Don Wright is the Harold Burson Professor and Chair in Public Relations at Boston University. His areas of specialization include crisis management, employee communications/internal relations, reputation management and social responsibility. Professor Wright has worked full-time in corporate, agency and university public relations, and has been a corporate communications consultant for three decades.
INTERVIEWER: This is March 22, 2012 and we are interviewing Donald Wright, the Harold Burson professor of public relations at Boston University. This is for the Page Center’s oral history project. Thanks for taking time out of your day to do this Don, we appreciate it.
WRIGHT: Well it’s a pleasure to be here with you. I’m a huge fan of the Arthur W. Page Society, and the Page Center so my pleasure, it’s an honor to be asked to do this.
INTERVIEWER: Great. As editor of Public Relations Journal, PR Journal, you’ve had a good perspective on current research in the field, what is the direction of research in public relations today, and what issues can we expect to see explored in the future?
WRIGHT: Well, the very nature of Public Relations Journal, the fact that it’s an online refereed, lined, reviewed journal. So essentially…certainly the nations and probably the world’s first public relations scholarly journal only published online. The turnaround time for an article to be accepted and then published within Public Relations Journal is very short. We’ve had situations where an article has been good enough and timely enough that maybe within a month after receiving it, it’s been published. And when you look at the other scholarly journals in public relations, it can take four, it can take five—I know of one situation with a piece of research that I was the author of, took six years to get published, so public relations is changing more dramatically than a situation where we can wait 3, 4, 5, 6 years. And authors know this, so particularly, things like social media studies, things that are related to the new technologies or the emerging media, since we started in 2007, we’ve had a lot of social or new or emerging media articles. But there’s other things too that I think are shaping the landscape of the scholarly literature. Not just in Public Relations Journal, but in the rest of the studies that are out there. And clearly the ROI question, and everybody is looking for the return on investment (ROI) situation, what’s the magic formula. And of course whoever finds it is going to be sitting on an island very rich because…but that’s one of the big wannabes. We’re seeing some very interesting things relative to measurement, that for far too many years, much of the measurement in public relations was related to advertising value equivalencies, AVEs. I’ve often said that it’s really unfortunate that AVEs don’t come with an additional letter, so then we could call it a four-letter word and we could sort of say, we will not use that word. But the whole concept of advertising value equivalencies as measurement for public relations is beyond ludicrous, and the problem is that the other methods are, in some cases emerging and in most cases much more expensive to implement than the simplicity of the AVEs. So we have that situation. Furthering along the measurement line, we have the question of standards. What are the appropriate standards of measurement, how should these be implemented and so forth and so on. And then the other area that I see is ethics. I can remember back 25-30 years ago when I was publishing some of the first articles that dealt with social responsibilities and ethics in public relations. A lot of people were critical of those studies. Not necessarily critical of their logical approach or anything that I was writing, but the fact that somebody would assume that there would be ethics within public relations or any aspect of corporate communication. Of course, we’re in a different world today. Transparency is crucial. We saw a decade ago with the situations involving organizations such as Enron, Global Crossing, Tyco and HealthSouth, and a number of Arthur Anderson and other organizations like that. So ethics¸ I would add to that list as well.
INTERVIEWER: You’ve done quite a bit of research yourself in the area of social media, was Marshall McLuhan right? Is the medium the message?
WRIGHT: I’ve never thought Marshall McLuhan was right, although I’m an admirer of what he did to basically get information about communication, and communications research introduced to a wider audience. I don’t think that the medium ever has become the message. I think what’s crucial is what you put in the medium that becomes the message regardless of whether it was the television situations that McLuhan wrote about or the social media situations that we have today, or anything in between.
INTERVIEWER: Most of the ethical issues in communication focus on the responsibilities of the sender of the message, but you said that the receivers and users of the messages have ethical responsibilities too. Tell us a little bit about that.
