Diana C. Sisson, Ph.D., Auburn University
Tara M. Mortensen, Ph.D., University of South Carolina
This study employs an exploratory content analysis of current public relations information graphics to examine variables within two concepts pertaining to public relations: transparency and clarity. These two concepts were chosen because they apply to both traditional public relations practice and are also widely taught amongst contemporary infographics design experts. The subjects of the study are nonprofit organizations’ online informational graphics (N = 376) that have been released on Twitter. Findings suggest that nonprofit organizations are not applying traditional public relations principles to their design of online information graphics, demonstrating difficulty in translating these principles to visual design, a skill that is becoming more important. While the study is not intended to generalize, this snapshot of current practice is used to offer improvements in preparing public relations students for communication with information visualizations. This exploration illuminates the need for public relations education geared toward the social, visual, and data-driven environment. To this end, the study uses these findings to develop an initial set of practices for infographic design that can be implemented into current public relations education.
Keywords: infographics, public relations, visual communication, nonprofit organizations, public relations education, visual literacy
Educating students for the social, digital and information world: Teaching public relations infographic design
Social media have transformed public relations education, forcing students to apply traditional public relations principles, such as transparency and clarity, to new forms of communications such as infographics. Infographics are design pieces that may include “data visualizations, illustrations, text, and images together into a format that tells a complete story” (Krum, 2013, p. 6). In the contemporary mediascape that caters to low-attention spans, infographics have become hugely popular forms of communication. Public relations firms are using the medium to build awareness of products and brands, provide information to shareholders, and increase the value of the brand or cause (Krum, 2013, p. 88). Effectively creating infographics requires an understanding of visual communication principles and for niche industries such as public relations, requires translating legacy principles to new forms of communication. Data visualizations are compelling to audiences, and “present the illusion of trustworthiness due to their visual nature and presentation of statistical information” (Toth, 2013, p. 449). Thus, understanding how to correctly present data in visual form is imperative.
No research was found by the researchers regarding how public relations professionals are applying traditional principles to the design of information graphics, nor how students can better prepare to work in a modern media environment. Given the popularity of infographic use among nonprofit organizations in an online environment, these are significant gaps. This exploratory study examines public relations graphics released via Twitter to identify the manner in which the principles of transparency and clarity are being applied, and to ultimately offer an initial list of suggestions for public relations educators.
Based on a review of the literature in the following sections, opportunities for further study arose and research questions are proposed. Visuals as a form of communication in the contemporary visual-social mediascape will be introduced, concentrating on infographics. A discussion of the importance and communicative powers of visuals will also be undertaken. Following, the variables within the concepts of transparency and clarity will be laid out as they pertain to public relations and visual communication, specifically infographics.
An Onion article jokes that people “shudder” at large blocks of uninterrupted text, requiring a colorful photo, an illustration, or a chart to comprehend the information (“Nation shudders,” 2010). Satire aside, contemporary news consumers are indeed skimmers, primarily reading exciting words and facts, as well as headlines and visuals (Nielsen, 2011; Rosenwald, 2014). This trend has contributed to a massive increase in the use of infographics to spread information, as well as a need for educators to teach new tools.
Between 2013 and 2015, Google searches for infographics increased 800% (Meacham, 2015). Infographics intend to tell a story primarily in pictures, while minimizing the number of words and maximizing visual impact (Meacham, 2015). The production of data and its graphic representation were once specialized trades but are now accessible to nearly everyone (Yaffa, 2011). Infographics harness the power of visuals to grab readers’ attention, reduce the amount of time it takes to understand data, provide context by showing comparisons, and make messages more emotional, memorable and accessible (Kimball & Hawkins, 2008; Kostelnick & Roberts, 2010; Schafer, 1995; Tufte, 2003).
