Three Reasons Why Agency Pros Should Attend Academic Conferences: My Takeaways from the 17th Annual Public Relations Research Conference (IPRRC)

Matt Kelly (Social@Ogilvy) and Dr. Dustin Supa (Boston University) present their research about the rise of the in-house agency during the 17th Annual International Public Relations Research Conference in Miami, Fla., March 8, 2014.

This month, I had the pleasure of attending and presenting at the 17th Annual International Public Relations Research Conference in Miami, Fla. The conference is one of the top venues in the world for presenting new communications research and focuses on building a bridge between academics and professionals. Throughout, I received feedback from top research-minded academics and practitioners in public relations. And you weren’t there.

Why should you care about academic conferences like this anyway? After all, you subscribe to a few blogs about the industry. You’ve even read part of that new real-time marketing book after it was recommended to you by a colleague. You just sat through a Webinar about Facebook’s algorithm. You once wrote a blog post about Twitter chats. You’re on top of your game.

The following are three reasons you may want to consider attending an academic conference if you work in communications.

1. To Understand You’re Not As Smart As You Think

Peruse the conference program. Sean Williams, a regular IPRRC attendee and founder of Communication AMMO, wrote a recap about this year’s experience and some sessions he attended, which may help fellow practitioners understand what it’s like from a non-academic perspective. He said, and I agree: Much of the conference is “mental stretching.” It demands your complete focus as your mind can’t help but analogue “Introducing Cross Impact Analysis as a Methodology to Understand Stakeholders’ Reciprocal Influences,” (actual IPRRC paper) to your client’s Facebook page.

To be sure, entire teams of people often dedicate countless hours conducting primary research on what practitioners deem esoteric topics, but they also know what they are talking about. Think about how many times you’ve conducted a random sample to determine sentiment on one of your client’s social media channels (because a robot isn’t reliable). Did you establish inter- or intra-coder reliability to ensure your coding system was valid and reliable? Academics always do because they know proper research demands that rigor. Increasingly, they are also answering the “so what” question, making the research more understandable and practical for us. The top paper by an academic/practitioner team is awarded the conference’s highest honor.

2. The Attendees Have Already Schooled You

Though many of us classify them as cerebral, you probably won’t see Seth Godin or Brian Solis at these conferences. Still, if you studied communications in school, or at least bought the books, you may notice some name tags are familiar to you. I did. Dr. Don Stacks, director of the IPRRC who led the week, wrote the book about public relations research I used in graduate school. I sat next to Dr. Timothy Coombs in a few sessions. He wrote the book I used to learn about crisis communications in undergrad.

Many other scholars I met were thought leaders at the foremost communications research universities in the United States. They are also conference mainstays who attend to further existing research or debut new work that may be used to teach the next generation of communications professionals. Those writing the curricula are the ultimate tastemakers.

3. You Can Make a Lasting Impact on the Profession

When you attend a communications academic conference from PRSA, IABC, IPR, or others, you learn something to better serve your organization in your role. Perhaps more important, though, is the value you provide to current studies that impact the profession for years to come. For example, a research team may be studying the use of Twitter as a coping mechanism during crises (actual IPRRC paper). They have studied what they can find through a limited tool, but you recommend other vendors you’ve worked with to make their research stronger. The result is more reliable data that influences a crisis response protocol you eventually use with your clients. And so on.

No facet of our collective profession is inherently more important than another. When academics and practitioners on the agency and brand sides can learn from each other, we produce excellent work to progress our profession.

To learn more about the IPRRC and other public relations research opportunities, visit the Institute for Public Relations website.