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Article citation: Wim J.L. Elving, (2012) "Who is afraid of whom? Science meets practice?", Corporate Communications: An International Journal, Vol. 17 Iss: 1, pp. -
After two years of preparation, the first International CSR Communication Conference took place in Amsterdam last week (October 26-28, 2011). During the conference we had more than 80 presentations, keynotes, panels and at least 180 participants, coming from all regions of the world. We had worked hard in creating a platform for exchange of knowledge between various fields of study (Corporate Communications, business ethics, organizational studies), but also between scientists and practitioners. With the help of the Dutch Association for Communication Professionals, Logeion, and their German counterpart DPRG we encouraged as many practitioners as possible to come to the conference.
For the sake of this “Science meets Practice” approach, we choose a format for the conference with short presentations of ten minutes and invited many experienced practitioners from companies like Philips and Unilever, as well as NGOs like Greenpeace and Oxfam Novib to act as mediator between the presenter and the audience. In our communications to the presenters prior of the conference we urged them to make the presentations easy to follow, not digging too deep into complex theoretical models or methodological technicalities. In our view we did all possible to make the conference suitable for scientists and practitioners, but despite these efforts, four weeks prior to the conference only a few practitioners had registered for the conference.
My former boss, Professor Betteke van Ruler, started a discussion on LinkedIn a shortly before the conference to ask whether practitioners were afraid of scientists. This led to an eventual increase of participants, but is also good to reflect upon here. I am using the discussion initiated by Betteke and will use it to make a reflection of how we are doing with relating to practitioners in corporate communication. I will use discussions from the CSR Communication Conference as illustrations.
I do not think that practitioners are afraid of scientists, but I do think that practitioners are afraid of knowledge, which will challenge their intuitions, or put differently, maybe they are afraid of research showing that their way of doing business might be controversial to results obtained in research. Maybe we are seeing too much intuition and experience within the practice of corporate communication, whereas we of course would like to see more science-based (evidence-based) work. From our own research (Elving et al., in press), but also from the European Communication Monitor we have learned that many practitioners do not have a specific training in communication, but have a variety of MAs before they entered communication management. A conference like ours seemed to be the excellent opportunity to increase knowledge about the field.
What can be the other reasons? Of course, working within a corporate communication department of an organization is probably acting like a centipede, not only all communication materials of the organization must be designed, written and distributed, management has to be advised on communication skills, societal trends must be translated for the organization, web care need to be organized et cetera. And at the same time the organization might be facing a crisis or a major change, in which the expertise of communication might be essential for the success of managing the crisis or the change. So this might lead to not having time to attend a conference.
But there might be other reasons as well. One of the participants said to me that the corporate communication officer acts too much a spokesperson of the CEO or the board of directors, and are not really interested in gaining more knowledge or insights. Although I think the relation between the chief corporate communication officer and his or her CEO or board is a very interesting field of study, since I think that this relation can be essential for creating a communicative organization, I have the feeling that the Chief Communication Officer (CCO), although dependent of his/her CEO is able to make his/her independent decisions and advices. A third reason might be still that many practitioners do not have a (corporate) communication education or training, and are because of that not eligible to come to a communication conference. Which is, of course, arguably the very reason to attend in the first place – to gain more knowledge.
The last reason I want to list here might be the unfamiliarity with the subject of CSR communication. We can not ignore that CSR communication might be too large a niche, although almost all corporations within lists like Fortune 500 and others have developed CSR programs and are actively communicating about CSR.
So as suggested, there might have been a variety of reasons why practitioners elected not to come, but we need to reflect on our own role as well. As scientists we have maybe in the past been too focused on getting our own work published in top journals. Also, to carry out research, we do need to focus on small aspects of the whole problem. We need to unravel the whole picture in relatively small proportions to be able to study these phenomena. All these relatively small issues might shed a light on the big problem, but in many cases do result in more questions as well. That is the way science works, and that might frustrate practitioners because they do not get the straight answers to their questions. But on the other hand, most practitioners will have an MA degree, so they probably will know how this works. There are no easy answers to complex problems and although many books have been published on how to do this and how to handle that, many fail to reach stardom because problems need diagnosis, rather than a bystander saying what should be done.
Alternatively, a second reason might be the fact that a good researcher is not always the same person who is able to get the excellent research into print. Besides that, being a good researcher does not mean that you are able to present your research on an attractive way. The physician who is being kind to his or her patients always gets higher grades in evaluative research, but actual satisfaction with doctors does not correlate in most cases with the quality provided. We need excellent knowledge of English, or have to find help to be able to write an article in an attractive way besides being able to be a good researcher.
Especially for the young PhD students, presenting at a conference are the first steps in an academic career. Everybody probably remembers his or her first conference presentation as something you rather not think about. Talking in a strange language to a critical audience who will ask you all kind of difficult questions about your research is something most of us had to learn (and are still learning). But on the other hand, that happened to practitioners as well, they had to learn the job by doing it as well, so this is no reason for the gap between science and practice.
From science we see this gap with practitioners as well, and it is affecting us negatively as well. On a smaller step, we had very limited money from sponsors for the CSR Communication Conference, although that might be due to the new and uniqueness of the conference. We ourselves did not know that we were having an event for almost 200 persons. But in line with this, we are having trouble with getting our research funded. In most countries, corporate communication is seen as applied science, which means that national science foundations are not willing to subsidise research within corporate communications and related fields as marketing communication, strategic communication, PR or organizational communication. To get our research on a higher level we should have more funding from organizations, but at least in my experience this is not easy. Organizations are willing to spend some money on a one-time survey or interviews, especially when this brings direct benefits for themselves.
After these reflections I can only conclude that there is a gap between science and practice and between practitioners and scientists. There are many reasons for this, but I hope that we will at least have a dialogue at conferences like the conference we had in Amsterdam. Only when we are willing to see the other side and are able to reflect on the problems and challenges both sides have we will be able to relate in future in a more extensive way.
In the current issue we have a special section guest-edited by T.C. Melawar, Marko Sarstedt and Christine Haller on Corporate Identity, Image and Reputation Management. Initially this should have been a stand-alone special issue, but due to a lack of quality submissions we chose to include the two papers in a special section instead. Besides the two papers in the special section and the guest editorial we have two other articles, one on CSR communications and the other on stakeholder dialogue.
Wim J.L. Elving
University of Amsterdam, ASCoR, November 2011