Conducting historical interviews in a transparent age

An important link between academia and practice is research. A notable difference is the emphasis within such research on methodological matters. This is a critical aspect of scholarship, but is commonly lacking in practice, particularly within public relations where crowd-sourcing exercises and publicity-oriented surveys may be viewed unproblematically. This criticism can even be applied to some research undertaken by professional bodies.

Methodology is of vital important in academic research studies, including those with a historical focus as I explore below in the 4th post in the PR Conversations History Week.

Historical research requires a more robust approach than simply telling stories or relying on personal memoirs. In my paper at this year’s International History of Public Relations Conference (IHPRC) I stepped outside my PhD topic (examining career strategies in PR) and offered a methodological focus. This considered four issues that I encountered in conducting historical research using the internet and social media.

Methodological matters should be of interest not only to academics and students, but to anyone conducting research.

The historical period in my investigation is 1995-2015, which was a time of notable growth in public relations. It can also be described as a transparent age, as a result of increased openness and sharing of information through online means.

My primary method of research was a series in-depth, oral history interviews with UK-based PR practitioners who have 10-20 years experience in the occupation. Additional archival research contextualised participants’ career experiences, and helped to identify wider structural career constraints and drivers.

As my paper will be included in the IHPRC proceedings in due course, I am not going to explain my research philosophy or go into further detail of the methodology and resulting arguments in this blog post.

Rather I’m going to present some advice drawing on the four issues that I encountered. In particular this addresses ethical and practical challenges that arise when using the internet and social media within a research methodology.

Issue 1: Being an insider

A researcher needs to acknowledge their insider status in relation to the topic of inquiry.

Social media means the researcher can be considered to be a “double insider” (Adriansen and Madsen 2009 p.145) in respect of  knowledge of the topic of inquiry, and  relationships with participants; in my case fellow practitioners in the occupation.

Even when participants are not already known to the researcher, today it is almost impossible to be a “wayfaring stranger” in the style of Studs Terkel (1975 p.8) when conducting oral history interviews.

Whilst social media is useful for locating, contacting and profiling participants, in turn, a researcher’s own online presence is public. The researcher is easily researched; open to examination both personally and professionally (including any existing work which is published online). This begins the process of creating the interviewer-interviewee relationship.

Indeed, people who respond to a participation request are likely to make connect through social media, particularly Twitter and LinkedIn. Interestingly, I found potential participants referred me to LinkedIn rather than appending a CV/resume to my profiling documents. This seems to suggest an acceptance of the research relationship having an online dimension.

Additionally, LinkedIn overtly indicates existing connections between the researcher and participants. As with other online information this enables both interviewee and interviewer to consider “commonality of experience” (Merriam et al. 2001. p.406), which can be helpful in encouraging participation. It also, however, brings a dimension of ‘insider-ness’ even before the two parties meet (my resultant interviews were face-to-face, but the same applies with Skype interviews as I found in an earlier part of my PhD research; Yaxley 2013).

Ethical challenges arise, as Saunders et al (2015) contend, from accessibility online of private as well as public information. This adds another insider layer to research relationships.

The stories we are told, how they are relayed to us, and the narratives that we form and share with others are inevitably influenced by our position and experiences as a researcher in relation to our participants (Greene 2014 p.1).

Blurring of personal and professional identities is recognized for PR practitioners (Bridgen 2011), who arguably are adept at managing their public persona. But they are not alone in potentially having multiple personalities or representations online. Researchers need to consider how such matters can be ameliorated in their work.

Issue 2: Being a bricoleuse/bricoleur

Reflecting Greene’s (2014 p.8) recommendation to gather “referential adequacy materials” to supplement interviews, I used an “eclectic process” (Kincheloe 2004 p.2) of archival research. This allowed for verification as well as contextualization of participants’ careers.

The new technological landscape engulfs information – digitizing, transforming, accelerating, flattening, pluralizing, democratizing, fragmenting, etc… a third orientation to knowledge flourishes, Levi-Strauss’ bricoleur: the improviser who can take pieces of disconnected material and forge them into something new (Papson 2013 p.3)

Such research involves bringing together disconnected materials from online sources, as well as in my case, physical archives and other sources only available offline. Acting as a bricoleur (Rogers 2012) means the researcher needs to clarify their method in interpreting online and other publicly available resources alongside interviewees’ individual and collective lived experiences.

Bricolage is a highly subjective and individual technique – particularly when involving online research.

