IPR President Tina McCorkindale notices that PR practitioners still have a great amount of work to do in applying the findings of the behavioral sciences to their profession. One important way to make progress is giving the behavioral sciences a more prominent place in the PR curriculum.
The Institute for Public Relations (IPR) was founded in 1956 to advance research into the science behind efficient business communication. IPR general manager Tina McCorkindale and I have worked together on an IPR piece on evidence-based media trainings in the last months. The approach is very typical of McCorkindale: under her tenure the IPR does not only work for, but also together with PR practitioners. I asked Tina a series of questions on how she sees the industry’s progression towards a more evidence-based practice.
The research arm of the industry
Jo: Could you, also for the European readers who might not be so familiar with your institute, briefly explain what your value proposition to practitioners is.
Tina: You can call us the research arm of the industry. We spun out of PRSA and are now a completely independent non-profit organization We basically sponsor academic research into what makes efficient business communication and help translate the findings into actionable viewpoints for practitioners.
Although, as you said, we are less familiar to a European audience then we are to American practitioners, we aspire to have global reach. In Asia for example, we play an important role as a sponsor of local academic research because there are no other actors who will take on that role in that market. So we fill a gap in Asia.
Jo: When you say that you bring science to the profession, we are mainly talking about behavioral sciences, correct?
Tina: Mainly behavioral sciences, yes, but there is more. We also seek to inject findings from the human sciences, sociological insights for example, and finally we also help bring a sound scientific approach to measurement.
Jo: One of the deliverables of IPR that I personally appreciate most are the digests of academic research where you summarize and vulgarize academic research. How do you select what to fold into your digests and what not to?
Tina: That is not always an easy decision. We try to select those articles that are poised to benefit the profession the most, so almost never fundamental research, but mostly studies that yield insights where practitioners can get to work with. Practitioners really need theory-driven research that offers a framework with answers to their questions.
Jo: PR practitioners do not have the time or the skills to interpret academic research in great depth themselves. That is exactly the main reason why IPR exists. I was a bit surprised to hear Nikki Usher of the University of Illinois say in an article in Strategies & Tactics a few months ago that PR professionals need to do a better job at scrutinizing academic research. This academic was asking PR professions to check among other things whether articles are peer-reviewed, and even examen whether the review itself is legitimate. Are we in agreement that such level of scrutiny is not realistic?
Tina: PR practitioners examining peer review? You are right, that is a tall order. You know, whether an article is peer reviewed or not is to me not even the crux of the matter. There are flaws even in peer reviewed articles and one of the issues we have with peer review is that it are not always the most knowledgeable people in a specific domain that are doing the review. I do think that practitioners should make the effort to go to the original source as much as possible however and be critical of what they read.
Behavioral scientists are a rare find in corporate communications departments.
No access to behavioral scientists
Jo: PR has been late to the game when it comes to applying insights from the behavioral sciences. Why is that?
Tina: Advertising has always worked with more substantial budgets than PR has. Many large marketing departments have had behavioral scientists on staff for decades. Larger budgets allow for multi-disciplinary teams.
Jo: Yet another argument to break down that wall between marketing and PR if you ask me. Or let us at least put those behavioral scientists in a shared service center from which they can also cater to the PR team.
Tina: Absolutely. Behavioral scientists are a rare find in corporate communications. The subject is also not or not enough taught in PR programs. So there are more limited budgets in the PR departments than there are in marketing, and we also have people leading the PR departments who are not as sensitized to making use of behavioral scientists in the way their marketing peers are. And the PR managers will, to make matters worse, at times confuse data scientists with behavioral scientists, but these are absolutely not the same! [laughs]
Outdated school curriculum
Jo: Why are behavioral sciences still nowhere to be found in the PR curriculum in 2019?
Tina: It is a relatively new major. PR programs are decades old, so that is really very young still. This curriculum still has to mature. But I agree that there is a dire need to get with the times.
Jo: What can PR practitioners do to practice an evidence-based approach in their day to day work? We agree that following up on all the latest additions to the vast corpus of academic research is not an option. So what is within reach then?
Tina: A sound scientific epistemological mindset will help. Understanding how you know what you know. Challenge yourself and others, all of the time. An evidence-based approach to PR entails that nothing is ever taken at face value, that no approach is ever followed because a certain thing has been done in the past. Initiate a conversation with your colleagues or client and ask them why they propose a certain course of action.
Nudging is not intrinsically unethical. PR practitioners have been looking to persuade their audiences for decades.
Ethical dilemmas of nudges
Jo: With the steady growth of insight in how people form their attitudes and make decisions, what do you see in store for us in the next ten to twenty years?
Tina: Companies will know more and more about your preferences through myriads of data points. They will be able to predict your behavior and tailor their messages to you. This will trigger ethical concerns. Actually, those concerns have been raised in the past already, just think about the public discussion that ensued some years ago when we found out in the United States that Target had become very efficient at discovering when women had become pregnant, based on their changing buying patterns.
Jo: Has the IPR been implied in these kinds of ethical discussions already?
Tina: No, but that big debate is something that awaits us for sure. In the meantime, we emphasize ethics in all of the research that we sponsor. Ethics have become a very important topic in behavioral economics. The mere fact of trying to influence people’s decisions is not unethical as such by the way. It is something PR practitioners have been doing for many years through how they communicate to their audiences. Behavioral economics now adds nudging to the equation. Crafting a choice architecture is conceptually not different from crafting words for maximum effect. With one exception: if the choice architecture is designed in a way that only serves the company or organization that runs the campaign, you have a problem.
AVEs (almost) disappearing
Jo: Of course, I can not omit a question on measurement. The annual AMEC conference is just behind us. How is the industry doing when it comes to applying modern measurement practices?
Tina: We are slowly but gradually doing better. I hear less and less about AVEs for example although they will still pop up occasionally. I was amazed for example to read on PR sites that covered the much hyped incident of the Starbucks cup showing up in a Game of Thrones episode how much that cup was worth in terms of advertising dollars. So yes, old industry habits die hard, I guess.
Did you enjoy this interview with Tina McCorkindale?
You might also like my interview with Paul Gibbons where he talks about the need for change managers to apply more scientifically grounded approaches.