Research goal

Through an integrated qualitative research method and quantitative analysis, Anna's 2015 MBA thesis explores the results of earlier quantitative studies that used online content analysis methods to track dialogue between organizations and their stakeholders.

American public relations (PR) scholar James Grunig originated the theory that the most effective model of communication with stakeholders is two-way and symmetrical – that is, dialogic. Developing relationships with the groups or individuals who the organization affects or is affected by, also known as strategic publics or stakeholders, has become a cornerstone of PR work. Grunig’s work fits hand-in-glove with American business scholar R. Edward Freeman’s stakeholder management theory, which holds that a business’s success is tied inextricably to the quality of relationships the business has with people in its environment.

The vast dialogic capabilities of the Internet and, thereby, its potentially revolutionary impact on PR were first recognized in a 1998 article by Americans Michael Kent and Maureen Taylor. Nevertheless, content analyses of websites and social media feeds in the nearly two decades since that article have detected few instances of dialogue happening through digital channels between stakeholders and organizations.

Anna's study suggests that the definition of social media has been too narrow and/or research methods previously employed a poor match for the PR environment, where day-to-day personal dialogue with key stakeholders is rarely broadcast to the world but takes place all the same. Interviews with practitioners study revealed multiple instances of dialogue through digital channels, though the conversations would rarely be detected in online content analyses.

Beyond detecting dialogic applications of social media, this study also explored other ways that PR practitioners use social media. Through a grounded theory approach in which the researcher conducted a content analysis of interview transcripts, she discovered three other major drivers of social media use in PR: environmental scanning, innovative messaging and the breakdown of the earned-media paradigm.

Practitioners cited dozens of benefits and drawbacks that social media have brought to the PR field. The benefits only slightly outweighed the drawbacks, betraying a general ambivalence about social media in the profession.

Anna recommends that practitioners embrace the strategic and operational capabilities of social media but not without losing sight of their original place in the organization: serving as its eyes and ears to the outside world.

 

 

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Business sector differences
Business sector alignments
Balance of remarks by participants
Gender differences
National differences
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Research study's final chapter

Dialogue Carries On: Conclusions and Recommendations

The researcher set out to ascertain why PR professionals use social media given evidence consistently produced in studies that this emerging communications channel is not hosting much dialogue. Dialogue, scholars have proposed, is a primary strategic tool in PR efforts to manage stakeholders and scan the environment

6.1 Dialogue: alive and well, if hidden from view

First of all, as the numbers showed in chapters 4 and 5, dialogue is indeed taking place on social media between PR practitioners and their stakeholders – if in ways that earlier studies failed to detect. Though gender, nationality and business sector affected how much, all twelve participants reported using social media to stay in touch with reporters, customers, community organizers, governmental organizations and even adversaries. Dialogue is happening primarily with the same people these practitioners had interacted with in the past through face-to-face visits, faxed or mailed press releases or phone calls; with tools such as Twitter, Facebook, email campaigns and other digital platforms aiding them, however, the networking and communication process has benefited through enhanced organization, speed and amplification of the messages themselves. Not to be confused with the one-way informational or persuasive forms of communication that Grunig has criticized for decades, these messaging efforts are reciprocal. Furthermore, digital media have expanded the PR practitioners’ stakeholder footprint, enhancing their professional networks with new people already vetted by associates. Because the researcher interviewed practitioners within geographically bounded areas, she also detected what she called an echo effect, a process by which partners in frequent dialogic exchanges monitor each others’ social media feeds and build upon them with further feeds. The researcher can only surmise that previous studies missed this vigorous environment of dialogue because of the nature of the evidence they were examining: primarily, content analyses of social media platforms and websites. The dialogue described in this study would not be detected in such analyses because crucial information exchanges do not take place on channels open to the public. That is, while practitioners were generally easy to find through websites open to the public and also maintained social media platforms open to comments from anyone in the public, most of their dialogue took place with people they already had a relationship with. Researchers must have access to and speak with practitioners themselves to discover the one-on-one or stakeholder-group-bounded conversations taking place through social media.