In an age of “fake news” and audience mistrust of traditional media sources, understanding how to communicate truthfully in multiple forms is particularly important for students (Rutenberg, 2016). The 2016 presidential elections brought the term “fake news” into mainstream awareness, raising widespread knowledge of the viral spread of untruthful information via social-networking sites (Wingfield, Isaac, & Benner, 2016). Twitter and Facebook have been urged to take their part of the responsibility in this spread, and tomorrow’s communicators, too, must be prepared to understand, identify, and create truthful and clear visual-statistical messages. Members of the media, following Kellyanne Conway, have used the term “alternative facts” to describe a problematic trend of a growing perception of multiple truths, which affects the credibility of politicians, corporations and the media (Rutenberg, 2017, para. 7). Data design has special considerations in this regard (Kienzler, 1997; Rosenquist, 2012; Stallworth, 2008; Tufte, 2001). Visual content creators can accidentally and easily mislead their audience because visuals earn more importance and emotional impact than texts (Kienzler, 1997). Infographics can unintentionally distort or make data opaque to gain viewers (McArdle, 2011). As Toth (2013) noted, infographics represent an extension of fundamental issues, including “presenting information clearly and succinctly, targeting audiences, defining clear purposes, developing ethos, understanding document design principles, using persuasion techniques effectively, branding, and conducting and summarizing research” (p. 451).
Public Relations Education and Visual Communication
Educational materials for creating and disseminating infographics have only recently been developed and are not widely adopted within the various streams of communication education. Experts on infographics contend that there are thousands of poorly-constructed infographics online, but “the good designs rise to the top and are the designs that most often go viral in social networks” (Krum, 2013, p. 271). The challenge is melding the principles of various fields, including public relations, with the principles of infographic design and visual communication.
Researchers and professionals have noted the increased need for education in infographics in public relations due to employers’ demand for such skills and increased usage in the field (Gallicano, Ekachai, & Freberg, 2014). Advocates of visual literacy have long held that visual education, including knowledge of how to create visuals, is the missing piece of contemporary education (Metros, 2008; Sosa, 2009). Visuals have a powerful impact on audiences in ways that text does not. Visuals grab readers’ attention (Boerman, Smith, & van Meurs, 2011) and stick in the memory longer than other forms of communications (Graber, 1990). Krum (2013) referred to this as the “picture superiority effect” (p. 20). Further, images are subject to less scrutiny than other forms of communication (Messaris, 1994, p. x). In other words, viewers of images tend to believe what they see (Newton, 2013; Wheeler, 2001), and this is especially the case with visualized data (Cairo, 2012; Krum, 2013). While modern college students are consumers and producers of highly visual content on the web, they lack the skills to effectively communicate visually (Metros, 2008). Visual intelligence influences perceptions and interpretations of visual materials (Moriarty, 1996). Schools are encouraged to introduce concepts of visual literacy to understand, analyze, interpret and create effective visual information (Burns, 2006).
ACEJMC suggests, broadly, that all programs should teach students to apply the appropriate tools and technologies for the communication professions in which they work. There is greater importance to teach students visual communication skills due to the digital landscape and shorter attention spans (Lester, 2015). This need is particularly pertinent to public relations students and infographics. The Commission on Public Relations Education met in 2015 to discuss undergraduate public relations education, noting a need for better verbal as well as graphic communications (p. 8). Kent (2013), in his suggestions for using social media in public relations, states that publics are better served by thoughtful, thorough, and relevant information including high-quality infographics that contain complete information, rather than “eye-candy” (p. 343). Richard Edelman (2012) said to public relations educators that, “There is a huge place for deeper, more informative visuals . . . which infographics – visual representations of information, data or knowledge – provide” (p. 4).
The following sections of this paper review two principles of public relations, and within each principle, rules of effective infographic design are applied. Transparency and clarity were examined because: 1) organizational transparency is necessary to provide coherence, visibility, and clarity (Albu & Wehmeier, 2014); and, 2) clarity assures that information communicated is easily understood by various publics and does not contain jargon (Rawlins, 2009). Further, concepts of transparency and clarity each encompass variables that theoretically and practically derive from and can be applied to visual communications, specifically infographics. The researchers were interested in studying the junction of these two fields and extracting implications for students who will be working within this increasingly-popular, professional niche.
