Prosocial communication goes global – Scholar Q&A

August 21, 2023 • Jonathan McVerry

Capizzo Team

A team of Page Center scholars is taking a global look at prosocial communication, particularly the role of public relations in helping international organizations implement initiatives based on stakeholder needs and cultural values. Scholars Luke Capizzo, University of Missouri; Jeannette Iannacone, University of Tennessee Knoxville; and Drew T. Ashby-King, East Carolina University, hope to expand the literature that, to date, has had a narrower, more localized focus. With more and more issues becoming global concerns, the scholars say it's important to reveal practices that effectively and ethically communicate to different groups. The scholars will examine practitioners at international organizations in four understudied countries and their prosocial communication practices. Through interviews and textual analysis, the team will study how these organizations manage cultural issues. This project is part of the Center’s 2023 call for research proposals. Iannacone and Ashby-King are first-time Page Center scholars. Capizzo has been funded multiple times since becoming a scholar in 2020.

How did the team come together? What’s the origin story of this project?

Ashby-King: From a scholarly perspective, our research agendas often find themselves in conversation with one another. When the research call came up, we reached out to each other and started putting something together. We found that taking Luke and I’s work, which looks at corporate social advocacy, and some of the more traditional pieces of prosocial literature with Jeannette’s expertise in global public relations and transnationalism, we can take this avenue beyond what is a very, very narrow U.S.-centered focus on advocacy and social issues communication that we see in the existing literature.

Based on your expertise and research interests, how does your team define prosocial communication?

Iannacone:  Prosocial communication is a process. This project is uncovering the steps, actions and meanings behind prosocial communication in different contexts … particularly contexts where we have the influence of different nations and cultures coming into play. What's expected? How does it get localized and actualized?

Capizzo: One of the challenges as a public relations scholar is to understand the places where the profession can act in a way that is societally beneficial and how it can help organizations do things in society's interest … not just an organization's interests. So, prosocial communication is what the public relations function is. To be prosocial, you have to have a society or you have to have a specific community whose interests you are keeping in mind. That has caused some challenges for organizations over many years. Different societies obviously have different interests. So, what might be prosocial in one context might not be in another.

And given the countries we picked … we are looking at Bangladesh, Botswana, Indonesia and Kenya … which are totally separate from the U.S. and Western Europe, organizations have to make some really difficult choices in terms of how they're managing their identities and their actions. They try to be as prosocial as possible in different places where those interests are really different.

Can you talk about your international collaborators and how you got connected?

Capizzo: I knew them beforehand, but they came from a lot of places in a lot of ways. We looked for people who we trusted and who we knew would be able to help bring in the professional experience and professional connections to get us interviews and data with some of the top practitioners in these countries. We’re really grateful and thrilled to be able to work with folks who have that professional experience, but also are on the academic side. They understand what we're trying to address in terms of theories and the kinds of questions that we need to ask to get at those things. We’re working with those participants in terms of data collection, and data analysis primarily to ensure that even if we are also sitting in the interviews that they're running the show. They know what things are going to be interesting and valuable.

Can you walk through the steps and your timeline and the types of results you expect?

Iannacone: We excitingly submitted our IRB application for this project because it’s a cross-institutional, cross-country collaboration. It has taken some extra steps to get things in order. Drew and I are also transitioning into new roles. There's been a lot of emails and conversations with the IRB. We had our first big team meeting, which was exciting. Most of August will be data collection. We've planned out this very intentional collaborative analysis plan that has us going in to listen to recordings, conversing within 72 hours about each specific interview, drafting plans for recoding that considers everyone's different perspectives and experiences to build on. Hopefully, by early to mid-fall, we should have gotten through most of the data collection and should be at the writing phase.

Capizzo: We're looking at multiple outputs from this. We consciously don't want to split things up by country. We want everything to be synthesized. That's really important to us. But there are different ways that we can look at this really rich data set of different questions that we can answer. That will take up more than one paper’s worth to find. So, we're excited to be able to dive in.

What is the importance of synthesizing across countries and not individualizing them? Can you expand on that?

Iannacone: Within global public relations, there has been a trend at points where we just focus on specific nations and what is happening with PR there. And while those are still really important pieces of literature, we think for these bigger concepts that are getting utilized more frequently and becoming more globalized, it's important to consider them in this transnational setting. Most of the time, we are not separate in our little national boxes, especially with regards to looking at multinational organizations. What are the impacts of transnationalism and globalization? How do we consider these concepts and practices and risks even because we have to acknowledge that prosocial communication comes with very different risks depending on context.

Ashby-King: You can take the U.S. sociopolitical context right now, for example, and in this one country that has a sense of shared social fabric, you have different people who have different ideas about what it means to be working in society's interests. So, that's a complex topic in and of itself with political ideology being a key divider at the moment. We got together and thought, “Well, hold on, we have all of that happening in one place and that dominates global conversations.” Is that showing up in other places? How do we try and subvert that … and that is what leads into this project.