Fear of negative dialogic activity in the form of trolls or criticism tempered the American practitioners’ embrace of social media, but Germans expressed fewer fears in this area – perhaps because they have not been using social media as long. This suggests an important avenue of future research. Nowhere in the literature could the researcher find studies on the chilling effect that hostile dialogue has had on the online stakeholder engagement efforts of PR professionals. The subject is worthy of further study because of potential future declines in social media dialogue such hostility could engender. For a PR professional wanting to inform management about real-world concerns and interests about the organization’s activities, cutting off any avenue of information inhibits a related strategic objective – scanning the environment.

Subject 2 said that engaging in dialogue with environmentalists critical of her energy firm was pointless as it resulted in little constructive exchange of information. But Subject 2 was possibly missing some important signals from these stakeholders. Subject 2 insisted that a February 2014 environmental disaster caused by a spill of toxins from a waste-storage area owned by her firm was not as bad as had been reported in the media. Her interview was in October 2014; since that interview, the state of North Carolina and the U.S. government have found her firm negligent and liable for tens of millions of dollars in criminal fines and cleanup costs (Blythe, 2015). Subject 2 was clearly convinced of her position, and the researcher noted that she spoke from the heart, providing a wealth of data about the spill and evidence of her company’s goodwill. This is possibly a case of the PR practitioner failing to keep one foot in the world of the stakeholders, as Sriramesh recommended, and instead succumbing to the marketing and reputation management of her own company. Ihlen (2008) called for PR practitioners to be the well-read, sensitive listeners and readers for the organization, calling attention to the concerns of all stakeholders – even the unpleasant ones; and Freeman (1984) recommended that firms engage in stakeholder management in order to balance the interests of all those groups or individuals who can affect or be affected by the organization’s activities. Again, the researcher believes that Subject 2 was speaking what she believed to be the complete truth on the pollution issue, but her miscalculation on the facts possibly hurt her organization in the long run.

Face-to-face conversations remained the most popular topic among participants in this study, suggesting that social media is not a replacement of traditional means of engaging stakeholders but an additional tool. Indeed, for most practitioners, face-to-face or similar interpersonal contact was a necessary first step before stakeholders could ascend to the status of frequent dialogue partner via social media. Subject 12, a German practitioner, said she came away with thirty new Twitter followers after she attended a healthcare products convention in Spain. When it comes to getting to know strangers or dealing with sensitive topics, old-fashioned communication channels allow communicators to note subtle nuances in a person’s demeanor and provide important clues to his or her credibility, soft skills and working environment, thereby mitigating the risk of miscommunication, said Subject 10, the owner of a translations bureau in Schweinfurt, Germany. Some practitioners, namely governmental spokeswomen Subject 7 of Anderson, SC., and Subject 11 of Schweinfurt, Germany, said they frequently answered questions and comments from social media users they had not known previously. They viewed such stakeholder service as a cornerstone of their public service work. Most PR practitioners, however, were more like Subject 10 in that they were not as invested in chatting with random members of the public because there was little demand for it. These PR practitioners generally served niche areas of the market.

6.2 Checking the pulse of stakeholders

Beyond dialogue, this thesis also sought to spell out what other reasons PR practitioners might have for using social media. As with dialogic activities, environmental factors explored in Research Question 2 affected the extent to which participants embraced these other uses for social media. The good news is that knowledge of these environmental factors and their impact on individual PR practitioners can inform communication strategies, be they for specific business sectors or specific individuals. It is useful to know that women, for instance, tend to be more open to dialogue, whereas men appear more interested in social media’s innovative messaging qualities. It is also good to know that large organizations tend to be ambivalent about the environmental scanning applications of social media, while nonprofits embrace it. Meanwhile, small businesses enjoy social media’s innovations but worry about costs.

