Cross-institutional collaboration sparks student research on AI, crisis communication

December 1, 2023 • Jonathan McVerry

CCTT - Page Center Collab

When students from Penn State and the University of Georgia met to kick off a research partnership this past August, they quickly realized they were gaining more than a line item on their CVs. They were getting experience leading collaborative cross-institutional research that will address important topics affecting public communications today.

The new colleagues left that initial meeting inspired and tasked with two projects that will examine artificial intelligence and environmental communication through the lenses of crisis and ethics.

The unique collaboration combines the strengths of two research centers that host student lab groups – the Arthur W. Page Center at Penn State, a research center specializing in the promotion of ethics and integrity in public communication, and Georgia’s Crisis Communication Think Tank, an initiative that combines academic experts with seasoned communication executives to refine the practice of crisis communication.

“We wanted to bring our students together to conduct studies at this intersection of research,” said Yan Jin, CCTT co-founder and C. Richard Yarbrough Professor in Crisis Communication  Leadership at Georgia. “I am pretty sure we are one of the best models of cross-institutional collaboration in our field, putting forward a blueprint for connecting student researchers from different universities.”

The August kick-off meeting was held at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication 2023 Conference in Washington, D.C. The goal of the meeting was to present research ideas that would address ethical dilemmas and crises caused by new technology. Leaders and recent alumni from the CCTT and Page Center lab groups joined the students to brainstorm the yearlong projects.

“The synergy was just everywhere,” said Holly Overton, Page Center research director and associate professor of advertising/public relations at Penn State. “Everyone was excited to be there, and the students filled the room with so much brainpower and so many unique ideas.”

Proposals were submitted and two ideas were chosen for funding, provided by the Page Center.  Based on interest, students split into two groups to explore the research ideas. One group, led by Georgia Ph.D. student Wenqing Zhao, is studying how organizations can handle ethical issues with how employees use artificial intelligence. The other group, led by Penn State Ph.D. student Megan Pietruszewski Norman, is examining corporate use of images during environmental crises.

“Every step of the way the students have exceeded my expectations,” Overton said. “That includes everything from the number and types of proposals we got with great ideas to the way that they so seamlessly were able to form teams.”

Expected outcomes from the projects include summaries of the research published on the Page Center and CCTT’s websites, conference and publication submissions and a panel discussion at a future conference.

Layers of support

When building this program, Jin and Overton wanted to be sure the two teams felt free to explore their research curiosities, but that support was available when the students needed it. They also wanted to provide opportunities that they say are unique to this partnership, like cross-institutional collaboration, research leadership experience and connections to established research centers.

“I see multiple layers,” Jin said “There are faculty, alumni advisors, peers from industry and academia and the students who are in different years. Their exposure is layered, deep and enriching.”

Recent Page Center graduate student and current Georgia faculty member Nicholas Eng and former CCTT graduate student and current research consultant at Ketchum Taylor Voges serve as alumni advisors. Experienced researchers from both universities are also available to help mentor the groups, but Overton and Jin both say it’s the students who are running the show.

“We have as much autonomy as we want,” Norman said. “We can reach out to get feedback throughout the process, and that collaboration makes for better research. We're exchanging ideas and perspectives that you don't always get when you're working with the same group of people at the same institution.”

Zhao noted that combining these different perspectives with the resources at the CCTT and Page Center opened the door to opportunities not common at other institutions. She and her colleagues are taking on major projects, and she says major projects are easier with a team.

“If you want to do something really important, you have to think big,” Zhao said. “I’m always afraid to do that, but this collaboration allows me to think big. Without it, I may never study something like artificial intelligence, because it’s so new.”

Thinking big

Zhao’s team is studying a topic that has been in news headlines and corporate strategy agendas all year. It’s also been a point of concern for ethicists from every corner of business and media.

Artificial intelligence.

A recent survey reported that nearly 50% of public relations practitioners regularly use AI (a 10% jump from just this past July) to do a wide variety of tasks from data analysis to content creation. Adapting, reacting, and strategizing has become a vital part of corporate business plans, but guidance is scarce.

“We started to think about how organizations should deal with AI-related issues,” Zhao said. “Practitioners are very interested in knowing more about what artificial intelligence is, especially how to deal with the uncertainties related to generative AI.”

Zhao said policies at many companies are sometimes as simple as “AI is OK or AI is forbidden.” She and her team noticed the gap in policy and hope to address the need for effective strategy with their project.

“AI can actually help employees be more productive,” Zhao said. “So, if a company is uncertain on how employees can use it or they outright ban it, it could make employees unhappy.”

The research team will review ethical AI frameworks, hoping to identify effective strategies for organizations to address AI ethical threats. By surveying public relations practitioners, they aim to gauge employee perspectives on AI. According to Zhao, a goal of the project is to “amplify the employee voice” and find a way to empower practitioners so they can make informed decisions regarding AI use.

“We’re not sure if organizations really understand what their employees are thinking,” Zhao said. “I think it’s valuable for us to provide some of that insight that can help them in their future decision making.”

In addition to the survey, the team will administer interviews to gain a better idea of what public relations practitioners think of AI. Zhao said working with Voges, who specializes in qualitative studies and is currently a practitioner, and Eng has been especially helpful with this part of the study. The two-part study will reveal a fuller view of what practitioners expect when it comes to ethical AI strategy.

“A very big advantage of this collaboration is that it combines the resources from both the Page Center and the CCTT,” Zhao said. “The combination can lead to great outcomes.”

Ethical imagery

There may not be a more common image for environmental crisis than the oil-soaked duckling waddling across a messy beach. It must be effective, because Norman says these types of images, as well as other images of company efforts, are carefully chosen and used strategically. From an ethics angle, her team will be examining several types of images and seeking to find out how they affect stakeholder perceptions of a crisis.

“We want to know the potential impact of various kinds of visual strategies used in crisis communication,” Norman said. “How could different visuals shape our understanding of a company's response to a crisis?"

She added that the project has an ethical component that examines how images are chosen and the emotional response they may elicit.

The project won’t be limited to photographs. The team is examining infographics – data visualizations like bar or line graphs combined with text – that show a crisis over time. The goal is to provide practitioners with guidance on effective strategies when communicating about a crisis that have environmental consequences. The results could help practitioners choose images that accompany social media posts and introduce strategies that evoke responses in an ethical way.

“We hope to offer empirical evidence that helps support or give insights into some of these decisions,” Norman said. “We want to provide some thought or explanation about ethical decisions when picking visuals, so practitioners are selecting them with care and understand what the ethical implications are.”

Similar to Zhao, Norman said the mentorship from Eng, Voges and the other scholars strengthens the project. 

“You don’t know what you don’t know, and having their feedback and ideas helps make the project stronger in terms of theory and hypotheses and practical implications,” she said. “The entire program has made our research better. Anytime you get that kind of collaboration from different perspectives or institutions, it adds insights and nuances to the project that you might not have gotten.”