Public relations students are taught to be transparent, but may not know how this applies to infographic design. According to Rawlins (2009):
Transparency is the deliberate attempt to make available all legally releasable information—whether positive or negative in nature—in a manner that is accurate, timely, balanced, and unequivocal, for the purpose of enhancing the reasoning ability of publics and holding organizations accountable for their actions, policies, and practices. (p. 75)
Plaisance (2007) argued while transparency “is not always a sufficient condition for more ethical behavior, its absence is a prerequisite for deception” (p. 193). Transparency has been studied from conceptual (Rawlins, 2006, 2009), journalistic (Plaisance, 2007), and social media campaign (Burns, 2008; DiStaso & Bortree, 2012) perspectives.
Rawlins (2006) argued transparency is comprised of three components: participation, substantial information, and accountability. Drawing on previous transparency literature, as well as on the Global Reporting Index (GRI) Guidelines and other guidelines promoting transparent communication, Rawlins (2006) found substantial information was the “strongest predictor among transparency components” (p. 433). From this perspective, Rawlins (2009) noted disclosure is about providing information, but can be used to distort perspectives, rather than provide clarity.
Transparency has been studied from a social media campaign perspective (Burns, 2008) and from a dialogic perspective with particular focus on mutual understanding (Albu & Wehmeier, 2014). Using content analysis, Burns (2008) examined the Wal-Mart and Edelman “Wal-Marting Across America” blog crisis to argue that a lack of transparency in blogging leads to harsh criticism despite classic crisis response strategies such as apology. DiStaso and Bortree (2012) echoed similar sentiments about transparency through their evaluation of award-winning campaigns. DiStaso and Bortree (2012) found that many of the campaigns reflected transparency in that they “provid[ed] information that is useful for others to make informed decisions” (p. 513). Transparency in social media tactics kept organizations accountable to their publics (DiStaso & Bortree, 2012). Albu and Wehmeier (2014) argued that transparency and dialogue were “interconnected,” which was often overlooked in the literature (p. 129). Echoing Rawlins (2009), they posited that disclosure alone was insufficient for publics’ understanding; rather, true understanding was based in the coherence, clarity, and visibility of information (Albu & Wehmeier, 2014). In communicating transparently to foster mutual understanding, Albu and Wehmeier (2014) argued accountability, credibility, and loyalty of stakeholders may be heightened.
Transparency and visual communications. While transparency is a vital principle for public relations professionals to abide by, contemporary public relations educational materials fall short of teaching the application of transparency to infographics design. On the same token, textbooks specific to visual communication explain the importance of transparency in infographic design, but do little to translate these principles to public relations (e.g., Knaflic, 2015; Krum, 2013; Smiciklas, 2012). Transparency with data is, in fact, of utmost importance in the creation of infographics. Viewers tend to see visualized data as both important and scientifically true, placing increased pressure on infographic designers to be transparent about the data. To be transparent, the infographic needs to “address the sources of the data included in the design in an open and honest manner” (Krum, 2013, p. 295). Sharing where the data came from, the age of the data, and the credibility of the data source can help establish the believability of the data. Further, copyright law means that the designer of the infographic and the names of any contributing illustrators and photographers be given credit (Lester, 2015; Walter & Gioglio, 2014).
Still, a massive portion of information graphics appearing online have either no data source listed, vague data sources provided, or simply provide questionable data sources, including personal blogs and websites. Krum (2013) suggested infographic designers should track down and cite the original source of data, list the source, and list a specific URL to the exact report or dataset that was used, as well as including the date of the data. Once an infographic is released online, its whereabouts will become unpredictable. In fact, a purpose of infographic design is to “go viral.” Therefore, in addition to source information, then, the bottom of an infographic must include the name of the company that originally released it and a landing page URL that sends the viewer to the original source of the infographic.
Transparency measures. The Global Reporting Index offers guidelines for promoting transparent communication (Rawlins, 2009). The GRI indicated clarity, relevance, timeliness, neutrality, sustainability context, and comparability were important components in transparent communication (Rawlins, 2009).
