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The Key Player: Dr. Kenon A. Brown

Posted: March 16, 2015, 10:49 a.m.
by Annslee Wilson.

In today’s public relations industry, some practitioners do not believe that academic research is a valuable resource. Crisis management research, in particular, is often overlooked as a key player in providing practitioners the best practices used for restoring the reputation of brands and individuals.

Dr. Kenon A. Brown conducts his research with the goal of building a practical and comprehensive model for athlete image management. He hopes his findings allow him to compile a list of guidelines and suggestions to consider when an athlete is faced with a certain scenario.

Dr. Kenon A. Brown

Brown is an assistant professor of public relations at The University of Alabama. He received his bachelor’s degree in journalism in 2005 at the University of Tennessee. After his undergraduate studies, and while earning his master’s degree, Brown worked as the local marketing manager at Buffalo Wild Wings for four years in Knoxville, Tenn.

In 2012, Brown earned his Ph.D. in mass communications at The University of Alabama. In addition to teaching various courses in public relations, journalism and sports communication, Brown also conducts research on athlete image repair. He uses Benoit’s image repair theory to investigate the effects of response strategies during athlete transgressions on audience outcomes, including an audience’s perceived image and negative word-of-mouth generated about the athlete.

“Research is our way to eliminate guesswork,” Brown said. “It keeps practitioners and academics from using assumptions to guide our practices. It saves us time, money and effort that would be wasted if we had to clean up our mistakes regularly.”

When Brown entered the doctoral program at UA, he initially planned to make financial crisis planning his focus of study. After reanalyzing his goals and interests, he discovered sports communications.

Brown’s first study, “Lebron James and ‘The Decision,’” allowed him to get noticed and get his foot in the door. The study was designed to analyze the possible image repair strategies that would be the most beneficial in repairing James’ image after his 2010 free agency, when James decided to hold a one-hour special on ESPN to announce his intentions to sign with the Miami Heat after seven seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

2433412656_6107ffc932_oSince James was faced with criticism across the industry, Brown wanted to answer two questions: (1) Is apology the best policy? and (2) Is the “crystallization of public opinion” still foundational to public relations? Brown’s study revealed that the mortification strategy, i.e., apologizing, increased James’ image, while the other tested strategies decreased his image. He also found that more casual fans had a neutral opinion of James compared to hardcore fans and non-fans before his free agency, but moderate fans also had the highest increase in their perception of James’ image after reading the mortification strategy.

In his third year as a professor, Brown also has 13 peer-reviewed articles. When it comes to the research process, Brown said that he always begins with a question in mind. From there it takes him about a month to conduct the literature review to formulate the basis of the study and establish the research method. It then takes another month to receive approval for the study and conduct data, and an additional month to analyze the data and complete the manuscript, and finally, submit the article.

“I’ve had articles accepted for publication three months after submission. I’ve had some accepted after two years. It just depends on several factors,” he said.

Brown also knows the importance of translating academic research in the field. In late 2014, Wright Waters, the executive director of the Football Bowl Association, approached Brown for assistance after learning of his research in image building and repair. Waters wanted a trusted professional to conduct a campaign for the FBA that highlighted the bowl experience outside of the game itself to bolster the organization’s image. The campaign would be student-driven and would reveal to the public that bowl game participation is beneficial to the host community, the players and to the teams’ fans. He turned to Brown to take on the challenge.

“We wanted to take on a unique project, so we were looking for someone who was uniquely qualified and had a respectable reputation within his profession. Dr. Brown not only met our needs but exceeded our needs,” said Wright Waters, executive director of the FBA.

Brown partnered with UA Professor Randall Huffaker to lead a team of student interns to create and implement the #WinWhen campaign. After a successful campaign, Brown was proud to hear that the board of the Football Bowl Association has asked Brown and his team to return for the 2015 college football bowl season.

Brown is currently working on a comprehensive study that will analyze the effectiveness of image repair strategies across criminal activity. He said that he hopes to find differences in how athletes should respond to criminal allegations. In addition, Brown is in the process of writing a chapter discussing the field of sport public relations in a forthcoming handbook, “Sports Communication: Defining the Field.” He stresses that he wants to continue to show that academic research does have a place in a practitioner’s world.

“At the end of the day, practitioners and academics alike conduct research for various reasons, but with a common goal in sight: to improve the profession,” Brown said. “Academic research should lead to practical, theoretically driven applications that help practitioners do their jobs. Practitioners conduct research to build more efficient campaigns that help better showcase what we can do, and all of it leads to a better profession.”

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