A little over a year ago I received a phone call from a Red Cross friend and colleague, Dr. Suzanne Horsley, asking if I would be interested in joining her in applying for a Page Legacy Scholar Grant from the Arthur W. Page Center for integrity in public communication. This particular grant takes the bold approach of pairing public relations practitioners with public relations academics. It is a great way to bring real world experience and research science together.
While I didn’t have much experience in academic research—my only brush with it was as an interviewer for the famous Middletown Studies in the late 80s—I figured I could learn “on the job.” Fortunately I consider myself an eager student, because academia had a few lessons to teach me. Namely, that there are hoops to jump through and hurdles to jump over before you run around willy nilly interviewing subjects. So here are the lighthearted, but hard-won, lessons learned during my first foray into academic research:
- First off, I found out that collegiate researchers answer to an institutional review board (IRB) that makes sure that their research is ethical and that humans are protected from physical or psychological harm while being studied. This seemed like a good thing to me and I was happy to have this type of oversight to ensure that we didn’t somehow slip into a dystopian research scheme.
- Thanks to direction from the IRB at the University of Alabama, I had the privilege of taking, and passing, a National Institute of Health online training course where I learned the many ways I could inadvertently cause harm while researching humans. Fortunately, our research method was participatory interviews, so there was little or no chance that I could cause any kind of harm to humans…or animals.
- Because I chose to focus my portion of the research on two disaster events I had personally participated in, I smugly assumed that I would be able to find a multitude of participating communications professionals who would be willing, eager even, to talk to me about their experiences. Initially I reached out to former Red Cross colleagues with great success. Several were happy to schedule a time to talk with me!
- Then I sent them the pre-interview questionnaire. In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that I have spent hundreds of hours helping my clients procure testimonials from their customers. We’ve found people love to talk about how great you are, but when it comes to writing it down…crickets. I understand all the reasons for this; writing is drilled into us at school as something that must be perfect before it can be released into the wild. If you are a communications professional you suffer from this belief to the tenth power. So I knew I was asking a lot of those brave souls who had agreed to be interviewed by me.
- There is no doubt though, that those questionnaires were incredibly useful. They led to additional questions and insights that would most likely have not been uncovered if the exercise of filling them out hadn’t given interview subjects the time and space to consider those details. I know, because I filled one out myself on the theory that I shouldn’t ask someone to do something I wasn’t willing to do myself.
- Then there was the passage of time, for example one of the disasters I researched was the Oklahoma City Bombing which took place more than 22 years ago. At this point in my life, remembering what I did last week is a challenge, asking people to recount information about events so far removed is a serious test of recall.
- The other issue with the amount of years that had passed was the difficulty in finding additional subjects to interview. I tried a variety of sources and used many resources to track down people who had served as communicators during those two tragedies. I was ignored, rebuffed (albeit nicely) and stymied at nearly every turn. I also discovered that there were far fewer professional communicators in the disaster field 22 years ago. Many potential subjects had died, others proved impossible to locate. I learned that being an academic-type researcher means having a tenacious ability to keeping going moving forward even after rejection after rejection. I have to admit, even after conducting exhaustive research (I have the spreadsheets to prove it!), I felt like a failure for not being able to find more people to interview.
- Fortunately, after several months of silent suffering, I admitted to my research partner and friend that I wasn’t achieving the glorious results I had expected. She then told me several stories of her own lack of success in finding and procuring interview subjects. Sadly, this cheered me to no end to know that even with her superior research skills and years of experience, she too, sometimes hit roadblocks.
In the end, the insights and ideas that I collected from those that I did interview were profound and illuminating. As they say, it is the journey that matters and I now understand that many of the lessons I learned during the research process were impactful and applicable to my own life. My appreciation of the many academic researchers who spend countless years investigating this amazing world is truly unparalleled.
This project was supported by a Page Legacy Scholar Grant from The Arthur W. Page Center at the Penn State College of Communications under Page Legacy Scholar Grant. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Pennsylvania State University.