Transparent communication should aid with decision-making by providing relevant information to members of key publics (Global Reporting Index, as cited in Rawlins, 2009). Transparent communication should be timely. The Global Reporting Index defined timeliness as providing “information within a time frame that makes the information usable” (as cited in Rawlins, 2009, p. 82). Transparent communication should be neutral in order to avoid perceptions of deception. The GRI defined neutrality as “avoid[ing] bias and striv[ing] for a balanced account of the company’s performance” (as cited in Rawlins, 2009, p. 81). While transparent communication should be neutral and timely, it should also provide a sustainability context to information. The Global Reporting Index defined sustainability context as “identify[ing] how organizational behavior is contributing to effects on the environment, economy, and/or social welfare” (as cited in Rawlins, 2009, p. 80). Furthermore, transparent communication should be comparable. The GRI defined comparability as “easily compar[ing] to both earlier performance of the company and to other similar organizations” (as cited in Rawlins, 2009, p. 81).
Public relations students are taught about presenting information clearly, but infographic design has special implications for this principle, which may be less understood. As delineated by the Global Reporting Index guidelines, information is clear, or has clarity, when the information communicated is easily understood by various publics and does not contain jargon (as cited in Rawlins, 2009). Furthermore, the GRI indicated that clarity enhances understanding of information (as cited in Rawlins, 2009). Jargon, or highly technical and industry-specific words or acronyms, hinders understanding of organizational communication by members of key publics. Marken (1996) contended that public relations professionals have a responsibility to communicate on behalf of their organizations in a clear and concise manner, and public relations students are taught to present information clearly.
Clarity and infographic design. When creating infographics, several principles of design promote clarity. A primary purpose of creating infographics is to provide clarity to disorganized and difficult-to-understand data or ideas (Cairo, 2012). A well-designed infographic should present information in a way that readers can see, read, and explore information which would be too difficult to digest in its raw data form (Cairo, 2012). As Krum (2013) said, “Nobody wants to read a text article that has been converted into a JPG image file and then called an infographic” (p. 291), and further stresses: “Using big fonts in an infographic to make the numbers stand out is not data visualization . . . . Displaying the number in a large font doesn’t make it any easier for the audience to understand” (p. 219). Therefore, the visualization of data in order to increase comprehension of information is essential.
Charts (pie, line, bar), graphs, illustrations, maps, and diagrams, when used correctly, help make complex information more clear and understandable (Cairo, 2012). Additionally, considered by many the Father of Data Visualization, Edward Tufte is described by Yaffa (2011) as saying “the first grand principle of analytical design: above all else, always show comparisons” (para. 12). Doing so allows clear data presentation and interpretation to viewers. According to Yaffa (2011), Tufte believes, “there is no such thing as information overload . . . . Only bad design,” which impedes rather than enhances clarity (para. 36). In addition to choosing the proper visualization method for the given data, clarity is increased when viewers do not have to look back and forth to discern the meaning of the visualizations or colors. This is why pioneer infographic designer Scott Farrand said to “avoid legends like the plague” (personal communication, March 23, 2016), and Randy Krum said using legends are “evil” (p. 293). Tufte (1983) coined the term “chart junk” (p. 67) to refer to anything that gets in the way of a viewer interpreting the data.
Given the popularity of infographics use by nonprofit organizations and the call from the Commission on Public Relations Education (2015) and other scholars, this area should be examined, and improvements should be offered for the next generation of public relations practitioners. For this reason, the following research questions are offered:
RQ1: To what degree are nonprofit organizations’ information graphics transparent?
RQ2: To what degree do nonprofit organizations present the information in graphics clearly?
A content analysis was conducted to systematically and quantitatively evaluate transparency and clarity strategies in nonprofits’ online information graphics (Stempel, 2003). Content analysis allowed for conclusions to be drawn from the observations that emerge from analysis of data (Stempel, 2003).
Information graphics (N = 376) released by 18 nonprofit organizations on Twitter were analyzed. The researchers defined an infographic for this study as a graphic that contains information. This graphical information did not necessarily need to be quantitative, but could also be words, facts, or illustrations. None of the infographics were “clickable” or lead to other pages. Note that the definition is broad. While Fernando (2012) defines an infographic as “a form of storytelling that people can use to visualize data in a way that illustrates knowledge, experiences, or events” (Fernando, 2012, p. 2), a wider definition is adopted for the present study in order to accommodate those infographics that fall out of the expert definition. Infographics distributed through Twitter were selected for this study because 21% of American adults use the social media platform for their news consumption (Greenwood, Perrin, & Duggan, 2016). As this is an exploratory study, only one social-networking website was used. Future studies should examine transparency and clarity of nonprofit organizations on other social networks, such as Facebook.