In the area of environmental scanning, many practitioners embraced the data-mining capabilities of social media. Subject 4, who works at a newspaper in Anderson, SC., and Subject 8, a university spokeswoman in nearby Clemson, S.C., voiced some privacy concerns but largely dismissed these in light of the information’s usefulness. Subject 12, a German marketing communications manager, voiced no concerns about privacy and instead complained that Germans cannot get as much data as their American counterparts. This suggests some disconnect between the PR profession and larger societal concerns about what organizations do with stakeholder data. Dialogue on a certain level is presented as the preferred form of communication for organizations because it is more ethical and cognizant of stakeholder concerns than other forms of communication. Such ethical concerns, however, seem to matter little when there is information that can help an organization better secure its place in the market. Kent and Theunissen have suggested concerns with digital data mining and exploitation of stakeholders through dialogic tools and social media, and this merits further study.

PR practitioners also use social media to see what people are saying about their organizations. They pointed to misinformation and noise as a drawback to the environmental information that social media provide, but they are aware that stakeholders read what is online. For practitioners, keeping abreast of negative, positive, strategically significant (i.e., competitor posts) or informational posts makes them smarter at their job.

6.3 Rewards and risks of a new communications channel

Practitioners viewed the unique aspects of social media – its interpersonal feel, speed, wide operating networks, and incorporation of text, audio and video elements – alternately as a drawback and benefit. A message going viral on social media is good if it is quirky, funny, reflects well on the organization and introduces the PR practitioner to new stakeholders; it is very bad if the message reports news of an organization’s missteps before its communications team has had a chance to develop a response. Social media are a rapidly evolving means of communicating throughout the world, and it behooves the PR practitioner to learn more about how platforms work and what they can do. In particular, more study should take place on social media campaigns that serve strategic needs unique to PR. How can practitioners motivate stakeholders to provide feedback? What are some reliable ways to expand the stakeholder network? How can the practitioner sort out the noise from the useful information online? What messages resonate most with audiences? Here are a few tips participants provided:

  • PR practitioners in smaller markets could lean on the audience data that local newspapers have already gathered, matching their story pitches to formats online and offline that already exist in the publication. This serves as an audience multiplier in a credible source. Sammy MacIntosh said PR practitioners in his area have ignored his newspaper’s redesign and local focus, continuing to pitch stories in areas the paper does not cover or whose readers would not be interested in reading.
  • Hashtags work in emergencies. American practitioner Alex Martin described how his former employer, a state health agency, circulated critical safety information via Twitter to local journalists. These journalists, themselves followed widely by the public, quickly multiplied the number of stakeholders who received this information quickly.
  • Develop customized virtual presentations for stakeholder groups that take advantage of the interactivity, three-dimensional visuals and audio of the web. Nadia Klimt, a marketing communicator with an MNE in Germany, said visiting stakeholders face-to-face is getting harder in the wake of shrinking budgets and demands on employee time. Presentations through social media are the next best thing, she said, to personal visits.
  • Know the technology and how competitors are using it. PR practitioners can waste a lot of time writing tweets that no one reads, time better spent exploring how competitors or communications practitioners in completely difference fields are using social media.  MacIntosh said newspapers are watching what clever ad agencies are producing to get hits on YouTube and other social media platforms. Messaging tactics, if not their objectives, cross professional boundaries.
  • Find brand evangelists. Borrowing a chapter from marketing, the PR practitioner should maintain a healthy database of individuals and groups with a stake in key strategic issues for the organization. Communicating first with these people, with a call along with a social media post, will lead to re-posts to the larger stakeholder from a credible third-party source. Both Jeremy Zimmerman of Greenville, S.C., and Anja Krieger of Schweinfurt, Germany, talked about using such a strategy with organizational announcements.

The researcher encountered little literature outside professional-association publications on effective strategies for social media in PR. The researcher would suggest a qualitative, research-based approach to tease out details from working practitioners on campaigns that successfully build stakeholder networks and dialogic practices. Illia’s 2014 academic study of CSR communications and dialogue included some work in this area for multi-national enterprises. The current gap, therefore, is the study of PR social media strategies for organizations of all sizes and in the governmental and nonprofit sectors. Significantly, the researcher found that German organizational communicators with large, global firms behave similarly to their MNE counterparts in the USA. Bigger differences driven by culture and lagging technology-adoption rates emerged among German participants in two other business sectors – governmental and small for-profit. This further underlines the importance of studying the unique characteristics and needs of PR operations in these other, smaller types of organizations.

