My doctoral diary (part 4): ‘The camino of strategic communication’

About the author

Miriam Pelusi is a doctoral student at Leeds Beckett University.

Image by Ben Kerckx from Pixabay
Image by Ben Kerckx from Pixabay

The EUPRERA 2021 congress was delivered, for the first time, in a blended mode, both in Pamplona and online. This year’s topic gave a good sense of direction to the field, ‘The Camino of strategic communication: (re)discovering the human element in public relations in unpredictable times’.

The two-day congress brought together members of the PR community from Europe and overseas; there was a sense of belonging that is a key component of identity for a field which is still relatively new. It was the first time that I have attended the EUPRERA congress, and I have improved my understanding of public relations and have upgraded my scholarly knowledge regarding directions for further study.

Both keynote speakers emphasised the importance of the human aspect of communication. Dr Johanna Fawkes took PR practitioners, students and academics through a fascinating journey into humanism. The idea of camino, she said, is a very human process which is marked by existential questions such as ‘Where are we now?, Where are we going?’ in a time of environmental and societal problems. It was remarked that ‘This is a collective journey for PR, as a field’. For such human dimension to thrive, it is therefore necessary to connect to other people, develop resilience, use reflective practice and reflexivity for deeper thinking.

Professor Ramón Salaverría talked us through human issues of misinformation and disinformation. He argued that the term ‘fake news’ is an oxymoron and it should not be considered as part of journalism. To say the truth is critical for any communication organisations: ‘You have to be accountable and transparent to gain things in the long-term, such as the reputation, the recongnition’. There was a discussion about the difficulties in balancing the quality of content with alghoritmic accountability to boost engagement. Overall, this keynote strenghtened the idea that trust is key for confidence, and in collaboration with others.

Because I could not attend the PhD seminar in person due to the travel restrictions, I took part as a viewer in the PhD panel session. Six doctoral students from different European universities delivered a 5-minute elevator pitch to the public. I admired my peers’ pitches as I know how difficult it is to capture a work in progress in a few words and present it persuasively.

Later, I was kindly given permission to join as an observer the first Paper Development Workshop chaired by Dr Alexander Buhmann. Senior academics served as discussants and provided constructive feedback.

These interactions between advanced scholars and early and mid-career researchers (EMCRs) made me see the process: what it takes to move from a work in progress stage to a stage in which an article is ready to be submitted for publication.

It was as exciting as being in the backstage, I could learn more by seeing the behind-the-scene work.

Investigating ethics is a continuing concern in public relations. We were talked through how the guiding principles of the profession have evolved over time. There was an interesting study from the US on enhancing ethics. Symmetrical communication was shown as a key part of an ethical practice, a point on which I disagree as there can be unethical practices hidden in symmetrical communication. A useful point to bear in mind is that, from a business perspective, being ethically responsible pays off. For example, it was argued that in organisational communication, an investment in listening is instrumental in the long-term. Researchers demonstrated that ethically responsible behaviour also helps organisations to stay in business.

The intersection between technology and the human dimension has been studied by many researchers. Technology has had a profound impact on human and organisational communication. As such, digitalisation is a socio-technical process. One of the greatest challenges of the use of communications technology in public relations is connecting infrastructural aspects and human elements. This means that new management concepts and practices need to be introduced in strategic communication, for example. A study about how educators use Twitter in Higher Education demonstrated the need for better strategies in communication.

There was an urgent need to address the communication issues of the Covid-19 pandemic. This global crisis has thrown up many questions in need of further investigation. Researchers shared the research results from the first studies on this topic. Commenting on the challenges of strategic communication during the Covid-19 pandemic, Professor Ralph Tench shared a key lesson: “Communication should be credible, transparent, timely, truthful”.

The current state of PR research was discussed in the session ‘Between scientific progress and paradigmatic struggle’ presented by Dr Jens Seiffert-Brockmann. I was not surprised to hear that the functional paradigm is still dominant. However, there continues to be openness to new schools of thought. This bodes well. Enriching the paradigmatic diversity of the field is key for the intellectual growth of public relations research.

Internal communication has received considerable critical attention. There was a common view among scholars and practitioners: internal communication is a social process. Communication is made of observable behaviours in various communicative situations, it is subjective because made of individuals’ experiences. Issues such as intercultural communication and intergenerational communication were also considered.

Despite its human focus, I noticed that the congress did not offer insights into ethnographic research. A possible explanation for this might be that this is still considered to be niche research area. The main challenge faced by many researchers is the increasing request for quickness of methods and results. Surveys are simpler and more rapid. On the other hand, ethnographic research is a type of research that requires time: a lot of time for research training, fieldwork must be carried over an extended period of time, and plenty of time for data analysis and discussion. Although ethnography is time-consuming, the findings may well have a bearing on public relations theory and practice. I’m particularly invested in this approach which has hidden depths that have not yet fully been investigated in the field.