Nonprofit organizations were selected for analysis based on a sampling frame of Top Nonprofits.com’s Top 100 Nonprofits on the Web list. The sample frame was selected for its reliance on “publicly available web, social, and fiscal responsibility metrics” (Top 100 Nonprofits on the Web, n.d., para. 2), as well as for its rankings methodology of nonprofits online. Each of the chosen nonprofit organizations’ Twitter feeds were accessed to gather infographics. Data collection occurred from November 1, 2015 to November 31, 2015 for this study. All non-animated, non-clickable infographics collected were released in November 2015, as well as up to six months prior in May 2015 in order to collect a substantive sample. This time frame allowed the researchers to examine a snapshot of nonprofit organizations’ infographic use and design practices prior to December and January, which are traditionally peak fundraising periods. Duplicates were excluded.
Nonprofit organizations found in the Top Nonprofits.com’s Top 100 Nonprofits on the Web list were divided into “more than 10” and “less than 10” infographics categories. The rationale for this categorization was to ensure that the researchers were not pulling infographics from nonprofit organizations that used the visual communication infrequently; this categorization was intended to ensure representativeness of infographic use and frequency. The researchers collected infographics from the Top 100 Nonprofits on the Web list using this categorization until an adequate sample size was met. The sample was not random, as generalizing to the broader social media sphere was not the purpose of the paper. Rather, the purpose of the examination is to gather a snapshot of contemporary public relations infographics and offer suggestions for improvement in education.
Nonprofit organizations analyzed in this study and listed in Top 100 Nonprofits on the Web include: Human Rights Campaign (15.2%, n = 57), UNICEF (15%, n = 55), Save the Children (8.2%, n = 31), ACLU (8%, n = 29), Conservation International (7%, n = 25), International Rescue Committee (7%, n = 25), Wounded Warrior Project (6.4%, n = 24), Amnesty International (6.1%, n = 23), Teach for America (5.1%, n = 19), Feeding America (5%, n = 18), Susan G. Komen (5%, n = 18), March of Dimes (5%, n = 17), Rotary International (4%, n = 13), ASPCA (3%, n = 10), Livestrong (1.1%, n = 4), Samaritan’s Purse (1%, n = 3), Ronald McDonald House (1%, n = 3), and Kliva (1%, n = 2).
Coding and Variables
Variables for measuring transparency and clarity were gleaned from the academic and professional literature on public relations and infographic design, as described in the literature review. Each concept contained variables pertaining to the intersection of infographic design and public relations. Transparency was the largest of the three concepts, and specifically measured using variables and variable definitions found in Table 1.
Transparency variables and definitions
|Data attribution||Whether or not the data was attributed at all|
|Data availability||Whether the original data itself is available to viewers: A link on infographic? Link on landing page? Spreadsheet on landing page? Data source not available at all? Each was coded as yes or no.|
|Data quality||Whether the data source is vague, questionable, reliable, or not identified. Vague data sources are those that only contain the name of the host site that publishes the data without any additional information about a specific report or article. Questionable data sources are those that are Wikipedia, blogs, or personal sites, and unclear sites are those where the source is not clearly identified. Each was coded as yes or no.|
|Data date||Whether the date of the data was provided. Coded as yes or no.|
|Designer credit||Whether credit was given to the individual that designed the infographic. Coded as yes or no.|
|Photographer or graphic credit||Whether credit was given to the individual(s) who created any graphical elements or photographs used in the infographic. Coded as yes or no.|
|Landing page||Whether a URL was provided that directs the user back to the original web location of the infographic. Coded as yes or no.|
|Relevance||Whether the infographic contains information specific to the organization. Coded as yes or no.|
|Sustainability context||Whether the infographic identifies how organizational behavior is contributing to effects on the environment, economy, and/or social welfare. Coded as yes or no.|
|Neutrality||Whether the infographic contains information from organizations other than itself. Coded as yes or no.|
|Comparability||Whether the infographic compares its performance to itself or to other/ similar organizations. Coded as yes or no.|
|Timeliness||Whether the infographic contains information in a timeframe usable to stakeholders. Coded as yes or no.|
Clarity contained three variables: two derived from the infographic literature and one derived from public relations literature, which can be found in Table 2. They were infographic type, presence of a legend, and presence of industry jargon.
