Measuring controversy’s impact in public relations messaging

April 18, 2017

Dustin Supa and Melissa Dodd

By Sarah Vlazny, Page Center intern

Corporate social advocacy and CEO advocacy are becoming increasingly relevant topics of study in the communications field. While studying differences between forms of advocacy-focused content, Page Center scholars found that the level of controversy plays a role in a message’s impact.

In their study, Examining the impact of advertising vs. public relations in consumer engagement with social responsibility, Page Legacy scholars Dustin Supa, Boston University, and Melissa Dodd, University of Central Florida, examined how consumers receive corporate responsibility messages. The project was published in PRism journal.

This study explored how message content impacts Americans. Specifically, the researchers examined the differences between a public relations editorial and common advertising methods.

Surprisingly, there was not much difference. Supa and Dodd found that readers were impacted nearly equally by advertising and public relations. However, an ethical dimension uncovered some differences between the two types of content.

People tended to perceive public relations as slightly more ethical than advertising. These differences were very small. They found that the most important issue for consumers is message content—the more controversial the message, the bigger the impact on consumers.

Dodd cited real-world examples of this phenomenon, such as the issue of same-sex marriage. She said that if a consumer is a proponent of same sex marriage and a corporation such as Starbucks comes out in support of same sex marriage, the consumer is more likely to purchase from Starbucks or recommend the company to a friend.

“While this may not seem surprising,” Dodd said, “up until now no one had looked at how controversy plays a role in behavior.” In fact, the Page Center funded the majority of these initial studies in corporate social advocacy and CEO advocacy.

Specifically, the study looked at two different messages. The first message, a company showcasing their commitment to environmental responsibility, was thought to be less controversial than the second, which took a stance on LGBT rights. Supa and Dodd measured the impact of the messages by examining criteria such as purchase intention, word of mouth behaviors, and purchase authenticity. They found that all of the criteria were impacted more heavily when the issues were controversial. They also found that central to the impact of controversial messaging is the consumer’s alignment with the issues.

“The CEO and corporate advocacy research has really resonated with a lot of people,” Supa said.  “We’ve been fortunate to have articles in both major trade outlets and popular outlets such as Forbes.”

Dodd and Supa have already seen a rise in corporate activism, and expect this trend to continue in the future.

Corporate social advocacy and CEO advocacy were very understudied phenomenon when Dodd and Supa proposed their study, and they are glad the Center took a chance on supporting such a new area of research.  “An advantage of the Page Center program is to recognize that ideas are worth exploring,” Supa said, “whether they do or don’t have a lot of potential.”

“We have seen more and more companies, particularly in this election year, take controversial stances,” Dodd said. She cited companies that voiced either support or opposition to Donald Trump, such as Buzzfeed’s refusal to take ad dollars from the Trump campaign. A similar example is the PGA Tour’s choice not to host its tour on a Trump golf course.

But Dodd says a company’s stance on a controversial issue isn’t the only thing important to consumers. “What’s becoming more important now is the authenticity factor—people are increasingly skeptical of companies who seem like they’re trying to do the right thing but aren’t necessarily authentic,” Dodd said. The public is wary of companies who issue statements about an issue to increase sales or garner media attention without supporting their statement with action.

Dodd and Supa plan to continue their research on corporate social advocacy by studying the long term effects of advocacy on consumer expectations and purchasing patterns, an idea that has been relatively unexplored.

Dodd also conducted an independent study on how different messaging types in the context of corporate advocacy impact the outcome. For example, she compared the outcome of an informational message versus one with emotional appeal and persuasion. She also examined threat and punishment strategies—an example of which would be Starbucks claiming that by supporting a competitor, the consumer is not supporting same sex marriage. Dodd’s preliminary findings found this strategy to be the least effective. She found the most effective strategy to be a bargaining strategy, where a company like Starbucks would meet with an anti-same sex marriage organization to try to work out their differences.