Management wants data. How can anybody think otherwise in a business world ruled by six sigma, key performance indicators, balanced scorecards, dashboards and ROI. Yet studies continue to show that many public relations practitioners still do not use research to plan and measure their work. Lack of time and budget are often cited as reasons, despite the availability of low-cost (even no-cost) research methods.

A new paper on the Institute website, originally presented by Dr. Jim Macnamara at our 4th annual Summit on Measurement, puts the blame on something more fundamental: a “fork in the road” in the development of modern public relations and corporate communication practice.

Macnamara reviews a wide variety of modern theories about mass media and communications. These generally arrive at an integrated model where authors and audiences interact in complex, two-way processes.

A no-brainer, you might think. But things didn’t begin that way. Journalism, traditionally pursuing an ideal of providing facts and letting the public decide, assumed that communication had effects and therefore settled for measuring only production. Public relations basically followed suit. Even as PR theory-building moved away from journalism, most practitioners continued to focus on outputs rather than outcomes. Why use research and measurement on something you believe you know intuitively?

Advertising and marketing, on the other hand, began looking for explanations when it was apparent that their efforts often failed. They turned to social sciences such as psychology and cultural studies. They adopted modern academic thinking in media and communication regarding how people learn and make sense of the world around them.

In short, there was a fork in the road (see visual below) that continues to manifest itself today. Too many public relations and corporate communications practitioners do not embrace well-established research about effective communication. Too many universities do not teach public relations this way. Thus the public relations field is populated with many more skilled technicians than valued counselors.

The industry, says Macnamara, needs roadside assistance. To read his proposed solutions, and to propose a few of your own, here’s the paper and your chance to comment below.

Frank Ovaitt
President and CEO
Institute for Public Relations


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Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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2 thoughts on “The Fork in the Road to PR Research

  1. Addendum: This is an exceptionally well-written paper that shows a thorough understanding of the current state of the PR business. However, the only way American PR is going to move from chasing money and fame to practicing professionalism is to adopt some of the British and Canadian models of practice

  2. I think there is no evidence of an integrated model in public relations. A few years ago, I published an integrated model that is three dimensional (messages, media, time) and non-linear(Journal of Advertising Research, 39 (May/Jun): 43-52)

    However. I don’t detect any interest in it among public relations academics or practitioners. Perhaps if they read more widely in the literature.

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