The Evolution of Public Relations Research

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Published on October 4, 2016, at 2:01 p.m.
by Sonny Franks.

“I just remember thinking there has to be a better way,” remarked Dr. William J. Gonzenbach, public relations professor at the University of Alabama, reflecting upon the
screen-shot-2016-10-04-at-12-28-40-amstate of public relations research at the beginning of his career. “We used to take a draft or mock-up of whatever we were working on for the client to the Marriott across the street and ask the bartender and cocktail waitresses what they thought.”

Anecdotes like this one are more common than many young professionals may think. Gonzenbach, as well as many other veteran public relations professionals, identified the need for more conclusive data in the field and went back to school to specialize in research out of necessity.

“I was driven to it because I couldn’t find anyone else that did it,” Gonzenbach said.

Veteran public relations practitioners can list dozens of ways the industry has changed over the past 30 years, but perhaps chief amongst these changes is the evolution of public relations research.

Dr. Bruce Berger, former director of The Plank Center and professor emeritus for the UA Department of Advertising and Public Relations, identifies Grunig and Hunt’s 1985 landmark study in Excellence Theory as the turning point in public relations research.

“In my view, that study really professionalized research in public relations,” Berger said. “You can trace public relations studies back into the ’20s and ’30s, and those all focused on persuasion, and in the 80s the Excellence Study came along and changed that.”

Dr. Berger noted three key areas of improvement in public relations research since the Excellence Study: quantity, quality and diversity of topics.

1. Quantity
On both the professional and academic sides of the field, the quantity of research available has increased exponentially. “Professionals are having to set measurable objectives and provide evidence and data to show that they’re making a difference — that they are affecting audiences,” Berger said.

“On the academic side, the field has just exploded,” Berger said. Berger further explained that the number of degrees in public relations has rapidly increased, leading to a greater necessity for public relations professors, who, in turn, do more research of their own.

2. Quality
“It is the ability to offer clients more than just measurements of exposure,” Gonzenbach said of modern research compared to the quality of research to which he was accustomed to early in his career.

Photo by Elizabeth Hahn
Photo by Elizabeth Hahn

Berger attributes the improvement in the quality of public relations research to the increasing numbers of doctorate degrees in the field, and thus improved methodology.

3. Range of topics
Over time, researchers have moved away from their once primary focus of persuasion studies to a wide range of topics across the field. Modern public relations research covers a variety of topics, including international studies, new communication technology, crisis communication, history, measurement and critical studies of gender, power and political relationships.

Berger identifies technology as a key factor in the evolution of public relations research in terms of quantity, quality and diversity of topics. As recently as 30 years ago, “organizations controlled the messages and they controlled the channels so the receivers were merely that — receivers,” Berger said. “You got messages but you didn’t really have any way to communicate back. All of that exploded with social media of course.”

New technology allows for improved quantity and quality in public relations research by offering greater access to the opinions and behaviors of target publics. “Big data,” or “advanced technology that allows large volumes of data to drive more fully integrated decision-making,” as Mark Weiner defined it in his study,“Irreversible: The Public Relations Big Data Revolution” for the Institute of Public Relations offers new opportunities for practitioners to access data on a mass scale.

Photo by Mediterranean Center of Medical Sciences via flickr.com
Photo by Mediterranean Center of Medical Sciences via flickr.com

Weiner identified the two greatest strengths of big data in public relations research as providing opportunities for continuous improvement and comparison to competitors and proving the value of public relations.

“Big Data PR results enable the practitioner to demonstrate the unique effect PR has on the business overall,” Weiner said. “Once PR demonstrates its ability to positively influence the business overall on those factors which drive the bottom-line (sales, cost, pricing, staffing, regulatory action, etc.), the greater PR’s esteem will be.”

While the field of public relations research has made great strides, it still faces new challenges every day. In order to keep up with this ever-changing environment, public relations practitioners will have to continue to evolve.

Looking back, Gonzenbach laughs at how primitive the research techniques he used early in his career seem now: “Research is such an essential part of the business now.”

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