Clarity variables and definitions
|Infographic type||Timeline, pie chart, line graph, how-to diagram, bar graph, bubble chart, flow chart, list, numbers only, words/facts only, or other. For each of these, coded as present or not present.|
|Legend||Whether or not the infographic contained a legend. Coded as yes or no.|
|Jargon||Whether or not the infographic contained jargon. Coded as yes or no.|
In addition, the researchers coded the organization that released the infographic, the topic, tone, and type of data visualization. Tone was coded as humorous/entertaining, informational, utility/how-to, serious/somber, other and none, and each category was coded as yes or no, as these categories are not mutually exclusive. Humor or entertaining infographics were light-hearted or comical; informational infographics were merely fact-based; utility-based infographics were those that taught a user how to do something; serious or somber infographics contained serious information aimed at persuading users. As this article is aimed towards education, infographic types examined (e.g., pie charts, maps) were selected from two leading textbook authors, Cairo (2012) and Krum (2013). A detailed visual codebook was developed and refined through five separate practice sessions by two independent coders. Following refinement of the codebook, three more practice coding sessions of a subsample of infographics were undertaken, with intermittent discussions and clarifications, until a level of agreement was achieved. Coders reached a good to excellent level of intercoder reliability. The Cohen’s Kappas were all α > 0.9, with three exceptions: Type: 0.87; Neutrality = 0.87; and Attribution = 0.87. To examine the data from the visual and textual content analysis, frequencies and descriptive statistics of each category were conducted.
Findings from this study highlighted the nuances of how nonprofits approach transparency and clarity practices. The following sections address the results of each research question.
RQ1: To what degree are nonprofit organizations’ infographics transparent?
Frequencies of infographic transparency variables, infographic quality of data source of those that list a source, and data availability were conducted. As Table 3 shows, only 18.6% of the infographics attributed the source of their data. For each variable, there were fewer positive instances of transparency than negative.
Frequencies of infographic transparency variables
|Data attribution||70 (18.6%)||306 (81.4%)||376 (100%)|
|Data date||53 (14.1%)||323 (85.9%)||376 (100%)|
|Designer credit||3 (0.8%)||373 (99.2%)||376 (100%)|
|Photographer credit||28 (7.4%)||348 (92.6%)||376 (100%)|
|Landing page||120 (31.9%)||255 (67.8%)||376 (100%)|
|Relevance||65 (17.3%)||311 (82.7%)||376 (100%)|
|Sustainability context||53 (14.1%)||322 (85.6%)||376 (100%)|
|Neutrality||30 (8.0%)||345 (91.8%)||376 (100%)|
|Comparability||9 (2.4%)||366 (97.3%)||376 (100%)|
|Timeliness||39 (10.4%)||336 (90%)||376 (100%)|
The inclusion of a landing page was the one tool used most often by the nonprofits in this sample (31.9%). Very few infographics included a credit to the designer (0.8%) or image source (14.1%). Relevance, or whether the infographic contained information about an action taken by the organization, was present in 17.3% of infographics. Similarly, 14.1% of infographics contained information about how organizational behavior is contributing to effects on the community, environment, or social welfare of groups or individuals.
As Table 4 shows, of the infographics that list a data source (18.6%, n = 70), 64 of the sources were vague, or only listed the host site without additional information about the specific report or article; three were “questionable” (e.g., a blog, Wikipedia, or personal site); and three were not clearly identified.
Infographic quality of data source of those that list a source
|Data quality||Number of infographics||Total|
|Vague||64 (91.4%)||70 (100%)|
|Questionable||3 (4.3%)||70 (100%)|
|Unclear||3 (4.3%)||70 (100%)|
As Table 5 shows, audiences wishing to clarify the source of data would be mostly unable to, as only 16 (4.2%) of the infographics in the total sample contained a way to find the source of the data.
