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Prof. James E. Grunig: The greatest problem in public relations is not the lack of measurement but the lack of conceptualization

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James Grunig PRRom

Conceptualizing Quantitative Research in Public Relations. Part 1

Public relations practitioners in the United States first became interested in measurement and evaluation in the 1970s, although discussion of the topic has exploded in the last ten years. The beginning of this explosion of interest occurred around October 10, 1996, when the U.S. Institute for Public Relations, the magazine Inside PR, and the Ketchum Public Relations Research and Measurement Department invited twenty-one leading U.S. public relations practitioners, counselors, researchers, and academicians to a summit meeting to discuss and then define minimum standards for measuring the effectiveness of public relations.

The group developed and agreed on a report describing the state of the art in public relations evaluation (Lindenmann, 1997), and in 1998 the group formally became a Measurement Commission under the sponsorship of the Institute for Public Relations. Since that time, the Measurement Commission has met four times each year, issued a number of publications, and held annual Measurement Summits since 2003. At the same time, public relations firms and research firms have developed a number of tools to measure and evaluate communication programs; and discussion of metrics has dominated public relations periodicals and conferences.

I believe it is unfortunate, however, that the terms “measurement” and “metrics” have been used more often to describe this revolution in thinking about public relations than the term “research.” Measurements are tools that researchers use to test their ideas. Public relations programs result from ideas developed by practitioners, just as research hypotheses result from ideas of academic scholars. As Manfred Rühl points out, measurement by itself has little value unless it is preceded by conceptualization. Measurement is only half of what a researcher does, and it probably is the least important half. More important is the ability to conceptualize—to think logically and systematically about concepts, definitions, measures, and the relationships among them.

Academic scholars have known how to measure and evaluate the effects of communication programs since the 1950s, and a new breed of scholars began to conduct theoretical research on public relations in the 1960s. Academic research on public relations has grown exponentially since that time, but there still are few public relations scholars compared to the numbers in other communication disciplines. Public relations practitioners today have access to an exploding number of research firms, research divisions of public relations firms, and in-house research departments. Many practitioners have training in research methods themselves. However, most public relations practice today still does not include research; and most of that research is limited to measuring the short-term effects of marketing communication and media relations programs. Although great progress has been made in academic research on public relations, most practitioners and applied public relations researchers do not seem to be aware of this research.

As a result, I believe, the greatest problem in public relations is not the lack of measurement but the lack of conceptualization. Metrics abound, but I believe that a large number of applied researchers and public relations practitioners use metrics without knowing what concepts they are measuring. For example, media monitoring is often used to try to show the value of the public relations function—a metric gathered at one level of analysis to show an outcome at a higher level of analysis. Therefore, if we are to use research to improve the practice of public relations we must improve our conceptualization of public relations itself and of the effects we are seeking when we practice it. In this chapter, I will explain conceptualization and how it can be used to identify relevant measures that can be used in quantitative research to formulate and evaluate public relations ideas. The process of conceptualization applies also to qualitative research, a topic addressed by L. Grunig in Chapter 6 of this book, so I will limit most of my discussion to quantitative research in this chapter.

I will begin this chapter by discussing differences between academic research on and for public relations and research that is conducted in the practice of public relations. Next, I will discuss the nature of conceptualization. The chapter then will develop a conceptual framework that can be used to guide research in the practice of public relations. It will conclude by describing ongoing academic research that has identified concepts and tools that can enhance public relations practice.

Research In, On, and for Public Relations

I believe there is a great deal of confusion among both practitioners and academic scholars in the public relations discipline about their differing roles and the extent to which their work complements each other. Practitioners often seem to believe that academics are practitioners like themselves who have chosen to teach and conduct research rather than practice. As a result, they often think that most academic research is useless because they see no way to apply it in their work. They also typically believe that academics should learn from practitioners and use what they learn in teaching the next generation of practitioners.