There are a number of challenges working with the oddments that are often found online. Traditional systematic scholarship advocates recording and following lines of enquiry in a logical pre-determined manner. Online research is a more organic and ad-hoc process that can be harder to record or replicate.

Academic literature in different fields is starting to look at the nature of researching online materials – particularly the challenges and opportunities.

One interesting consideration is the shift from accessing artefacts such as books or magazines that have been reproduced in digital format, to artefacts that are created specifically for digital publication (such as websites). Additionally, such information is being generated in response to interrogation of underlying data sources. This may mean that research becomes even more individualised and fragmented.

There is also the matter of who originates and makes material available – and the role of search engines, indices and algorithms.

The bricolage approach means combining different sources, voices and stories – which again raises questions about how to craft these in a logical and verifiable way as findings, conclusions and recommendations.

The biggest challenge to online research is that you work with what you can find – and may not know what you didn’t find, what isn’t there or what was once there but is no longer available.

Traditional research was constrained by time, money and contacts in order to access data sources. The same applies in many cases online. The lack of robust archival underpinnings, however, can make prospecting for gold a difficult process.

Most importantly, we need to recognise, research and teach – robust online research skills. There is limited academic work on what such skills and methodologies should be – particularly where there is no underlying structure to what you are trying to discover. This contrasts with online literature systems which publishers underpin specifically for the purpose of interrogation (although they also have flaws in methodology as they tend to rely on quantitative rather than qualitative criteria).

Issue 3: Becoming rhizomatic

The fluidity mentioned above in relation to being a bricoleuse/bricoleur has led to the concept of rhizomatic learning in education.

In respect of online research, this can be viewed as a self-discovery process, whereby the researcher becomes rhizomatic through “day-to-day experiential learning” (Clarke and Parsons 2013 p.42).

Rather than being a researcher, online investigation offers a developmental process of becoming a researcher.

As such, in my work, I acknowledge that I am in the middle of the research process. But, once you start, where do you stop? It is a challenge to determine the end point. When have you discovered enough?

In terms of conducting interviews, rather than opting for an artificially set number of participants (commonly a multiple of 10), the notion of saturation is recommended. This means continuing until additional data offers no further illumination of the research topic. Should, indeed could, the same thinking be applied by rhizomatic researchers to bricolage research? Or is this type of research inherently “a social constructionist approach to grounded theory” (Charmaz 2008 p.397)?

When do we stop tinkering or adding new bits and pieces to our findings if researching online?

Also, being embedded in the investigative process as a rhizomatic researcher raises issues regarding how knowledge and meaning are constructed when “doing and making history as digital practice” (Mussell 2013 p.79).

There is little research or literature concerning these aspects, yet it is vitally important to develop some common or recommended approaches. Increasing numbers of students and practitioners, as well as academics, are using the internet and social media (including multimedia artefacts) for research purposes. Simply applying traditional methodologies or ignoring these entirely is clearly problematic.

Issue 4: Being visible – or invisible

A methodology involving contemporary techniques means the researcher needs to reflect on their role as a “a willing participant in a dialogical process” of research (Jones 2003 p.60).

The subjective involvement of the researcher is generally accepted within qualitative research, although the response may be to seek to eliminate or militate against its influence. I believe that we need to stop trying to be invisible in this respect, particularly when using online research, and instead, use approaches such as bracketing to address our involvement (the same applies to the role of commissioning organisations, funders etc).

Research visibility is increasingly encouraged in terms of open access of published academic research, and higher profiles for researchers through their personal and professional online presence.

Online visibility can conflict with ethical demands to ensure privacy, confidentiality and anonymity for research participants.

There is little literature or research concerning the difficulties created by increased online visibility of the researcher, the published work, and participants themselves. For example, linkages between what someone says in an interview, that may be anonymised in a published piece of work, can be connected by search engines to social media where the same words have been used by the research participant, rendering them visible.

Similarly, many participants are interested in the outcomes of research and wish for their role to be acknowledged. Saunders et al. (2015) focus on use of disguise and pseudonyms, as well as collaboration with participants over anonymity issues and potential challenges in ensuring this.

Additionally, the goal of research is essentially to offer new thinking and even original theory, models or changes to a practice area. I am hoping to do that in challenging some of the ways that we currently think about careers in public relations.

If such developments gain traction, a researcher may wish to use their initial work in new ways. It gains further visibility, particularly when cited or used by others. These researchers take an insider perspective to your work, they too are engaged in bricolage, act as rhizomatic researchers and enhance the visibility of not only the findings, but potentially those anonymised participants who can be outed by increasingly clever algorithms.