WRIGHT: Well if you turn back the clock to the time before we had what we now call new or emerging media, that the senders really controlled the message. There was very little opportunity for a receiver to provide feedback. The receiver could do things, like possibly write a letter to the editor, or when talk radio came along, call in to a station and talk about the topic, but the topic was always decided by the sender, not by the receiver. If you take a look at the traditional models of communication, the who says what to whom, through which channel, with what effect, that famous Lasswell paradigm, or any of the writings of the earliest communications scholars—Wilbur Schramm, the work of Lazarsfeld and a number of other political science and sociologists of the 1930s and 1940s who kind of became the first scholars of what we call today, communication theory. If you look at any of that work, the sender directed those messages. All of the models focused on the sender. And the only exceptions for that were as some of the research progressed, and particularly the Erie county, voting studies and so forth and so on in the 1940s, that we started to look at what the academic term ‘opinion leaders’—the practitioner term would be ‘influentials.’ And we started to look at how opinion leaders or influentials were passing messages along to receivers and looking at the two-step flow of communications or multi-step flow of communication theories. Now we’re in a situation where the receiver can, if he or she wishes to do so, basically decide what to look for. Thirty years ago, if you were a sports fan, you would pick up the sports page of your newspaper and the sports editors would determine what you would read. So there would be many more stories on that sports page about men playing football, or men playing basketball, than there would be about high school girls involved in gymnastics. And if you were a parent of a high school girl who is on the gymnastics team, you would probably have to be satisfied with only a small paragraph here or there. Today, you can go through the web, and we all know today—I think the sports example is a great one because we all know of situations where a young woman is on a college gymnastics team, or the swimming team, or what have you, and the parent really doesn’t care how that institution’s football team did, but they really do care about how the women’s swimming team did, and they can go to websites and not only get results, but in many cases, particularly with what are called the so-called ‘minor sports,’ particularly with sports such as soccer and so forth and so on, you can sometimes get play-by-play television of them. It’s not going to be done by the same crew that’s going to be broadcasting the Rose Bowl or Monday Night Football, but you can get that information and so I think that this has played a very significant role in elevating the significance of the receiver in the communication models.
INTERVIEWER: And parenthetically, it sure has made life harder for sports information directors, at small colleges.
INTERVIEWER: Parents want to read the results of the softball game five minutes after it’s over.
WRIGHT: Of course, exactly. Yeah.
INTERVIEWER: Turning to public relations more generally than the educational aspect of it, what do you see as the greatest challenges facing public relations executives today and how can these be met?
WRIGHT: I think there are several things that we should talk about in this area, and I’d like to do it in the spirit of the idea that challenges also can be opportunities. I think the fact that public relations now is much more strategic communication. The chief public relations officer at the most successful company has the same status in the organization as the attorney has when you’re dealing with questions that relate to the law. The communication officer deals with those situations in what I like to call the arena of public opinion. I don’t think there is a court of public opinion, because I believe the court, as in a legal court, has both sides of the story to be told. In public opinion, often, if you get your side of the story out there first, that is the side of the story that is believed. So, I think given that perspective, we could list some things here relative to the challenges and clearly the pressures of the 24-7 news environment.
It used to be, if you had some bad news, you could announce it on Friday afternoon and it would sort of go away. That doesn’t happen anymore. You can’t ask a question of this nature and not have an answer that deals with something about the economy, because the economy is impacted so much by organizations today, and not just housing issues, but we have wage and salary issues, we have people out of work. We also have Americans who are now taking on jobs — and there are some very major companies in the United States who have gone to the workforce and said look, we can keep these jobs in the U.S., but they’re only going to pay $15 an hour, we can no longer pay you $35. At first unions and workers and everybody said well, we don’t want those jobs. Well, now we do because you know, $15 an hour isn’t much, but it’s better than minimum wage or nothing, and the company can very well go elsewhere in the world and have those products made, so you have the economy as an issue. I think you have globalization. I think as public relations has moved away from the publicity press ‘agentry’ function and moved much more into working with companies counseling them with what to do and how to do it. Then I think a challenge for public relations is a reality that the tenure of CEOs is much, much shorter than it used to be. In some cases only 2-3 years. I think the average is somewhere in the 3-4 year range for Fortune 200 companies, and if you are the public relations officer and you were working very closely with the CEO, when there’s a CEO change, then the new CEO might wish to bring in another chief public relations officer so I think that those are issues as well.