On PR influence and authority

About the author

Richard Bailey Hon FCIPR is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

Who’s more influential: PR theorist Professor Emeritus James Grunig, with 151 followers on Twitter, or former CIPR president Stephen Waddington with 18,262 (at time of writing!)?

The question of authority is an important one for PR and comms students who are asked to review PR literature for their assignments.*  We got thinking more about this when we spotted that Grunig (who those of you who have studied PR will know well!) is on Twitter but Tweets rarely.  

Now, you’re a smart person reading this, so you can sense a trick question here.

If we only have Twitter metrics to go on, then @wadds is the star. But @jgrunig1 began his scholarly career in the 1960s and had retired before Twitter was conceived. He’s only tweeted ten times. (In fairness, how many followers do you or I have on Snapchat?)

Social media may be the wonder of the age, but it can’t be the only way to gauge real world influence.

The next clue was embedded in the question in the opening paragraph. There are real world credentials that you should consider when gauging influence: you have to assess the credibility of one title (Professor Emeritus) against another (former president of the CIPR).

Both emerge as credible sources on public relations.

Then there’s the question of authority. Published authors are assumed to have credibility because their ideas were deemed worthy of publication in the world of filter-then-publish (as described by Clay Shirky). This was a world of scarcity: where print, paper, distribution, warehousing and promotion all had to be rationed so even J K Rowling had her first Harry Potter manuscript rejected numerous times before Bloomsbury took a risk on a new author.

We now live in a world of publish-then-filter. No would-be writer has to wait for the rejection letter from a publisher. They can get their work out there at minimal cost and let the market judge its merits. Very occasionally, as with EL James, this brings them to the attention of a traditional publisher or film studio, so we all get to hear about 50 Shades of Grey.

Yet this world of publish-then-filter is confusing for the student-practitioner. In a world when anyone can blog, whose words carry authority? Who should you cite in your assignments? How can we assess lasting value in a world of constant noise?

Ironically, an answer is provided by that poster child of the digital age: Google has a search engine dedicated to scholarly citations. If you type ‘public relations’ into Google Scholar the very first result is a 1984 book called Managing Public Relations co-authored by James Grunig.

It only ever appeared in that first edition, yet more than thirty years on it remains the public relations textbook most often cited by other scholars in the field.

This confers credibility on the text on the grounds that it’s talked about in the right circles. Though that’s not the same thing as saying it’s uniquely or eternally true: you are encouraged to explore the many critiques of the celebrated Four Models of Public Relations that have appeared since the book’s publication.

By calculating the number of citations and the relative importance of the citations, Google Scholar is applying Google’s genius to the dusty corners of the university library. (Google Books, though viewed as a threat by publishers, is also a boon to those of us desperately checking references so we can provide correct Harvard references, since Google Books are searchable).

Stephen Waddington is much harder to find on Google Scholar: the search engine confirms my own view that his 2012 book Brand Anarchy, co-authored with Steve Earl, is his most significant work, followed by collaborative projects Share This and Share This Too.

(In passing, Brand Anarchy and its follow-up Brand Vandals were both published by Harry Potter publisher Bloomsbury.)

To assess authority, we need to look beyond vanity metrics like numbers of tweets and followers. We need to judge the effects of the ideas on others, and Google Scholar can help with this.

You still need to read the text and assess the arguments of its merits, but Google Scholar will help you identify what’s most worth reading.

*The CIPR assignments changed in 2016/17 and no long involve the same style of literature review.