In my case, I have identified a kairotic element of qualitative time within careers through the development of an innovative aspect of my research methodology, the use of time-line graphical representations (see above photograph for illustration).

Kairotic thinking has the potential to affect how we view online career identity as expressed through LinkedIn, for example.

Researchers have to be meticulous in respecting the wishes of  research participants for confidentiality and anonymity whilst looking to discuss their research developments going forwards.

There are many benefits in conducting research (historical or otherwise), but the implications of being (becoming) a visible insider in a transparent age are under explored and often not even recognised.

At the least such studies should acknowledge the researcher’s role, engage with participants over their expectations of confidentiality, consider emerging ethical challenges and reflect on how outcomes of the research themselves are used online, particularly as these too become historical archive material.

Image: With thanks to Balint Brunner, via

This is the fourth and penultimate post in the PR Conversations inaugural History Week. See links below to all five posts:

Part 1:  Made by history – a book collector’s story by Heather Yaxley

Part 2:  The Museum of Public Relations – archives and artefacts under the gaze of Bernays (and Lee and Page and Byoir…) with thanks to Shelley Spector, and Adrian Crookes

Part 3: PR History – prospecting for archival gold by Tom Watson

Part 4: Conducting historical interviews in a transparent age by Heather Yaxley

Part 5: The dimensions of PR history: 60 x 75 x 94 x 350,000 by Tom Watson


Adriansen, H.K. and Madsen, L.M. 2009. Studying the making of geographical knowledge: The implications of insider interviews. Norsk geografisk tidsskrift-Norwegian journal of geography, 63, 145-155

Bridgen, L. 2011. Emotional labour and the pursuit of the personal brand: Public relations practitioners’ use of social media. Journal of media practice. 12(1), 61-76

Charmaz, K. 2008. Constructionism and the grounded theory. In: Holstein, J.A. and Gubrium, J.F. (Eds.) Handbook of constructionist research. New York: The Guildford Press. 397-412

Clarke, B. and Parsons, J. (2013) Becoming rhizome researchers. Reconceptualizing educational research methodology, 4(1) 35-43

Greene, M.J. 2014. On the inside looking in: Methodological insights and challenges in conducting qualitative insider research. The qualitative report. 19 (How to Article 15), 1-13

Jones, K. (2003) The turn to a narrative knowing of persons: One method explored. Nursing times research, 8(1), 60-71

Kincheloe, J.L. 2004. Introduction: the power of the bricolage: expanding research methods. In: Kincheloe, J.L. and Berry, K.S. (Eds.) Rigour and complexity in educational research: conceptualizing the bricolage. Maidenhead: Open University Press, 2-22

Merriam, S.B., Johnson-Bailye, J., Lee, M.-Y. , Kee, Y., Ntseane, G. and Muhamad, M. 2001. Power and positionality: negotiating insider/outsider status within and across cultures. International journal of lifelong education, 20(5), 405-416

Mussell, J. (2013) Doing and making: history as digital practice. In: Weller, T (Ed.) History in the digital age. Abingdon: Routledge, 79-94

Papson, S. 2013. Scholars, intellectuals, and bricoleurs. Arts & humanities in higher education. 0(0), 1-18.

Rogers, M. (2012) Contextualizing theories and practices of bricolage research. The qualitative report, 17(7), 1-17

Saunders, B., Kitzinger, J. and Kitzinger, C. 2015. Participant anonymity in the internet age: From theory to practice. Qualitative research in psychology, 12, 125-137

Terkel, S. 1975. Working: People talk about what they do all day and how they feel about it. London: HarperCollins

Yaxley, H.M.L. 2013. Career experiences of women in British public relations (1970-1989), Public relations review, 39(2), 156-165

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5 Replies to “Conducting historical interviews in a transparent age

  1. As a series editor, can I add some comments and, possibly, insight? The main market for academic books is university libraries where there will be many more readers than, say, popular business books which are mainly sole user or a small number of readers. Because the style of the books and their research content is specialised, the market for academic research books is also specialised. Without publishers taking a risk on academic research books for which there will be low sales, many books would not appear.

    Publishers are increasingly going to the library market with e-books in a PDF form. Instead of selling six copies of a physical book, they sell one online or e-book copy which will permit 6-10 users at any one time. In this way students can access books when they want to read them, not when a physical copy is in the library stack. However, the e-book with multiple users costs more than single books but not as much as if six books had been published. For libraries, costs are reduced a little and they don’t need to create more shelf space. The majority of university library purchases are now as e-books.