How nonprofit organizations make data available
|Data availability||Number of infographics||Total|
|Link on infographic||5 (1.3%)||376 (100%)|
|Link on landing page||8 (2.1%)||376 (100%)|
|Spreadsheet on landing page||3 (.8%)||376 (100%)|
|Data source not readily available||360 (95.7%)||376 (100%)|
Finally, image source (4%) was associated with numbers-only infographics. Image source (4%) was also associated with infographics with only words and facts. Designer credit (1%) was most associated with list infographics. Landing page URLs (12%) were most associated with infographics with only words and facts. Landing page URLs (8%) were also associated with list infographics.
RQ2: To what degree do nonprofit organizations present the information in infographics clearly?
For the present paper, the construct of clarity was measured using three variables culled from the literature: type of infographic, the use of jargon, and the use of legends. Inclusion of jargon (Figure 1, from our sample) and inclusion of a legend (Figure 3, from our sample) inhibit clarity.
Figure 1. Infographic example of jargon and avoiding legend (ACLU, 2015, May 31)
Nonprofit organizations used and disseminated different types of infographics through Twitter. Infographic types examined included: numbers only (66%, n = 248), word and facts (27%, n = 103), lists (13%, n = 103), pie charts (9%, n = 32), bar graphs (4%, n = 16), how-to (3%, n = 12), maps (3%, n = 12), line graphs (2%, n = 6), timelines (1.1%, n = 4), and flowcharts (1%, n = 2).
Figure 2. “Big numbers” (ACLU, 2015, October 28)
Figure 3. Infographic example of unnecessary legend (ACLU, 2015, May 21)
Most of the infographics (89.6%, n = 337) examined did not contain a data visualization, thus precluding the need to consider whether a legend must be used. Of the 39 (10.4%) infographics in this analysis that did contain data visualization (e.g., a chart or graph), 14 (3.7%) used a legend unnecessarily, while 25 (6.6%) did not use a legend, thus clarifying data interpretation. Of the infographics examined, 35 (9.5%) contained instances of jargon, or highly technical, industry-specific words or acronyms that may not be understood by all members of the lay audience.
The present study sits at the intersection of public relations, infographics, and education. By examining infographic design principles as applied to public relations practices, these exploratory findings lend to the development of more effective education in the area of visual literacy, particularly, public relations infographics design. The study suggests that while making heavy use of infographics on social media, the nonprofit organizations studied do not often translate concepts of transparency and clarity into their infographic-based communications online. This finding magnifies educators’ and researchers’ calls for better visual literacy education among students and lends to suggestions for such literacy in the area of infographic design.
The nonprofit organizations in this study did not often practice transparency in their infographics. Only 19% of the infographics examined included the data source at all, and even fewer provided details such as the date of the data (14.1%). Those that did include a source were most often vague about it, including the name of a company (e.g., “Humane Society”) instead of directing the user to an actual dataset or name of a study. In fact, very few (4.2%) infographics made the dataset available to viewers, inhibiting the viewer’s ability to explore, ask questions, and assess credibility (Cairo, 2012). Nonprofit organizations were most opaque in their sourcing of photographers (7.4%) and designers (0.8%), an ethical and legal blunder (e.g., Lester, 2015; Newton, 2013). Only 32% of the infographics examined included at least a URL leading back to the landing page from where the infographic originated, leaving most viewers in the dark as to the origins of the graphic itself to fill in any of the transparency gaps.
Further, the infographics studied in this sample did not reflect transparent communication practices as outlined by Global Reporting Index guidelines (as cited in Rawlins, 2009). Only 17.3% of the infographics released by nonprofit organizations in this study communicated their actions (i.e., relevance), while even fewer (14.1%) communicated using a sustainability context how their actions impact the community, environment, or social welfare of groups or individuals. Given this finding, nonprofit organizations are missing an opportunity to communicate what they do and how they impact society, which may provide a competitive advantage and enhance relationships with current and potential donors.
Limited (8%) infographics communicated neutral information about the nonprofit organization’s actions from a third party, which may create skewed perceptions. Third-party endorsements provide organizations an additional layer of credibility with members of key publics; therefore, not incorporating this information may impact perceptions of organizational credibility. Very few (2.4%) infographics provided comparable information about nonprofit organizations’ past and present performance, which would show its effectiveness to donors and members of key publics. While using social media to provide information quickly, few (10.4%) infographics provided timely information that would aid donors and key publics in decision-making. Timeliness refers to the information date in relation to the information distribution in infographic via Twitter.
