"Social media are giving public relations theory a workout," writes guest editor Tom Kelleher, introducing the "brisk circuit of scholarship" he has brought together for a special edition of the Journal of Public Relations Research, Vol 22:3.
- Media Catching and the Journalist–Public Relations Practitioner Relationship: How Social Media are Changing the Practice of Media Relations, by Richard D. Waters, Natalie T. J. Tindall, and Timothy S. Morton
- Organizational Image Construction in a Fragmented Online Media Environment, by Dawn Gilpin
- A Losing Strategy: The Impact of Nondisclosure in Social Media on Relationships, by Kaye D. Sweetser
- Online Relationship Management in a Presidential Campaign: A Case Study of the Obama Campaign’s Management of Its Internet-Integrated Grassroots Effort, by Abbey Levenshus
- Diffusion of Social Media Among Public Relations Practitioners in Health Departments Across Various Community Population Sizes, by Elizabeth Avery, Ruthann Lariscy, Ellie Amador, Tayna Ickowitz, Charles Primm, and Abbey Taylor
Several of the papers set out to test the rhetoric of social media through grounded anlaysis. As Sweetser rightly points out, "the field finds itself facing more case studies of what not to do with little empirical data to support the anecdotes".
Her study begins from the view that if social media makes the relationships between organisations and publics are indeed little different that between individuals, it would be useful to examine whether the same conditions that damage interpersonal relationships also damage organization–public relationships.
"As Gallicano (2009) pointed out, the majority of public relations scholarship focuses on cultivation strategies and outcomes with regard to relationship theory. Few studies investigate concepts that damage relationships, as this study aims to do.
This leads her to two research questions:
RQ1: To what extent are relationship strategies correlated with the relational outcome of credibility?
RQ2: To what extent is there a difference in the relational outcome ofcredibility based on ethical public relations practice?
And to the hypothesis that "An organization’s failure to disclose in a social media environment will
damage perceptions of relationship strategies".
Sweetser sets out to test this - commonly held - hypothesis with empirical research, namely an experiment conducted in August 2009, featuring a video used in BMW's ‘‘Rampenfest’ social media campaign. The car-maker created a series of 'mockumentary' videos about a town in Bavaria that was attempting to build a
ramp from which the town would launch a BMW across the Atlantic, and posted them on YouTube.
The video series was presented on what appeared to be the personal YouTube account of the director, with no mention of support or production backing from BMW.
The researcher showerd the video to 509 students, telling one group it was created by the company, but BMW denied producing it, a second that BMW admitted it was a produced viral video from the beginning, and a control which didn't see the video.
The questions were designed to see whether non-disclosure affected the subjects' perception of BMW as an ethical organisation, and what influence it had on its credibility.
It is a complicated argument, and as always with PR research it is very hard to screen out external/ environmental factors which may heavily influence results, but Sweetser feels confident in asserting that "viewers take a viral video at face value when viewing a piece they know the company made; however, when viewers
discover that an organization lied, it challenges and erodes their opinion of the organization."