    In the series I have edited for Palgrave Macmillan, National Perspectives on the Development of Public Relations: Other Voices, there will (by late August) be seven books. All are available as hard cover, soft cover and e-book formats. The printed formats are produced by Print on Demand (POD) and cost between £45 and £47, By using POD, publishers suit the risk of unsold books and storage space, The e-books can be downloaded to Kindle and some other formats for single use. That’s relatively inexpensive compared to longer research books. (This series is in Palgrave’s Pivot monograph model which is 50,000 words maximum length).

    So what are the solutions for the ‘serious practitioner’ or ‘pracademic’ who wants to read widely? One is that many publishers offer single chapters for purchase, rather than whole books. That’s an important trend; Another is that PR professional associations buy some key books that can be accessed online by members; A third trend is to buy recent books online through Amazon, Abe Books or Ebay. I have tracked down many historically important books for my research through the second-hand market. Another suggestion is that a group of practitioners form a “book collaborative” and create their own library which circulates the books among members.

    There have been attempts by professional associations to support publishing but most are so financially insecure that one poor sale experience usually means an end to the experiment. Others have made a joint effort with a publisher, e.g. Kogan Page in the UK, by putting their brand name on the books and contributing to the editing process but these are mainly “how to” texts, not research-based books.

    However, the overall purchase cost of research books is unlikely to be become cheaper. The publishers know their market is university libraries, rather than a small number of practitioners. It’s the same situation with academic journal publishers, who sell articles online to individual purchasers but make most of their income from library subscriptions through aggregators, such as Ebsco.

  2. Heather,

    This has been a really interesting series of posts which I have thoroughly enjoyed.

    My only concern – and observation – centres on the ‘academic-practitioner’ divide. On reading the last ‘dimensions’ post, I eagerly clicked through to the series of books – only to find they are for sale at prices ranging from $160 – $330 each, with (strangely) the ebook versions more expensive than the hard back copies. This means for the series we’d be looking at a purchase price in excess of $3000. Affordable access to research is an ever-present problem for those not in the academic sphere and I worry that the divide will continue to widen as long as research publications are priced beyond the reach of practitioners. This is not a new problem but one that at some point has to be solved. If we are to make use of ‘new dimensions of research’ using the results as an educational foundation, informed theory or insight, then research has to be accessible in both price and form. If not, then sadly the research falls by the wayside of professional practice available only to a few who will end up talking mainly to themselves – and that would be a real shame.

    1. Catherine – thank you for your comments. I’m glad you enjoyed the series as it isn’t something we have done before but felt useful in providing a focus on a particular aspect of public relations.

      The issue you raise regarding the cost of academic books is one that was discussed in a plenary ‘meet the publisher’ session at the end of IHPRC. It is also an issue for many university libraries. It is important to have such texts available to students to counter balance (or indeed replace) the dominant paradigm they will find in more traditional books.

      The response from the publisher of the New Directions series, covered two points. First that these are intended to be scholarly monographs and hence the print run is expected to be very small. The gender text has done well and will be brought out in paperback at a more reasonable price (comparable with many practitioner oriented texts). Secondly, she felt that increasingly such books will be purchased as ebooks which in University terms means online access for a greater number of students. In the UK, one reason why ebooks are more expensive (so we are told) is that they are subject to tax (VAT) which doesn’t apply to printed books.

      There is increasingly open access to much academic work online with self-publishing as well as journals such as PRism ( And Google books is often helpful (within its limitations).

      I spoke with the publisher about future editions of the existing books (there are many additional books in the series in production and Kevin Moloney is open to new titles being proposed). Her response was that this wasn’t envisaged. Instead, she felt that the topics may be revisited at a later time rather than an existing text being updated.

      The issue here is really one of publishing rather than academic-practitioner divice, I feel. As you no doubt appreciate, there is no money in writing such books. These are therefore produced by academics to document a PhD topic, to build reputation, to help with career development and so on. Many of the same reasons apply as to why practitioners also produce books – again that’s not done for return on investment of time or expertise.

      One final thought, is that as these books are at the extreme scholarly end of a spectrum of knowledge in public relations. The other are the crowd-sourced, free to download (or pay to print) texts from practitioners which often lack any connection to existing scholarship.