The infographics examined could also improve clarity. Nonprofit organizations are not taking full advantage of the power of infographics to visualize otherwise difficult data or information, a primary purpose of using infographics (Cairo, 2012). Most nonprofits are releasing big numbers, big words, or lists, a strategy recommended against by experts on the topic (e.g., Cairo, 2012; Krum, 2013). Very few other types of data visualizations were used, with pie charts being the most popular, present in 9% of the graphics. Other forms of visualization, while potentially more appropriate, were each used in less than 5% of the sample. Of the infographics using data visualizations, just under half used legends, adding unnecessary work for viewers trying to decipher the meaning of the visualization.
Practical Implications. Findings from this study inform public relations educators by presenting gaps in practice that can be addressed by teaching students about transparency and clarity with regard to infographics. Students should keep in mind that once an infographic is released onto the Internet, its eventual whereabouts are unpredictable. Students should be prepared to conduct a communication audit of their infographic use to ensure that communication has clarity and communicates dedication to transparency practices. Students should employ a thematic analysis of current messaging in their communication audits guided by the measures of transparency and clarity offered in this study.
In the same way that public relations professionals are trained in management, strategy, writing, and research, the visual landscape of information overload dictates a need for basic education in communicating these ideas in data using visuals. Given the findings from this study, the following suggestions for infographic design are offered as a first step toward suggestions on infographic design for educational purposes:
- Data source, designer credit, and photographer credit must be included directly on all types of infographics to lend to transparency;
- Nonprofit organizations must enhance credibility with members of key publics through the use of neutral information or data to show unbiased impact on society through their organizational efforts;
- Nonprofit organizations must strive to communicate clearly by avoiding the use of legends and jargon, which may be confusing and add unnecessary work for members of key publics;
- Nonprofit organizations would improve their commitment to clarity and harness the power of visuals by incorporating more visualization of data and fewer graphics with mere large numbers which may make the numbers seem important. Tufte suggests to always show comparisons in data visualizations, allowing the viewer to better understand. Showing, not telling, is at the heart of infographic design;
- And, designers and public relations professionals must consider the apparent believability of data visualizations and be vigilant in their transparency efforts by including a data source, a link to the dataset, the date, and a landing page link on the infographic itself, lending to credibility.
Limitations and Suggestions for Future Studies
Despite the relevant and important findings of this study, there are still some limitations worth noting. This study is intended as a snapshot into the current state of nonprofit infographics online with a purpose of opening up a dialogue about improvement and leading to future, more thorough studies on the topic and for developing an initial set of suggestions for teaching public relations students about infographic design. The sample was purposeful and not random; thus, these findings cannot be generalized to all infographics online, or even those from public relations agencies. The goal of the paper was not to generalize, but to glean a snapshot of practices in order to offer best practices for students.
The shortcomings of this study and unaddressed issues open up the door for future studies. Infographics disseminated by nonprofit organizations on Twitter were the only type of infographic studied. Other scholars would add to the literature by exploring other types of infographics and other social networks. Second, there is an important area in need of examination with regard to infographics, and that is data deception. For example, bubble charts are infamous for misrepresenting the size and scale of area, rendering data comparisons misleading (Cairo, 2012; Tufte, 1983). No studies, to the authors’ knowledge, have taken on the task of carefully examining the accuracy of data visualizations. This second, larger step would add richness to the present understanding of infographics. This is an important area of study, and offering students instructions in this regard is relevant.
Further study regarding best practices of visual, social and primarily nonlinear and web-based forms of communications will enhance current practices in the public relations industry and will help to bolster the credibility of an organization during a time when that is desperately needed. The buzz surrounding the proliferation of “fake news” and so-called “alternative facts” calls educators’ attention to the need to teach transparency and clarity as applied to all forms of communications. This study opens up conversations and invites further study into best practices of performing public relations in the contemporary media landscape. Future studies can add to and move beyond the three concepts examined here, and study not only infographics, but the myriad other forms of online communications, including memes, GIFs, animations, and snaps.
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