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Public relations department is one of the key functional unit of any organization, whether government and or privately owned. It provides a channel through which information flow from organization to the public and vice versa. It is fundamental in shaping the image of organization image and fostering good relationship with the public. Choice of public relations channels is very important to an organization. Effectiveness of such channels in achieving desired goals is also very crucial. Gradual changes both in business and public environment has also a key role in determining the best research channel to use e.g. internet access, increase in literacy levels, media coverage, people understanding of their rights, diversity in terms of preferences among individuals and so on also influences the public relations procedures of an organization. The procedures used should aim at earning understanding and while at the same time seek to influence behavior and opinion of the targeted audience. (Theaker 2004 p 4)
An ever changing environment and highly competitive business environment has made research in public relations to be very important. Additionally, effectiveness of public relations programs of an organization also affects its performance and loyalty of its customers in case of business entities. The organization public relations procedures should therefore seek to meet the changes in the environment they operate in. One way of ensuring good public relations is by carrying out research so as to identify the relevant areas of improvement so as the necessary steps can be proactively taken instead of reacting to negative effects associated with bad image. Thus research in public relations has become an important aspect. (Theaker 2004)
Development of research in public relations has been propelled by the shift of public relations as a communication technique in which production and distribution of information is the only role to communication manager role in which the focus is building and maintaining relationships with key stakeholders. Thus in achieving this, adopting the necessary standards has become important and indispensable. Technology, along with gradual changes in management environment has also called for more accountability. Both informal and formal research has become very relevant in evaluating the organization operations. Need for research for evaluation and measurement of public relations has also continued to gain momentum. Evaluation of public relations has also become one of the constituents of the prevailing issues in public relations research. (Grunig 1983; IPRA 1994)
Additionally, efforts of various scholars to write on this topic has lead to understanding of public relations and also identified gaps of knowledge that requires to be covered through more research on public relations. There has also been call for scholars not only to understand public relations as persuasive communication only meant to bend public thinking, but also to understand and be updated to the current environment happenings and react to the changes accordingly.(Marvin 1984). There has also been questioning of the whole theoretical basis of public relations and the need to review them through carrying pure and basic research. (Macnamara n.d.: Daymon & Holloway 2010,)
Formative (strategic) and evaluative research emphasizes have gradually been becoming part of various organization in their effort towards attaining a competitive advantage against the competitors. This has been more than monitoring the media reports. The research has also moved beyond the four basic types of public relations research which include environmental monitoring, communications audits, public relations audits and social audits.(Macnamara n.d.).
Knowledge on appropriate research design, construction and use of questionnaire, sampling, collection and analysis of statistics has gradually become of great importance. Research in public relations has become an on-going integral process. Contemporary research on public relations has been involving fact-finding, planning, communication and evaluation of the progress of the recommended way out by such research. Action, communication and the evaluation aspects of the research in public relations has become part and parcel of many organizations. Many organizations have also been gradually emphasizing on the importance of research in public relations to ensure effectiveness of programs and assess the effects of the programs. (Hunt & Grunig 1984; Macnamara n.d.)
Research have become an important tool while focusing on public relations messages readability, assess whether language used was factual or emotive. Through research, involvement of the readers in an effort to find if they had a problem with sentences order, the paragraph or ideas is also possible. In addition to this, research has become useful gathering information about the stakeholders view about the public relations program, understand the preference of various demographic groups, lifestyles, values and attitudes to the organization and media use. research also helps an organization to have knowledge of the relevant channels to use in communication with the target audience i.e. is it through the internet, TV channels, Radio, Newspapers, or other information posting channels.(Traedwell 2003)
Research has also become an important instrument in unraveling unnoticed attitudes about companies operations, and help in understanding the organization environment under which the organization is operating in. Such knowledge enables the public relations personnel to make relevant public relation strategies in line with the current organizational environment. Understanding of political, legal and regulatory bodies and knowing what these bodies say about the organization is also very important to public relations program of the company. Research has eventually been the best way in attaining such information. Research also involves understanding the industry in which the organization operate in; what are others doing in ensuring good public relations? It has become a powerful instrument in ensuring good communication among the employees, and the management. (Traedwell 2003 p 55).
Gradually, many organization have been employing research in ensuring the message sent to the public about the organization is well written and meets with the expectations of the organization goals and cannot mess the organization image Research has also become vital in ensuring that such messages are free from confusion, and ambiguity as the right communication techniques is unraveled. The media available to reach out to the audience are also known through research. Such knowledge has become very helpful to the organization as the public relations department get informed of the most appropriate media to reach the specific audience. Research has also become imperative in evaluating certain program ie helps in knowing if certain program achieved its aims intended by the organization.(Traedwell, D (2003)
The development of research in public relations has seen use of various. Qualitative research method has become more applicable for the public relations study. This method enables researchers to be closely involved with the research participants. While developing a research for public relations, the researcher should first identify the problem. In identifying the problem, the researcher should seek to understand what is happening, know the exact problem, source of the concern, what the problem involve or affect, who are involved or affected by the problem, how are such parties affected or involved, and finally establish why such problem concerns the organization and the other stakeholders which may include the customers, government, non governmental organization, investors, employees and so on. The research development should then identify relevant parties involved in the study as the researcher seek to unravel the best solution to the problem. These will be source of primary information to the research study. This step should involve choosing an appropriate sample from the population of the affected parties. Random sampling methods are best method as they are free from biasness of the researcher. The research should also consult secondary sources on studies handling the same problem at hand or any problem related to such problem so as to give the researcher an insight to studying how to solve the problem at hand. Qualitative should be used as this is the best for social sciences as such research will be an attempt to study human behavior and factors surrounding such behavior. (Daymon & Holloway 2010).