      In the middle are the bridging texts, of which the best draw on academic sources as well as offering case studies and practitioner insight. Of course, I’d love more practitioners to be able to go to the edge and access more academic texts (which they can do with open sourced materials and when studying Masters and professional qualifications ). However, the middleground work is generally more reasonably priced, easier to digest and apply. The key thing is that those who write such books realise that there is new thinking and that they can draw on this.

      But that brings us full circle as there is no academic credit often for writing a general practitioner/student textbook, the returns even on the most profitable ones through royalties is minimal and there is so much free material (of mixed quality) available online.

      It is a challenge as the economic model is broken and doesn’t seem to work for those who write, publish and access scholarship in our industry – unless they are doing it primarily at the one end for non-financial reasons (and vanity isn’t the best driver) and at the other, that they have deep pockets or access via academic institutes.

  3. Thanks Kevin for your thoughts.

    I suppose in relation to the first paragraph in your response, it depends on whether the interview is a conversation in respect of depth of discussion, or more of an interrogation if seeking responses to particular questions. In my interviews I could largely step out of the way as the participants were sharing their career experiences. However, people working in PR have often said to me “I don’t have a career” or “I don’t think I’ve had a ‘proper’ career”, which suggests they have perceptions of what I would be considering.

    This speaks to the academic-practitioner perspective. There is an onus on practitioners to learn the principles and premise of academic research and why connecting to an existing knowledge base, and considerations of research philosophy are deemed important. In addition, academics should not make their work opaque to an extent that it is hard for anyone to follow. Of course, any expert (regardless of the basis of their knowledge and competency) needs to be able to translate their work into formats that are accessible (in all sense of the word). However, as an occupation, public relations has relied for too long on instinct and gut reactions, whilst arguing to be taken seriously (whether within academia, by clients or within management structures).

    I’m not saying all academic work is worth the effort that can be expended in seeking to understand it – but public relations practitioners operate in a world of complexity where we have to get to grips with situations that are nuanced rather than simple. As educators we know that learning is an active process and often involves challenge to our way of thinking.

    Contemporary practice and academia in respect of disciplines such as PR (IC/public affairs etc) are both oriented towards problem-solving rather than learning a specific skill set or knowledge base. I don’t think it is too much that our lines of inquiry on either side will involve encountering some cognitive knots that need untangling.

    Finally to pick up on the rhizomatic nature of research and linking this to the dominance of opinion, I think these highlight the need for methodological insight. We need to justify when to stop our research on logical grounds, and also know how to recognise when opinion has value, interrogate how/why this may be the case, and identify when other methods of research could/should be used instead or alongside.

    Part of the problem is when opinion in areas of public relations (as we also see currently in respect of politics) lacks a foundation, fails to consider the ideology that may inform it, and/or is presented as indicative of fact. Likewise, when data is reported without examination of the methodology and its limitations.

    I’d like to see practitioners and academics (wherever they fit on this continuum) working together much more as co-researchers, which is really what the insider notion suggests.

  4. Hi Heather,

    Very interesting read.

    Being a ‘double insider’ certainly raises new research challenges. I can see how this might influence what interviewees say if they have read an interviewer’s CV online and formed a view about whether their academic or practitioner experience makes them a credible (in the eyes of the interviewee) researcher. Some interviewees might well feel obliged to say things that align with an interviewer’s publicly stated views on blogs. However, if this is openly acknowledged at the start of the interview and the interviewee is confident enough to feel able to challenge an interviewer’s known perspective, it could perhaps lead to a deeper level of discussion. Indeed, I have just completed a set of eleven interviews with Enterprise Social Network experts and my known perspective on internal communication and employee engagement has, in some cases, led to some very thought-provoking discussions. There are implications for the interviewer too, such as being open to pursuing discussions that contradict publicly stated positions on practice.

    In terms of becoming rhizomatic, I agree it’s always hard to know when to stop doing research. I personally find the notion of data saturation a bit odd. From my own, limited, experience of conducting interviews I have found that reasonably clear themes can be established after around ten interviews. But then again, every single interview has a nugget in it somewhere!

    To come back to your opening comments about research, some concern was raised at the Bledcom conference this year about the dominance of opinion over more research informed reporting of many topics, including public relations. At the same time, letters sent to Bledcom about the academic-practitioner divide highlighted, among other issues, the need for academic research to be more accessible – both physically through opensource publishing and also in a tone and language that practitioners can easily digest. This, to me, is an important challenge for the immediate future of academic research that I hope academics and practitioners can resolve together.

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