The need for a better two-way relationship between researchers and practitioners

In 2011, I attended and presented research at an international gathering of 40 to 50 or so of the best researchers in crisis communication in the world. We had researchers from Asia, Europe, and North America attending and presenting their work in Denmark. In addition, the conference organizers worked to make sure this was an educational experience with a graduate student short course on crisis communication preceding the conference as well as a practical experience inviting many industry professionals to attend and speak.

Towards the end of the conference, we had a panel where three public relations professionals from Europe addressed this collection of eager students and learned scholars to address the divide between research and practice. Each presented his or her spiel about what they do, but it was during the Q&A session that one of my biggest professional frustrations was genuinely revealed — the disconnect between practitioners and research. Two moments in the conversation really illustrated the nature of the divide between research and practice.

Problem 1: Lack of Trust & Access

One of the ‘professional’ suggestions was that scholars needed to focus on practical recommendations for practitioners when they’re in the midst of a crisis. One of our colleagues indicated that one of the challenges for academics was getting access to organizations in crisis, therefore, would this professional be willing to give a researcher or research team confidential access while a crisis was ongoing. The response — of course not, but they could make 10-15 year old information available. At that point, this gentleman lost his audience because he had just spent a significant amount of time indicating that research needed to fill some knowledge gaps before it could be reliably used in practice but that the best he could do is deliver data that was irrelevant to modern practice.

While some crisis and PR researchers are practitioners, the reality is that ‘research’ that occurs in the midst of a crisis is limited and yet, we continue to see crisis messaging mishandled over and over again. The latest and clearest example was the tone deaf statement from the National Rifle Association in the U.S. — after several days of silence (also not a good thing) regarding the mass elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. The NRA is an organization with substantial resources and yet they, like so many organizations before them, communicated the wrong message at the wrong time.

There are still gaps in our knowledge and understanding of the most effective messaging for different types of crises. However, when researchers are denied access to public relations and crisis communication efforts it means that they will never improve. The lack of trust from practitioners is not only relatively insulting to scholars, but it’s counter productive. Scholars understand the importance of confidentiality, of the practical need for anonymity, and of the financial implications of all of this work. Yet, it seems clear that decision making practitioners still fail to see the value in scholarly contributions or scholars would be a part of the process.

A few scholars have gained access to organizations in crisis — for example Robert Heath — and not only is the research that they have produced incredibly value for its contributions to theory, but also to practice. So, when this collaboration between commercial and scholarly interests has occurred, it is been profitable for both. Most scholars are very interested in this collaboration, the challenge is finding organizations or industries that will do more than pay lip service to knowledge. Our meeting in Denmark personified the problem.

Problem 2: Assumptions of Relative Value

During this same panel, another of the professional panelists — a high ranking public relations professional in a multinational corporation — praised the research that she had seen during the conference, indicated that it was valuable but that frankly she didn’t have the time, the inclination, or the ability to read the research so it was really incumbent on the scholarly community to produce research briefs that she could quickly glance at. However, when questioned, she wouldn’t be willing to pay scholars for their time to condense their work into concise briefs that focused on the practical applications. And here the lady lost her audience.

What she clearly communicated is that she knew it was useful and valuable; however, the work wasn’t quite valuable enough to either spend her own time reading nor to have someone summarize it for her. Now, I know that most academic writing is fairly dense, boring, and frankly not crafted for lay audiences. I think that most scholars easily recognize that — we tend to be too wordy and too technical. Yet, the billions of dollars and thousands of lives that poor crisis planning and communication costs each yet would suggest it is probably worth professionals and industries laying out some cash for academics to provide briefs and translations. In retrospect, the BP crisis in the Gulf, Newscorp’s phone tapping crisis, Toyota’s car recall crisis, and even England’s failed bid for the World Cup can be attributed to poor risk and crisis management.

The Bottom Line: Build a Better Relationship

Scholars, on average, want to build better relationships with practitioners. This is not only because those who research things like crisis, risk, and strategic communication are inherently interested in the practical but also because it is in their professional best interests to do so. This gives them better data, better ways to help their students get real jobs, better opportunities for professional development, and a sense that their work isn’t just being read by other scholars and eager graduate students (if anyone at all).

Scholars are not willing to be treated like second class citizens — the years of work, the willingness to take the academic’s vow of poverty (relatively speaking to the private sector), and sincere interest in knowledge tend to make them impatient with practitioners whose professional bravado makes them careless as the aforementioned examples communicate. Yet, scholars also realize they have to adapt to the professional needs and interests of practitioners in order for their work to be useful and thus gain access.

So, what’s the price for practitioners? Very small — a positive attitude and willingness to work with scholars. If practitioners want something from scholars, they should be willing to offer something of value — for some scholars that will be pay (remember, most non-European scholars have a mortgage on their brains for the Ph.D.), for some scholars it will be access to data. It’s probably all up for negotiation. However, the point is that what scholars will demand is an interest in a two-way relationship.