Monday, 4 March 2013

Valid and Reliable? Why PR experts may be wrong

This is a difficult blog to write. It has the potential to upset some really committed folks who put a lot of time into thinking about public relations. However, it has the possibility for a very positive outcome.

Some practitioners are kind enough to give guest lectures to students. Others (some the same people) write blogs. A few commit themselves to writing 250-300 pages of a book, and the publishing grind that goes with it. They are good people. And it’s almost a ‘golden age’ of expert practitioners contributing to PR and corpcomms development in the UK.

But they are missing out on two vital concepts that could make their commentaries and books even more valuable. They are ‘valid’ and ‘reliable’ which are key components for producing best practice and theory that can really advise practitioners and make PR more effective.

Here are some examples of the type of commentary and “theorising” that comes unstuck. The first was a challenge to Jim’s Grunig’s concept of “symmetrical communications” which is based wholly on anecdotes and personal observation. The Grunig concept is not without challenge in the academic world but case studies and structured research are applied, not anecdotes and assertions.

The second was a set of “brainstormed” set of six descriptions of communications operations prepared by a PR organisation without any evidence there had been any preparatory study (this is not a new topic) or consistent research method applied. Neither of these assertions has “validity” or “reliability” for application in either practice or theory. They may be insightful but are just informed guesses.

Why is theory valuable for PR? Essentially, it aids prediction: “A sound theory is the conceptual foundation for reliable knowledge; theories help us to explain and predict phenomena of interest to us and, therefore, to make intelligent practical decisions” (Frankfort-Nachmias & Nachmias 1992). The outcomes of applied theory are organization, explanation, prediction and greater control of the situation. All these factors help practitioners build campaigns and programmes which are more likely to achieve their objectives because they are built on a valid, reliable base.

Can practitioners develop commentary and assertions into theory? Yes they can, and it’s very productive. In Australia, evaluation expert and commentator Jim Macnamara developed high-standard academic research skills and is now a widely quoted expert (and latterly a professor). Another approach is the research partnership of Chicago consultancy boss Lou Williams and San Diego professor David Dozier who for many years have researched best practice in internal communications. Their work is highly rated. In the US, practice research is fostered by the Institute for Public Relations (see its excellent which gets industry backing for the type of robust research that practitioners look up to.

In the UK, is it time for industry to support continuing research into practice by creating an equivalent to the Institute for Public Relations? Partnerships, with some funding, between academic and the PR experts will produce enduring results. I hope so because there is so much energy and enthusiasm to be applied that could result in ‘valid and reliable’ outcomes for the PR sector.