Public Relations Research: Thinking Outside the Box at BledCom

A public relations research conference is a good place to test some of the assumptions underlying practice.

BledCom, an international public relations research symposium that has just finished its 26th annual meeting in Bled, Slovenia, stirred up controversy by questioning the practice’s interests in trust and reputation.

Do these topics really merit the importance attached to them, and how useful are tests of public levels of trust such as the Edelman Trust Barometer?

As the conference heard, each year the Barometer is published and prompts hand-wringing in practice at what seem like ever declining levels of trust in important social actors.

Its value is quickly asserted: PRCA director general Francis Ingham commented on the questions raised by the conference that ‘the Barometer is an internationally esteemed and detailed analysis of trust and reputation’.

Yes, but what does it really tell us? Viewed over time, trust levels hold at constant levels, and despite larger and larger investments in public relations, declines in trust levels are found.

In any case, as the keynote speaker for this year’s BledCom Rupert Younger from Oxford University’s Centre for Corporate Reputation suggested, what we really need to look for and encourage in any healthy society is a level of distrust.

It’s right that there should be a degree of scepticism – distrust – about what is presented by politicians, journalists, commercial organisations and other groups.

In other sessions, the need for scepticism and critical thinking was emphasized. The first in reactions to ‘fake news’ and increasing efforts through hybrid warfare to influence public opinion in national elections, or around the UK’s decision to leave the European Union.

Critical thinking is seen as key to the future of public relations practice. A session on this topic elaborated on this. Public relations thinking in future will need to be more subtle, lacing irony with sincerity, and based on a commitment to broad humanistic and scientific continuous learning.

This may sound unrealistic but, in a world to be dominated by developments in artificial intelligence, will be the source of value (and continuing employment) in public relations practice.

A wrap up session at the conference concluded that the practice must be much less satisfied with glib acceptance of research, such as that which underlies the Trust Barometer, its findings and conclusions, which limits the quality of advice that can be given in practice.

As ever, the Bled conference, which this year brought together over 150 researchers and practitioners from 30 countries, as well as presidents of national public relations associations from the UK, Croatia and Canada, produced insights and ideas for practice.

You can catch up on commentary from the conference can be found on Twitter, hashtag #bledcom.

Image of Lake Bled courtesy of ivabalk via pixabay.com.

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