Four Things That Only Took Me Five Years to Learn

As most of you are aware, in barely two weeks I will retire after five great years as President and CEO of the Institute for Public Relations. In several recent speaking engagements, I have taken the opportunity to reflect on the important ideas encountered and adopted. Thus the title, “Four Things That Only Took Me Five Years to Learn.”

First, there is no reason to assume public relations is inferior to marketing, advertising (or many other management functions) in terms of our research.

But when we operate without research, we are seen as witch doctors–equivalent to the tribal folk healer who practices as much magic as medicine, with face paint, feathers, bones and breastplates. Folk medicine discovered many valid treatments–through centuries of seeing what killed people versus what made them stronger. But if you have a health problem, don’t you prefer a doctor who actually understands modern medical science? Isn’t that also the kind of public relations practitioner you’d want to hire?

Second, I’ve seen much confusion about the word research in the communications field. That’s because there are three kinds of public relations research. It was Dr. Jim Grunig who explained this to me:

1. Research used in public relations, to guide and evaluate communications programs.

2. Research on public relations, to understand what we do and how we do it.

3. And research for public relations – theoretical development to provide the social science underpinnings.

Practitioners should be exposed to the first kind on a daily basis. But by focusing only on that, public relations people come to work without a full set of wrenches. We also need the second kind for a deeper understanding of broad trends and where we stand vis-à-vis competitors or colleagues; and the third kind to be fluent with our theoretical underpinnings and proven strategies.

The next thing that I’ve learned: The public relations field is more interconnected globally than ever before, and research is one of the great connectors.

The purpose of the Institute’s Commission on Global Public Relations Research is to build and document knowledge on the practice across regions, countries and cultures. Look at their work on the personal influence model of public relations. As Toni Muzi Falconi has argued, it may be the most widely practiced model of public relations worldwide–bigger than media relations. The research base suggests that, if you look at many parts of the world, you discover that the practitioner’s ability to influence others is always a core qualification. Regardless of geography or expertise, the requisite relationship-building skills must be there–and they dramatically increase the value that public relations brings to an organization.

So, the fourth thing I’ve learned is actually a bald prediction: Public relations professionals who understand research will rule this field.

Today’s cohort of public relations leaders are some of the best I’ve ever seen. I look at my own Institute Board of Trustees–45 of this field’s brightest stars, from both sides of the Atlantic. They know their stuff, in theory and practice. They are players in the highest councils of management.

Unfortunately, study after study shows that what public relations people think they should do about research, and what they actually do, are two different things. Why don’t we use more research? More than anything else, it may stem from practitioners’ lack understanding of best practices and fundamental research principles.

Chief among these, that research is not just a report card–holding practitioners accountable in ways that not everyone likes. Research at its best is really about how to do the job better, to continually improve our effectiveness.

The full speech is available here, should you care to read and respond.

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3 Replies to “Four Things That Only Took Me Five Years to Learn

  1. Heather and Joao, my thanks to both of you for the kind wishes and words.

    I believe there is a common underlying idea in your posts. That is, we are nowhere near reaching our potential for robustness of research models used and useful in the practice. Not enough research, not enough kinds of research, not enough quality when we do use research.

    Joao, your point about building case studies for internal use is interesting. Such cases can time-consuming and therefore costly to create. Most organizations just wouldn’t see the point when there are always more demands than resources available. And yet, if you look at the finest public relations organizations, they reach that level of performance by providing an environment rich with knowledge/experience sharing. Internal case histories are one marvelous way to do this.

  2. Frank, your leadership has inspired many during these years. I’m one of those and I thank you for your dedication to “the science beneath the art of public relations” – the moto everyone links to the Institute.

    As you testify, the importance of research savvy PR professionals is paramount for the development of the field and its institutionalization. One of the priorities though is to raise awareness of the importance of applied research in PR inside organizations. For example, building case histories of the organization’s PR efforts is one of the key strategies available. It emphasizes the importance of measurement and evaluation research, and facilitates the building of PR programs based on sound facts, benchmark and formative research.

  3. Best wishes for your retirement – and thank you for supporting the marvellous resources at the Institute website which are valuable for practitioner and student alike. I think this is the best open access resource on PR on the internet.

    To pick up on the point about practitioners’ lack understanding of best practices and fundamental research principles, I wonder how much this relates to a lack of interest or emphasis in PR on a mathematical or scientific ability.

    Too often research in PR seems to be more about opinion than robust experimentation or analysis of data. Accepting PR as a social science, that still means we need to understand methodology and be able to interpret qualitative and quantitative research.

    My own degree is in psychology – and I deliberately took a Bachelor of Science rather than Arts. This gave me a good understanding of research – particularly of undertaking primary experiments.

    I’m always encouraging students to do more than opinion research surveys in their dissertations. So, yes to more research – including more ethnography, experimentation, etc, etc.

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