6.4 Defining PR for the 21st Century

In interviews with PR practitioners, the researcher was struck by the commitment expressed to journalistic objectives such as accuracy, depth of reporting, balance and broader societal impact. Most had worked as reporters before, and loyalty to their respective organizations did not directly inhibit their desire to present truth to stakeholders. Still, social media has brought about changes to PR’s operating environment that could threaten not just practitioners’ journalistic ideals but the the field’s existence. This was the final meta-topic explored in this study.

With social media, practitioners can publish information that any engaged stakeholder can access – independent of a news outlet’s interpretation or cuts due to space or time constraints. In bypassing traditional media, practitioners said they avoid negative press; they can also disseminate niche information that no general-audience newspaper or news broadcast would bother with. Many practitioners in this study cited their frustrations negotiating with local newspapers and their relief at simply posting stakeholder-relevant information online. Unfortunately, this one-way messaging activity can undermine the PR practitioner’s role as counselor to management and chief listener of the organization. It also largely fails to distinguish the PR practitioner’s work from content marketing or the tasks of a social media manager. PR practitioners tend to argue their messages are more credible because they “aren’t selling anything,” but members of the public cannot distinguish who the authors are, let alone their intent, when an organization’s messages are all posted on the same social media feed. The reality, based on this study’s interviews, is that practitioners must engage in both one-way and two-way modes of communication from time to time. The researcher, therefore, recommends that practitioners be self-aware and intentional in their tactics, taking care to remember the strategic value they bring to the firm: stakeholder management and environmental scanning.

Leading strategic management theorists – Ansoff, Porter and Freeman, to name a few –emphasize the importance of organizations knowing and understanding the people with whom they want to do business and the environment in which they want to do it. Participants in this study were model PR practitioners and doing those things. “If you are a PR practitioner and willing to spend the time building the relationship, that still outweighs any social media strategy you have,” Subject 6 said. The researcher concludes that managing and mastering social media to enhance the existing strategic benefits of PR will assure the practitioner’s continued place in the modern organization.

6.5 Avenues of further study

Throughout the study, the researcher has referenced ways that future researchers might replicate, improve upon and expand upon her findings. Starting with constraints in the research process that she outlined in Chapter 3, the researcher recommends that future qualitative studies balance the number of German and American participants and also include a greater range of ages within the sample. Breaking the sample groups discussed in this thesis into discrete study populations would also be useful. In-depth interviews with PR practitioners from each the various business sectors (large for-profit, small for-profit, nonprofit and governmental) would provide further insight into this study’s findings. Adding a fifth group, multi-national enterprises, would also be insightful as preliminary results suggest globally operating companies employ public relations in a unique way. Similarly, in-depth interviews with all-male and all-female groups bears further study, as do interviews with Germans and Americans.

This study revealed several ways PR practitioners use social media beyond dialogue. A survey asking a large sample of practitioners in the United States and Germany about their activities on social media would help verify whether this study’s results have broader applications.

The researcher also recommends more study be conducted to narrow the gap between how scholars and practitioners define dialogue with stakeholders. For practitioners, daily conversations via Twitter with key customers, public officials, reporters and community members constituted social media dialogue. But for scholars such as Illia, such activity would not fall within the research parameters of dialogue. On a practical level, any means that a PR professional has to chat with people important to the organization is a benefit. Social media’s bonus is that as an open communication channel, people with whom the professional has never interacted can also take part – regardless of whether they are yet identified as “stakeholders.” Recognizing and listening to new voices remains a resource-intensive and high-risk task, as time is limited and anonymous social media users might have malicious intentions, but this capability of social media remains an area of high potential for practitioners.