Academics, on the other hand, typically see themselves as critics and analysts of the public relations profession more than as practitioners. Although academics hope their criticism and analysis will improve the profession, they do not believe that all of their research must have practical applications. They  express dismay when practitioners show little interest in research to develop the profession from a broad perspective. They generally believe that practitioners should learn from academics to improve or change their practice. Academic scholars are willing to help practitioners understand how to conduct research in the practice of public relations; but, for the most part, they are more interested in conducting basic theoretical research on the profession.

To overcome these misconceptions of each other, we must realize that public relations is a profession. In professional disciplines such as law, medicine, education, and management, academic researchers and practitioners interact and learn from each other. Each, however, contributes something different to the body of knowledge. When academic scholars conduct research on the profession, they often develop ideas for the profession—that is, ideas that flow from basic research that practitioners can use in the profession. To develop those ideas, however, academic scholars must understand the problems that practitioners’ experience; and they must interact with practitioners to understand whether their ideas are useful in practice.

If we are to understand the nature of both academic research and applied research in public relations, therefore, we can begin by distinguishing among these three types of research:

  • Research in public relations is conducted by practitioners as part of the practice of public relations or research conducted by professional researchers in research firms or research units in public relations firms or in-house public relations Academic public relations scholars often conduct such research for public relations practitioners or train applied researchers to do it. However, research in public relations generally does not bring academic rewards such as promotion, tenure, or salary increases because it generally does not lead to a broad theoretical understanding of the public relations profession unless it is based on research on the profession.
  • Research on public relations is usually conducted by academic scholars using a theoretical framework they construct. At times, professional associations, public relations firms, and trade publications conduct research on public relations, although they usually do not do so from a theoretical Most scholars who conduct research on the profession do so in order to identify best practices and to improve the profession. The most extensive such research project was the fifteen-year Excellence project that my colleagues and I conducted with funding from the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) Research Foundation (L. Grunig, J. Grunig, & Dozier, 2002). Other scholars, who call themselves critical scholars in contrast to what they call instrumental scholars, conduct research on the profession to expose its negative activities and what they believe to be weaknesses in the theories of scholars working to improve the profession (e.g., Curtin & Gaither, 2005; Durham, 2005; Holzhausen & Voto, 2002; Leitch & Neilson, 2001; L’Etang & Pieczka, 1996; McKie, 2001; Motion & Weaver, 2005). Usually, but not always (an exception is Holzhausen & Voto, 2002), critical scholars have little interest in conducting research for the profession.
  • Research for public relations usually results from research on the profes sion, except for the research of critical For example, researchers have identified best practices in crisis communication, issues management, environmental scanning, and media relations and then diffused those best practices to practitioners. Others have developed theoretical ideas such as symmetrical communication or a strategic managerial role, as we did in the Excellence study and research that preceded it, and use such ideas in the teaching of new practitioners and diffuse them to current practitioners. These best practices and theoretical ideas then can be used and evaluated in the practice of public relations—thus fusing research on the practice, for the practice, and in the practice. Such fusion is the hallmark of a true profession.

The primary focus of the current discussion of metrics in public relations is research in the profession. Most current research in the profession, however, lacks a basic conceptual foundation. In addition, most of it fails to use research on and for the profession to develop a conceptual framework. The next section, therefore, will explain conceptualization; and the rest of the chapter conceptualizes how research in the profession can be conducted and how researchers working in the profession can use academic research conducted on and for the profession to improve their conceptualization of the independent and dependent variables they are measuring.

In the next chapter: The Nature of Conceptualization


Grunig, J. E.: Conceptualizing quantitative research in public relations. In B. Van Ruler, A. Tkalac Verčič, & D. Verčič, (Eds.). Public relations metrics (pp. 88-119). New York and London: Routledge, 2008. Republish with the permission of author


James E. Grunig is Professor Emeritus of Public Relations, University of Maryland


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