Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Poll Dancing: PR's Perceived Image

A new Gallup poll, as reported in PR Daily, reveals that more people have a negative view of  PR and advertising. Such polls about the public's view of PR  and other professions are common. That PR is viewed "negatively" is also not unusual. But that's the quick conclusion and not the full story.

First of all, a little critical thinking about polls, which are often taken as gospel or solid science but are really a mere snapshot. First, this  poll could have a context effect in that PR is considered along side  other professions. Is this a valid view of PR or one relative to other professions?

Also, PR and advertising are lumped  together. While the professions overlap (our major at GVSU combines them), the public view of each may be different.

The scale--positive, neutral, negative--also indicates  this is not a real measure of attitudes about the various professions. Mere positive/negative reaction is not an indicator of valence, or strength of opinion. The high neutrals  on most responses could indicate a lack of knowledge. Put yourself in a survey-takers position: are you positive/neutral/negative on the "retail industry"? I worked in a grocery store during high school and college and I shop for groceries--I have no idea what my opinion is about the grocery industry. Far more people have experiences with groceries than they do with PR, so on what basis do they rate PR?

That's the biggest question, which goes unanswered in this poll--what are the CAUSES of public opinion about PR. I can answer  that a bit from other research.

This summer I was part  of a panel at the annual Association of Educators in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) in St. Louis discussing "PR in Pop Culture." The panel was based off the work of Joe Saltzman who directs the Image of the Journalist in Pop Culture (IJPC) at  the University of Southern California. Professor Saltzman also completed an impressive and comprehensive DVD of the portrayal of PR in movies and television. Others on the panel shared their own research on PR's image in broadcast entertainment as well as novels. Essentially, public relations has been portrayed negatively or incompletely over the years. However, the researchers did say it was getting better more recently. But we can conclude that the entertainment media stereotypes of PR is a partial cause of the public's perception.

Lots  of other research shows that the news media doesn't give fair shake to the reality of what PR people do. Journalists typically encounter only the media relations aspect  of the job and tend to portray that as the full story. They are also prone to describing PR with negative cliche such as "stunt" or "gimmick," or they diminish the value of PR by saying "just" PR or "mere" PR.

However, while media cultivation theory would say this affects the public's view about PR, a recent academic study shows it's not so bad. Respondents to a telephone survey viewed PR as having an important role in society and disagreed that it is damage control or an attempt to hide something. They did see it as primarily media relations, but at least the view wasn't mostly negative as the recent Gallup poll suggests.

As I noted on the panel about PR in pop culture, public attitudes are not usually strong. People with no real understanding or experience with PR answer the survey because they were asked to and quickly select an easy response, often with little considered thought. Because attitudes are not strong, they also are not stable--they can change quickly. I've witnessed this more  than once, such as when a colleague in a faculty meeting comments that something they saw was "just PR" and then after the meeting asks me if one of my students can help them promote something they're working on. It's like people who are critical of lawyers until they need one.

So the lesson is don't get too emotional about these polls. Maybe what we need is a poll about the public's attitude about polls.

Finally, if you want to help improve the public's education and therefore  perception of the PR profession, I have two suggestions:

  • Get a copy of the book "It's Not Just PR" and route it through your office and share it or recommend it to friends;
  • Pay attention to PRSA's campaign "The Business Case for Public Relations" and participate as you can by sharing information with colleagues in your organization or with your clients. Rosanna Fisk (@Fiskey on Twitter), a fellow panelist  with me in St. Louis, is leading this effort.

Monday, August 29, 2011

A Gregarious Introvert on Social Media

"Happy New Year." That's what they say this time of year on college campuses, as a new academic year begins. Since we're appropriating a phrase from January I thought I may as well engage in a tradition undertaken at the beginning of the calendar year and make a new year's resolution.

Here it is: I will be less social.

I've already gotten started over this past summer. It seems a paradox, that with more time on my hands I've engaged in social media less. But during the school year, when the frenetic demands of a professor's responsibility require my being almost constantly plugged in, monitoring and contributing to Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn etc. is a natural extension. But in the summer, a time when I enjoy being offline, outside, and more heavily into literature that exceeds 140 character bursts, I have found it easy to be absent from the surge of status updates, the legions of links, the torrent of tweets.

I have also found it delightful, refreshing, and increasingly, necessary.

A university administrator complimented me late last year by saying my extroverted nature made me well suited for additional administrative responsibilities. My first thought was that when administrators compliment you like this, it generally precedes more work. But more importantly, I wondered how it came to be that I am considered an extrovert.

There are two common misconceptions about extroverts and introverts. One is the definition, that extroverts like to be around other people and introverts like to be alone. Not true. In fact, it's not about liking other people or not, but the manner of drawing and renewing energy. Extroverts get charged up by social interaction, and introverts regain energy with time alone. The second misconception is that people are either one or the other, when the reality is that people fall at many points along an extraversion-intraversion continuum. In other words, people have bits of both characteristics to differing degrees.

It's interesting to me how this may play out on social media. The most active tweeters and updaters and commenters may be those closer  to the extraversion end of the scale. This is something for PR professionals with social media responsibility to think about as you engage and segment your publics online.

As for me, I have determined I'm an interesting blend, a 'gregarious introvert.' I truly enjoy social interaction. But at the same time I need more time alone. Maybe I should make the lyrics to "Cool Change" by the Little River Band my mantra, or my ringtone.

It was an unintentional experiment this summer that led me to this conclusion about myself. I dove into a stack of books, both novels and academic tomes. I did projects in the yard. My daily runs were longer. I spent more time on a kayak or bike than in the office. I had more lengthy conversations with my wife (who, by the way, is one of the most social people I know but who so far has refused a Twitter or Facebook account). In all the above activities, I checked email and therefore social media less frequently.

The shocking outcome? I am the better for it. I felt both more calm and more energetic. I felt my thought processes improved.

Actually, this should not be a surprise. The benefits of solitude and deep cognitive activity have long been advocated. Here are a few examples:

I notice now that I've been getting back into the swing of things that social media of course has many advantages in terms of information flow and maintaining distant relationships. But it also has a dangerous negative effect in its cacophony of childish voices. At the beach recently I saw children screaming "watch me!" and then they would do something entirely unremarkable and receive their parents' effusive yet obligatory praise. Too often, that's social media. I found much greater benefit being alone atop a dune, getting reacquainted with my inmost thoughts and true self. In view of the Lake Michigan horizon, the words of the ancient psalmist floated through the modern clutter: "be still, and know that I am God." Indeed, what don't we hear when we think we're "engaged"?

So, Happy New Year. After a brief summer break, you'll be seeing me more active again in blogging, tweeting, Facebooking and other forms of media and personal interaction. But I will also seek more balance and time offline. I'll be thinking deep thoughts, reading long texts, and recharging myself. I know I'll be better for it.