On October 25, Dr. Donald Wright, a public relations professor at Boston University’s College of Communication, shared his findings in a presentation entitled “Social Media Research, Measurement, and Evaluation in the Public Relations Industry.”
Wright specializes in corporate communication, and has published many books on public relations, in addition to being an internationally recognized professor across five continents. He was also the Harold Burson Professor and Chair from 2010-2015.
Indeed, Wright started his presentation with a quote from Harold Burson, founder and chairman of Burson-Marsteller, one of the world’s largest public relations agencies.
“The successful public relations program starts with baseline research, which facilitates measuring the results of future public relation initiatives,” he said. “You learn quickly whether you spent funds wisely.”
He went on to say that not everything that happens in public relations is, in fact, public relations. There is no single definition. Rather, it’s an umbrella term that encompasses jobs such as press agents and publicists. On a management level, people in public relations research the front end to plan out their communication and marketing strategies.
Wright went on to emphasize the importance of research, measurement, and evaluation in public relations. “It can’t be PR without research,” he said. The need for research, he added, has even been established by other public relations researchers internationally.
Wright has been researching social media and the internet for the past 20 years, throughout his professional public relations career.
Wright’s project, the subject of his presentation, is a 10-year analysis consisting of web-based survey questionnaires and working hand in hand with the Public Relations Society of America. The sampling has been largely judgmental or purposive, but it has not been possible to generate results because more research still needs to be done.
“It became harder and harder for people to participate over the years,” Wright said, as the internet rapidly changed.
However, an overwhelming 4,586 respondents sets Wright’s research apart from others. Especially compared to research led by people who work full time in the public relations industry.
Wright addressed that the strongest support for measurements in the public relations industry is for content analysis measures, which are easily conducted. “It’s ridiculous to me how much people can charge for content analysis,” he said.
The biggest challenge is conducting research on attitudes, opinions, and behaviors.
Social and digital media are not measured comprehensively, according to Wright. He shared that most organizations do not set aside sufficient research budgets to measure and evaluate their research effectively.
“It’s like going to the emergency room and finding out it’s too expensive to do an x-ray,” Wright said.
Additionally, there is a lack of training and skill that public relations practitioners get for more comprehensive research and measurement techniques, especially for those who measure attitude opinions and behaviors in research.
Finally, due to the nature of the most highly successful companies that provide content analysis services, the majority of PR employees are not able to conduct research that measures attitudes, opinions, and behaviors. It is more complicated than hard numbers and statistical data.
“There are so many methodological flaws,” Wright said, when it comes to research and the nature of technology’s ability to capture it.
An example he provided is trying to measure the engagement of a person based on the time he or she spends on a website: The person might become distracted by other factors, such as a phone call or conversation. This results in the data showing a longer engagement period than the person actually provided.
Wright has been presenting research to like-minded practitioners and academics at the annual International Public Relations Research Conference for many years. He also regularly writes for public relations publications, such as Public Relations Journal and Public Relations Society of America.
When it comes to making connections in the industry, Wright draws a parallel with a next-door neighbor who supports different political parties or different religious values. He does not talk about his work with friends he made in the public relations world, saying that it is a “touchy area” to study measurement engagement for public relations research.
Jennifer Suryadjaja, Staff Writer
Jennifer is a junior at Boston University majoring in communication studies. Born in a small town in Central Java, Indonesia, Jennifer keeps her mind open toward moving and adapting to different cities. She is also minoring in sociology, as she is interested in understanding more about people and their behaviors socially. On campus, Jennifer is also a writer for the Daily Free Press and Spoon University, and she is a host on WTBU News. Her favorite activity is anything related to brunch or coffee.