Interview by Diana Sisson, Auburn University
- How has your scholarship influenced your teaching?
In essence, I would have had little to teach if it had not been for my scholarship. I like to tell the story of my first public relations class, which I taught in 1969. At the time, I did not really see myself as a public relations scholar or professional. I had studied mass communication theory and economics at the University of Wisconsin, along with having taken a number of courses in other social sciences. My dissertation had been on communication and agricultural development in Colombia. In that dissertation, I developed a theory of information, entrepreneurship, and economic development, which I saw basically as a theory of the communication behaviors of potential recipients of economic development information. I had practiced agricultural public relations at Iowa State University, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the International Harvester Company, and the University of Wisconsin while I was a student at Iowa State and Wisconsin. However, I thought of myself mostly as a communication theorist and researcher. I was assigned a public relations course at Maryland, so I had to teach something in the course. My work experience filled a week or two of classes, so I turned to my theoretical research to fill out the semester. My dissertation theory of information behaviors became the situational theory of publics when applied to public relations. Psychological theories of communication effects and sociological theories of organizations also became relevant. Soon, I discovered that the theories I was teaching in public relations classes were untested as public relations theories. As a result, I began a lifetime of research in which my teaching informed my research and my research informed my teaching. Graduate courses, in particular, became research laboratories in which my students and I explored and tested theories. I then used those theories as the basis of my undergraduate teaching.
- What research habits have you adopted to help you enhance your scholarship?
Research is a problem-solving process, so I constantly look for interesting and relevant problems in the public relations profession and in the theories we teach in public relations classes. For me, these problems have produced such research questions as what is a public, what are the publics of a given organization and how can the organization communicate with them, why do organizations practice public relations in the way they do, what is the value of public relations, how do you evaluate public relations, what is the nature of a relationship, how do you measure the qualities of a relationship, and what are the tools necessary for a strategic management approach to public relations? Thus, as a researcher, I am a habitual problem solver. I look for problems, and I take pleasure in developing theories to solve the problems.
- How have you developed a research path/stream over the course of your career? Have you ever left that path, and if so, why?
Fifty years ago, I had no idea of what I would be researching today. I started with one interesting problem: How and why do people communicate? When I had a theoretical answer to that question, another problem suggested itself: What is a public? When I discovered that organizations generally tried to communicate to their predesignated publics (but not with their actual publics) without much effect, I asked why organizations practice public relations in such an ineffective way? That question led to a theory of public relations behavior that eventually produced the models of public relations and the dimensions that now make up those models. Then, however, I had to ask what effective public relations is. That question produced an evaluative theory for public relations programs and a relationship theory to explain and evaluate the overall contribution of public relations to organizations, publics, and society, Eventually, all of these questions came together in the Excellence study, where we asked what characteristics of a public relations function, the organization itself, and the environment are most likely to provide value for the organization and publics and to produce communication programs through which organizations and publics communicate effectively with each other and cultivate quality long-term relationships. In short, I never really had a research plan or path in mind at the beginning of my career. I started with one interesting problem, which led to another interesting problem, and so on. I have been on a path my entire career, but I never really knew where that path would take me. I have been an explorer.
- There’s lots of advice out there for pre-tenured faculty. What research-based advice do you have for associate professors looking to move to full professor? (But if you have great advice for the pre-tenured among us, feel free to offer that as well!)
To become a full professor, I believe you have to become known for something—to make an important contribution by solving an important problem. Generally, you do that by constructing a series of studies related to that problem that are published in important journals or in a book. You have to do the same thing to become an associate professor, but to a lesser degree. At that point, you need to have identified a problem and have begun to publish good research related to that problem. Early in my career, it was much easier to become known for something because there were so few scholars in the field and so few theories. Today, it is much more difficult because we have lots of scholars and lots of theories. Unfortunately, I believe that too many young scholars think that they have to attack and discredit theories we already have in order to make a name for themselves—a process that I describe as destructive criticism. That is not necessary. There usually are theoretical problems within the theories we have that can be resolved through constructive criticism and research. There also are other theories that can be used to address the same problems that seem to have been resolved with older theories. The solutions are different, but different solutions to the same problems have value. Finally, there are many research problems that we haven’t yet recognized and solved. For example, digital public relations offers many new research problems. Many of these problems can be solved with classical theories. Others cannot. In short, life (including life in public relations) is filled with problems. To be successful, we must recognize the important problems and solve them.
- What are your thoughts on helping PR practitioners find and utilize PR research? How can academics help improve this?
Public relations professionals become interested in research when they believe that it helps to solve the problems they experience in their work. That is why it is important to work in the profession for long enough to understand its problems and to work with professionals to understand what problems they are asked to solve and how they think. That doesn’t mean, however, that we should allow practitioners to define all of our research problems for us. Many get stuck on one problem—for example, how can I get more media coverage for my clients? Others have only one solution (one theory) for a lot of problems—for example, what they know how to do or what a PR firm can offer (such as media pitching or information campaigns). As scholars, therefore, we need to expand the problem-recognition capacities of practitioners. That’s not easy to do. As long as they are earning a salary or making money for a firm doing the same things over and over, they won’t recognize new problems—such as how to develop a strategic management role for public relations—and they won’t learn. People recognize new problems when their situations change, so we have to look for changes affecting practitioners that open their minds to new ideas. Examples have been the call to evaluate and explain the value of public relations and the entirely new situation created by digital media. To recognize these changes, again, scholars must be active in the profession. We can be change agents, but we have to be aware of the situations in which change is required.
- What directions do you see or hope PR research takes over the next 5 years? 10 years?
As I said in one of the last journal articles I wrote, called Furnishing the edifice: Ongoing research on public relations as a strategic management function, I would like to see public relations scholars flesh out a strategic management role for public relations. There are lots of research questions remaining about what that role is, the tools required for that role, and the institutionalization of that role in the minds of organizational executives, journalists, and the population at large. I would like public relations to be than a messaging function that tries to publicize an organization and to persuade publics to do what the organization wants. I would like it to be a true profession that serves publics as well as organizations.
In addition, public relations researchers have an enormous opportunity from the digital revolution. Digital media truly make symmetrical, interactive, or dialogical communication possible and indeed may make it mandatory. In addition, the advanced metrics available in data bases provided by digital media offer enormous possibilities for research and environmental scanning. We need to use these data bases as a way to listen to publics, identify problems faced by publics, and to observe and measure the quality of relationships between organizations and publics. As scholars, we also need to learn how to use these data bases to test our theories.
- What trends in public relations scholarship have you observed throughout your career?
Typically, someone gets a new idea for a research problem or a theory and then everyone else jumps on the bandwagon. Two examples from my career are public relations roles and public relations models. Another is crisis communication. We have hundreds of studies of crisis public relations, which actually is not a common public relations problem for practitioners. We need to move forward and out, not just keep replicating the same studies over and over without seeming to learn anything. I think the examples of roles and models are instructive. Public relations roles have evolved into the strategic management function of public relations—well beyond the classic technician and manager roles. Models of public relations have evolved into dimensions of public relations behavior and to strategies for cultivating organization-public relationships. Crisis communication theories also can be integrated into relationship cultivation strategies. What is the trend? Too much blind acceptance and not enough constructive thinking.
- What is the most important thing to remember about doing PR research?
Always keep recognizing new problems and always continue to think about how to solve those problems—either by using existing public relations theories, adapting theories from other disciplines, modifying existing theories, or constructing completely new theories. At the same time, don’t try to destroy older theories if they have successfully solved problems in the past but don’t seem to solve new ones. The same theories most likely will be reinvented in the future, and future scholars will think they are new.