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Students Learn Measurement
Research program moves undergrad public relations students from the classroom to the field.
by Peter Kowalski
Between lessons about the history of public relations, the secrets to a winning press release, and how to design a strong community relations program, students at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communication are learning about public relations measurement in a new program that is one of the first of its kind at the undergraduate level.
Led by newly-appointed assistant professor Craig Carroll, almost 100 introductory PR students have been tasked with the design and execution of measurement programs for eighteen non-profit organizations. The projects use media measurement technology provided by research firms CustomScoop and KDPaine & Partners in a $500,000 gift in kind to the school that help students collect, analyze and report on press coverage.
"Public relations is increasingly a research-based profession. Hopefully this will help demystify a lot of the research these students will see in their professional lives," said Carroll, who specializes in the relationship between corporate reputation and the news media. "By having this program in an introductory course, we are emphasizing that research is not a nice-to-have in public relations—it's a must-have."
Students are working in groups of five to analyze the online press of organizations that include Susan G. Komen For The Cure, the American Cancer Society and the Special Olympics. Each student is responsible for rating fifty articles about their non-profit organization, based on a methodology designed by KDPaine & Partners, CustomScoop and Carroll. "Today’s students are so computer and Internet savvy that it makes sense to give them the leading technology tools as part of their educational curriculum," said Chip Griffin, CEO of CustomScoop.
Teams worked with Griffin's firm and KDPaine & Partners to tailor their projects to the needs of their non-profits after analyzing web sites and press releases to detect key messaging strategies and better understand issues that their organizations may be advocating. Groups built research questions, constructed measurable communications objectives, and discussed the role of public relations in achieving organizational goals.
Understanding the importance of goals, objectives and messages in public relations is a core part of the course curriculum, and the program has allowed students to see the impact of well-designed strategies on media outcomes.
"Seeing how these students have risen to the occasion has been beyond my wildest expectations," said Katie Delahaye Paine, CEO of KDPaine & Partners. "They've been able to leverage their classroom knowledge, CustomScoop's collection tools and our Dashboard technology to create world-class programs that are smart, targeted and efficient. With a little help from us, they've really been able to do it themselves."
The UNC-Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communication is regularly ranked among the top five journalism schools in the nation.
Students have praised the program, but noted the amount of work involved in executing a research program for actual organizations. "Before hand, I was definitely oblivious to the research that went on," said junior Josephine Butler, an advertising major in the course, whose research project has focused on Trout Unlimited. "I wouldn't say the project has been easy, but in terms of real-life experiences it's been very important. Now I'm interested in strategic planning and research with public relations and advertising."
Butler's team is analyzing media coverage of Trout Unlimited, America's leading trout and salmon conservation organization, and two other animal conservation organizations to better understand the public relations tactics the non-profits were able to employ to advocate their causes.
Her sentiments were echoed by Stephanie Nobles, a junior journalism and public relations student whose project examines the media coverage of Girls, Inc. "It amazes me how much we can learn about the public relations of their organization just by taking a look at their coverage in the media. I feel honored helping a non-profit organization, and privileged to learn about these advanced research techniques."
To date, students have analyzed more than 4,000 articles, and are preparing to report their results and make recommendations to their organizations. The studies have also served as a test for a new measure of message integrity developed by Carroll that examines whether a desired message became garbled after undergoing the editorial process.
The final results of this semester's work will be used to support further research into non-profit organizations and the media by future students. This semester's teams did offer some advice to students and professionals considering a measurement program. Sarah Schweppe, a sophomore studying public relations, suggested that green researchers "know what you're looking for before you go into it, but at the same time be open to other things, and willing to change your angle."
Which, by another name, can be considered support for mixed a priori and emergent designs in content analysis.
Peter Kowalski is a Project Manager at KDPaine & Partners. He holds a B.A. in Public Relations and Russian from the University of Southern California, Annenberg School of Journalism. While there, he worked closely with Dr. Craig Carroll on projects involving computer-based text analysis for campaign measurement, Weblog taxonomy and editorial-page content analysis.