencers: Be clear about the differences.

Kelli Burns of the University of South Florida (“Embracing Advocates and Influencers: Practices of the Top Social Media Brands“) tackled the tough topic of major brands’ use of brand advocates and influencers.

She defined brand advocacy campaigns as those that provided a means for the advocates to both engage with the brand and then engage their own followers. Influencer campaigns were those using a celebrity or popular blogger.

She analyzed the top 50 Facebook brands based on Socialbaker’s list of January 2014 and found that brands are using both types of campaigns equally, with a very wide variety of content, including Tumblr, Instagram, and Pinterest. Most are designed to get votes or shares for content. Though the more influential bloggers were pretty clear about when they were getting paid, there is room for confusion among brand advocates, making transparency a key concern.

6. Don’t expect those new hires to stick around for very long.

A study by John E. Forde of Mississippi State University, Gemma Puglisi of American University, Brad Rawlins of Arkansas State University, Kenneth Plowman of Brigham Young University, and Bill Farrar and Judy VanSlyke Turk of Virginia Commonwealth University surveyed 659 Alumni from five universities about their perspectives on PR (“Perceptions of Public Relations Graduates Concerning Public Relations Degrees and Positions“).

Although PR alumni appreciated their PR degrees, many soon move on to marketing, sales, or other jobs. Many were frustrated with the lack of business education they received. The major reasons listed for not working in the field were, “Liking other career choices more,” “Seeing more money in other fields,” and, “Not being able to find a job.”

What makes them stick around? They like the flexible career path and opportunities for advancement. While in school what did they dislike most about their chosen major? Lack of social media and group projects.

7. Focus on being good citizens; don’t just tweet about it.

An in-depth analysis of the corporate use of Twitter and Facebook for posting CSR information revealed that what you post on Twitter and Facebook has very little bearing on your reputation.

How you behave and the relationships you have with stakeholders definitely does (Fussell, Sisco & DiStaso, Does Ethics Matter? An Analysis of How Corporate Social Responsibility Content on Social Media Affect Stakeholder Perceptions and Intended Behavior).

8. If you’re going to create corporate video around CSR and sustainability, do it right.

Denise Bortreee and Melanie Formentin of Penn State studied how corporations were using YouTube to promote their CSR and sustainability reports: “Stakeholder Engagement on YouTube: Corporate Use of Video to Introduce and Explain CSR and Sustainability Reports.”

They used industry rankings to rank Fortune 100 companies abased on their CSR and sustainability performance and then compared them against their use of YouTube. Turns out that the highest-ranked companies were significantly more likely to include diversity, health, and their products. Lower-ranked companies were significantly more likely to compare their current results against those of prior years.

9. Your LinkedIn account may not belong to you.

Cacye Meyers of the University of Georgia cautioned PR people to be aware of recent legislation regarding ownership of social media accounts: “Is that LinkedIn account mine or yours?: An analysis of social media ownership struggles between organizations and individual creators.” The copyright law hasn’t quite caught up with technology. He advises that employers take four crucial steps to avoid adverse legal rulings:

1. Ensure that your social media policy is explicit about who owns which accounts, including who managers the account and what his/her responsibility is. The policy should make it clear that passwords and user identification should be retained by the employer.

2. Employers should have social media accounts created in their name that are not linked to employee’s personal social media accounts.

3. Employers should make clear in their policy that employees should not work on the corporate social media account outside of work hours.

4. Employers should ensure that employees sign the policy.

For PR practitioners he advises:

1. Recognize that social media accounts have monetary value. If you take your work with you, you must be explicit about ownership rights.

2. Keep your personal and professional social networks separate.

3. Understand the ownership policies of employers and clients up front and in writing.

4. Document everything regarding social media ownership, including email correspondence.

Katie Delahaye Paine helps companies define success and design measurement programs for their PR, Social Media and Communications programs. Her most recent venture, Paine Publishing where a version of this post first appeared, continues her consulting and educational work in the field of measurement, providing newsletters, as well as training, consulting and dashboard design. 

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