• 24Nov

    Despite my embarrassing neglect of this space over the last few months, I’m neither dead nor trapped under a heavy piece of furniture–unless you count the metaphorical heavy furniture of a busy new job and numerous research projects in progress. To compensate a bit, and also for my personal records, I thought I would write a bit about this year’s NCA conference. I’m currently sitting in the San Diego airport waiting for my flight home, so it’s all very fresh in my mind.

    This year’s conference was a short one for me: given last week’s Cronkite Week celebrations, particularly the luncheon on Friday to honor our award recipients Jim Lehrer and Robin McNeil, I didn’t get to San Diego until Saturday. I was supposed to arrive early in the morning, but fog caused such serious delays I didn’t make it to the Manchester Hyatt until around noon. So I missed both the Top Papers session and business meeting for the PR division, unfortunately.

    I was, however, able to attend a number of panels in the public relations, political communication, mass communication, and organizational communication divisions. A quick glance at the program showed that social media figured prominently throughout the conference, and there were a number of sessions dedicated to the subject in nearly every division. Even those panels and presentations that were not explicitly given over to social media often contained numerous references to Web 2.0 issues, such as discussion of how this year’s electoral campaigns used social media tools, or a top paper by my colleague Serena Carpenter that analyzed online citizen journalism.

    I was present at two panels that focused on social or emergent media (and presented at one of them). The first was all about social media in public relations and journalism, with topics ranging from campus newspapers and television stations to PR teaching and practice. I have to say that I was surprised to hear so many presenters refer to blogs as “new” and describe their uncertainty about the role of social media in communication teaching and practice. I’ve been active online for (cough) years, and find it a little disconcerting that so many communication professionals and scholars are still relatively unfamiliar with the online world.

    The main exception was of course Mihaela Vorvoreanu of Clemson University, author of Web Site Public Relations. She presented some findings from a recent survey she conducted about blogging among PR practitioners and academics, showing that blogs help build credibility and are seen–even by non-bloggers–as important communication tools in today’s environment. (A longer version of her conference presentation is available here.) She emphasized to attendees the importance of gauging one’s stakeholders properly, and in the case of student-authored blogs, of giving adequate training and guidance regarding the art and craft of blog writing. Like any other genre of writing, Mihaela noted, blogs have rules and characteristics that must be learned if they are to be effective means of communication.

    The other panel on social media was jointly sponsored by the PR and Organizational Communication divisions, and organized by Alison Henderson of Waikato University in New Zealand. Presenters represented a diverse range of perspectives and ideas about social media, as well as varying levels of experience. To start off, Lewis Freeman of Fordham University discussed how the world of business journalism is increasingly turning to Web 2.0 technologies as it searches for a new business model. Both journalists and current college students often feel a sense of displacement in this changing media environment, a phenomenon that Lewis described as “confusion of innovation.”

    Corey Hickerson of James Madison University presented the results of a fascinating study on wikis, based on Taylor and Kent’s work about the characteristics of effective online public relations. His study found that wiki participants have high levels of trust and involvement in wiki content production, but non-participants tend to show more distrust toward user-generated wiki content than toward more traditional one-way sources of information online.

    Bill Kinsella of North Carolina State University reported on a study carried out with several colleagues, regarding the role of social (or multimodal) media in social movements, focusing in particular on climate change. They found that such movements are increasingly relying on these tools to form alliances, foster communication among movements, recruit new members, and communicate the movement’s aims to government actors as well as the public at large.

    The panel organizers, Dr. Alison Henderson and Dr. Ted Zorn of Waikato University, instead described the specific challenges faced by nonprofit organizations seeking to use social media: on the one hand, Web 2.0 technologies should provide a relatively inexpensive means of communication with low entry barriers. In practice, however, these organizations often face difficulties in obtaining funding for social media implementation, the time to develop them, and internal resistance by technophobic members. Furthermore, their desired targets often cannot be assumed to have Internet access or experience.

    Mihaela was supposed to participate in this panel as well, also to discuss Twitter, before her flight home was canceled and rescheduled to conflict with our session time. She was missed, and the (surprisingly large, given the timing of the session on the last day of the conference) audience only got to hear my own perspective on Twitter. I presented some (very) preliminary findings of a study of Twitter use among PR practitioners. I am using social network analysis–later to be combined with either semantic network analysis or another form of content analysis–to study emergent patterns of interaction, as well as identify both the forms and reasons of Twitter use among practitioners. The most interesting finding, so far, is confirmation of results found in other research on social media: rather than acting as a surrogate for face-to-face interaction, Twitter (and other social media) typically serve to expand and reinforce one’s personal network of “real life” contacts and associations. More on that as I proceed with the project.

    Of course, I also managed to talk to a bunch of friends and colleagues I hadn’t seen in a while, form some new connections, and came away with a notebook full of ideas that I will be able to use in my own research and teaching. That’s what conferences are all about, as far as I’m concerned.

    (Oh, and bonus note: I also had the excitement of seeing my book at the Oxford University Press booth in the book forum. That was quite a thrill, as was seeing that someone had already placed dibs on the display copy! It’s good to know someone is reading. Or at least buying.)