However development of research in public relations has not been free from barriers. This includes lack of budgetary allocation, and time by various organizations. In addition to these inadequate understanding of research in public relations has been lacking. This has been due to lack of knowledge of nature of public relations and its function to the society. Fundamental questions about public relations have also not been clear to many people. Lack of research methodology for evaluating public relation programs, objective have in the past been cited as the main cause of image problem of public relations. (Grunig 1983)
Trends in research techniques given new technology:
The influence of technology on research techniques is unavoidable and very eminent in our contemporary world. Technology has come up with less costly research techniques. A researcher may not be required to physically administer questionnaire to the respondents or even conduct face to face interviews with the respondents. The internet (World Wide Web) has become one of the most utilized tools in carrying out research in public relations. For instance certain posting on the internet meant to communicate to the intended audience may provide for commenting from the reader; which may include evaluation of the message, any point not understood, any complaint about the organization and so on. Such information is usually gathered together and analyzed so as to create more effective public relations programs and also ensure good organization image. Nowadays, questionnaires may be posted in the website where respondents may access them and respond to them accordingly. Interviews can also be conducted online through chatting where the interviewer may communicate with the respondent as if it was a face to face interview. Email is another internet component which is also very useful in carrying out research in our contemporary world. The targeted respondents may be emailed with questionnaires to answer and also be requested to email back the filled questionnaires. Televisions have also been utilized in carrying out research in public relations. Nowadays, it is possible for researcher to communicate with viewers, have them comments on issues being researched on as the researcher collects the information for further analysis. Radio stations are also important channels that have been used in research. Since this channel reach out to many people, organization researchers secure programs with specific radio station so as to collect information related to problem at hand by collecting listener’s views about the organization and what they feel should be corrected. (Silverman 2004 p119; Rust & Espinoza 2006).
Ethical Issues in Research
Ethical issues in research revolve around the participants in a certain research. A research should be based on voluntary participation. The participants should not be coerced to participate in a certain research. For instance, a public relations research which involves employees of the organization should not involve coercing the chosen employee to participate in such an exercise. It should be under the prerogative of the targeted respondents to choose whether to participate or not. Any use of threat, and force will lender the research exercise unethical and may compromise the accuracy of the findings and consequently miss the aims of the research. (Behi & Nolan n.d.; Chensey 1993)
Another ethical issue associated with voluntary participation is the right to withdrawal from participating in a certain research if one feels uncomfortable with the process. Such assurance is very important in every research and will also not result into coercion of the participants to continue in a process they feel uncomfortable with e.g. the participant may feel that his/her continual of participation in the research threatens her/his life , then it will be ethical to allow him/her withdraw from the whole process. (Behi & Nolan nd; Chensey 1993)
Second ethical issue includes ensuring an informed consent. It is the obligation of the researcher to inform the intended participants of all what the research involves, any danger and a risk associated with the research, so as they make an informed decision on what they are just about to participate in. Research ethical standards requires researcher not to involve the participants in research that may lead to participants harm owing to their participation. In case of public relation research, researcher should first of all explains what the research involves, any risk associated with the research and avoid involving the participants in a research that may lead to their harm; owing to their opinions, views and so on. This ethical issue is also important in cases where minors may be included as part of the targeted participants. In such a case the parent consent or the authority to which decision of the minor are entrusted should give the consent. It may also be required for the parent to such participants consent to the participation of their children. The parent, or the head of the institution in which the minor is residing should sign a consent declaration form. (Behi & Nolan nd; Chensey 1993)
Third ethical issue involves confidentiality. The researcher should guarantee the participant of the confidentiality of the information they give i.e. the information will not availed to another party who is not directly involved in the research. This is an important ethical issue which if not assured, the participants may refrain from giving accurate and more information e.g. A public relations research involving the employees, the customers, and even those closely related to the organization management for instance needs to ensure confidentiality is maintained. Employees will not be ready to give any information which they think will affect their employment or relationship with the employer or with other employees if confidentiality is not assured. Those closely related to the employees or management of an organization may shy from giving negative views about the organization if they may think such information will not be taken in good faith by the management or employee. In the same case, customers not like to be known to have given certain information about the organization in which they usually shop from. Thus confidentiality assurance will greatly influence quantity and quality of information availed by the participants. Some targeted participants refuse to participate if they think such information is likely to be leaked to another party. (Behi & Nolan nd; Chensey 1993)
Confidentiality assurance may not be enough to convince some targeted participants. In such a case, anonymity will be another ethical issue. This ensures that the participant remains unnamed throughout the research. The researchers themselves are also not expected to know the participant’s name. This guarantees enough privacy although it may not be feasible in real cases. (Behi & Nolan nd)
In case a certain program is being studied, the right to service may also be another ethical issue. Such case arises when a no-treatment control group is required. In this case a no treatment control group entails a group of participants supposed not to get treatment or program being studied. Those supposed to part of no-treatment control group may feel unequally treated by the researcher and that their rights have been denied. (Behi & Nolan nd; Chensey 1993)
Other ethical issues in research include the integrity of the researcher, field of study, cultural variations, and role conflict. Most participants are not likely to cooperate with researchers who they question his/her character. They will be reluctant to offer information required. They will not trust his/her assurance of confidentiality and anonymity. Field of study may also be part of ethical concern to the participants. Some cultures may not encourage participating in a research involving unacceptable activities although this usually affects the scientific research mostly in medicine. Cultural variation may also lead to an ethical issue as people are diverse in terms of cultural believes e.g. some respondents may require to know the religious beliefs of the researcher before availing any information to him/her. (Behi & Nolan nd; Chensey 1993)