How Social Media Has Affected the Roles of PR Practitioners: A Conversation with Dr. Nicole Lee

By: Ava Kendrena, Adrianna Harper, Yohanna Rios Montes, and Carmen Ordiano

Nicole M. Lee Arizona State University | ASU · School of Social and Behavioral Sciences

We had the chance to talk to Dr. Nicole Lee about her experience conducting research in the communications field, her discoveries of how social media has affected the PR industry, and her preferred research methods. Dr. Lee is an assistant professor at Arizona State University in the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences, where she teaches courses in communication. Before becoming an assistant professor, she attended San Diego State University as a theater student, but she switched to the public relations program because she discovered her love for writing and research. She received her Ph.D. in Media and Communication from Texas Tech University in 2016. Her research examines the intersection of science communication, public relations, and digital media. She is the author of several articles published in journals such as Science Communication, Environmental Communication, and Journal of Communication Management

During our discussion with Dr. Lee, we asked her about two of her studies that examined the relationship between social media and public relations. The first study was titled “The Role of New Public Relations Practitioners as Social Media Experts” (Lee, 2014). This study used qualitative research methods to examine social media’s impact on how PR practitioners perform their roles. The second study we discussed was called “Roles in Social Media: How the Practice of Public Relations is Evolving” (Lee, 2016). This study follows up on the first one by using a larger sample size and applying quantitative methods to test if there are differences between male practitioners and female practitioners in their social media roles. Because of Dr. Lee’s use of both qualitative and quantitative methods to study the influence of social media on PR, we were curious to see what methods she prefers and if she could give us any recommendations on how we should approach our research.

Dr. Lee was inspired to study social media and PR because she was a college student experiencing the rise of social media firsthand. She began witnessing the various rising platforms having extreme potential, creating a shift in how information was shared with the masses. As an aspiring PR practitioner, Lee grew curious to know how this new age of technology would affect the PR industry and if the impact of social media would develop new roles for PR practitioners. Her answers to our questions were as follows: 

What initially interested you in studying the influence social media has on public relations?

Dr. Lee explained that back when she first began her research, social media’s relationship with public relations was still very new and different from how it is now. Her initial interest in social media was due to observing the newer/younger public relations practitioners who were just entering the field and the fact they seemed to be doing a lot of social media work, as opposed to those who were seasoned in the field.  

You have studied the rise of social media in public relations using both qualitative methods (in-depth interviews) and quantitative methods (surveys). Which method did you prefer and why?

Since social media usage in public relations was still a new area, Dr. Lee emphasized the fact that it was important to start off with qualitative research. The in-depth interviews provided Dr. Lee with the context of what kind of questions she would need to be asking. However, Dr. Lee did go on to explain that it’s important to do a little bit of everything, and the kind of research you do really does depend on what kind of questions you are asking.

Dr. Lee gave us insight that for the kind of research we are going to be doing, a general public survey would be the most effective.

As student researchers, we will likely use a convenience sample to collect our data. What advice can you give to help us collect the best data we can when using a convenience sample?

Dr. Lee’s biggest piece of advice was to make sure we are not making population-based generalizations. Specifically, not confusing a convenience sample with a true random sample because they are not going to show us the same thing. Dr. Lee also suggested trying to get as diverse a sampling as possible to get as close to a true random sample as possible.

What is your opinion on giving a brand a social media personality, and do you ultimately think that the public finds it effective?

“It would only be speculation.” Dr. Lee explained that in public relations and social media alike, we know it is good to have a specific brand voice, so for that reason, it makes sense that brands have moved more towards having a social media “personality”. It appears that people are taking to this new format as social media marketing well.

How do you think practitioners can build a trusting relationship on behalf of their clients using social media? Do you think it is hard to break the public perception that PR people are “spin doctors”?

Dr. Lee agreed that it is hard to break people’s perceptions of public relations practitioners. She brought up the common misconception on social media that interns are running brands’ social media when in reality, each post is methodically planned by a PR professional. As far as building a trusting relationship, Dr. Lee suggested being as authentic as possible on social media and being intentional with the kind of posts one is creating.

As mentioned, Dr. Lee has used both quantitative and qualitative methods to examine social media’s impact on PR practitioners. In her 2014 study, she conducted 20 face-to-face in-depth interviews with 20 practitioners in their 20s with less than five years of professional

experience. Data were collected between October 2011 and February 2012 using semi-structured interviews. The interview guide was divided into four sections: personal background, feelings toward public relations, tasks performed at work, and feelings toward tasks performed. Using the in-depth interview method, Dr. Lee found that practitioners primarily use social media for information dissemination on behalf of their clients, to research, and to plan campaigns. 

In her 2016 study, Dr. Lee dove deeper into her findings by conducting two quantitative surveys using a convenience sample of 194 public relations practitioners recruited through PRSA chapter emails and social media channels. Both surveys were performed on Qualtrics and consisted of various somatic differential scales, mentioned and provided around 55 job duties, and added incentives. Survey One was designed to be a pre-test to Survey Two, running through November and December of 2014. It first involved a convenience sample of 159 PR filtered by their use and knowledge of PR and social media. Additionally, Dr. Lee utilized varimax rotation for principal components that arose when discussing the first research question. Survey Two was released a year later on March 15, obtaining a random sample of 144 participants after considering their knowledge and usage of PR and social media. The email invite from the Public Relations Society of America revealed participants having an average age of 40 and around 14 years of experience. Her survey methods revealed that there are seven social media roles and associated responsibilities assumed by public relations practitioners (the internal social media manager, the social media technician, policing, the policy maker, listening and analytics, online media relations, and employee recruiter). 

You can’t write a multiple choice test if you do not know what the possible answers are.”

Dr. Nicole Lee
SOURCE: Depositphotos

When we asked Dr. Lee about which research method she preferred for collecting data about social media in PR, she emphasized the importance of the qualitative approach stating, “you can’t write a multiple choice question if you don’t know what the possible answers are.”

After meeting with Dr. Lee and talking about her studies, she helped us formulate the best research methods for our own study. After asking her a few questions about the best ways to approach and capture the public perception of PR, she stated that the best approach would be to conduct surveys or focus group interviews. Dr. Lee also advised us to “not make population-based generalizations,” especially when using a convenience sample. Overall, Dr. Lee’s professional advice on how to approach a research project was incredibly valuable. Our group now feels more confident collecting data about the public perception of PR and what tools we can incorporate in our data collection. 

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