Advice from the PR Pros: Maril MacDonald

The Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication has conducted oral history interviews with dozens of the nation’s most influential public relations practitioners. The Page Center website features a vast collection of transcripts and videos of these interviews. On this blog, we will highlight some of the advice given by professionals on attaining positions in the field of public relations.

Maril MacDonald

Maril MacDonald

Maril MacDonald is the Chief Executive Officer and founder of Gagen MacDonald LLC.  She is a nationally recognized leader in communications and strategy execution.  Prior to Gagen MacDonald, she served as vice president, corporate communications, and was a member of the Executive Management Committee for International Truck and Engine Corporation (formerly Navistar), and with CEO John Horne, directed a successful cultural turnaround, bringing the company from the brink of bankruptcy to being named to the Wall Street Journal’s “Top 10 Performers” list and Business Week’s “Top 50 Companies”.

MacDonald is the current President of the Arthur W. Page Society and is a member of the Arthur W. Page Center Advisory Board.

 Value of a sense of fun in the PR workplace

“We talk about the Page principles; conduct public relations as though the whole company depends on it. Well, that’s a serious calling right? And that’s a lot of work and something one shouldn’t take lightly.”

“In the same sense, a lot of what we do is very exhausting work. A lot of what we do is working with organizations that are going through tough times, and people who are working day and night through extraordinary conditions; trying to balance their family, trying to turn around a company or deal with some difficult issue, and for us, we should show up and bring energy to them, not deplete them. And we should show up in a way that always bears in mind how critical the mission is, but not take ourselves so seriously that we grind everybody into the floor.”

“And that’s a really important distinction for us, and something we spend a lot of time on, because as consultants, the worst thing to do is to swoop in and drown everybody or just really exhaust them. And that can happen a lot. It’s very easy to go in and go oh, you should be doing this or you should do that or isn’t this terrible. I just really believe that it’s totally wrong.”

“And so we’ve always looked and said, if you can’t have fun along the way, and keep a sense of humor, then why are we doing this?”

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Research Funded by Page Center to Appear in Public Relations Journal

Research funded by the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication will be featured in a special issue of Public Relations Journal in August 2014.

Among the papers produced by ten scholar groups funded last year by the Page Center to investigate various aspects of communicating corporate social responsibility (CSR), four or five will be selected for inclusion in the special issue, said Dr. Denise Bortree, senior research fellow in the Page Center.

Bortree coordinated the CSR-related research effort by the Page Center last year.

“We are pleased that Public Relations Journal—designed specifically to help transfer knowledge from the academy to practitioners—will highlight these Page Center-funded papers,” Bortree said.  “Practitioners will now have this avenue to gain insights into the communication of CSR issues.”

Public Relations Journal is published quarterly by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). It is an open-access, peer-reviewed electronic research journal facilitating the transfer of knowledge from the educational community to the professional community.

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Page Center supported new book on social media ethics

A new book, Ethical Practice of Social Media in Public Relations, has been published by Routledge.  It offers insights for PR practitioners, scholars and students on issues such as transparency, company social media policies, corporate social responsibility, and ethical frameworks for social media communication.

The book has 15 chapters written by communications scholars from around the world.  The editors are faculty members in the College of Communications at Penn State University.  Marcia W. DiStaso is assistant professor of public relations and Denise Sevick Bortree is associate professor of communications.  Both are senior research fellows in the Page Center which provided support for the project.

Read more about the book here.

Marcia DiStaso

Marcia DiStaso

Denise Bortree

Denise Bortree

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Congratulations, Dean Hardin!

We at the Page Center want to congratulate our director, Marie Hardin, upon being named dean of the College of Communications at Penn State after an extensive national search.  Read more about that here.  We also want to thank retiring Dean Doug Anderson for his 15 years of exemplary leadership of the College and for his constant and strong support of the Page Center and its mission.

Marie Hardin

Marie Hardin

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Research on CSR and sustainability featured at recent conference

by Denise Bortree **

One of the most popular conferences for academics in public relations is the International Public Relations Research Conference (IPRRC) which is held every March in Miami. This year I noticed a long list of studies on corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability communication. That was a pleasant surprise, given the Page Center’s recent efforts to fund high-quality research in this area.

Three of the studies were funded by a Page Legacy grant. Melissa Dodd and Dustin Supa looked at corporate social advocacy, how a company’s stand on a social issue impacts consumer’s purchase intentions. They have been working on this topic for a while, and this is another nice addition to their stream of research. Georgiana Grigore and Tom Watson presented a paper on internal communication about CSR, and how skepticism plays a role in the advocacy. We were pleased to fund this project, too, because the topic of CSR skepticism needs more attention. Melanie Formentin (a grad student here at Penn State) and I wrote the third funded paper, which reported the results of a content analysis on CSR and sustainability report videos that companies have posted.

Below is a more information about the three papers.

Title: A “Corporate Social Advocacy” Approach to Gun Control, Firearms Violence: Attitudes Underlying Consumer Purchase Intention and Policy Recommendations

Authors: Melissa D. Dodd (University of Central Florida), Dustin W. Supa (Boston University)

Abstract: This research uses the theory of planned behavior to expand upon past research by the study’s authors that has attempted to identify the relationship between organizational stances on social political-issues (gay marriage, healthcare reform, and emergency contraception) and consumer purchase intentions (termed, “corporate social advocacy”). The current research seeks to further this agenda by the social-political issue of gun control.

Title: Employees as CSR advocates: The role of skepticism

Authors: Georgiana Grigore, Anastasios Theofilou, Tom Watson (Bournemouth University, UK)

Abstract: This research offers a framework to public relations and corporate communications practitioners, which enhances the understanding of the use and value of internal CSR communication strategies and practices.

Title: Stakeholder Engagement on YouTube: Corporate Use of Video to Introduce and Explain CSR and Sustainability Reports

Authors: Denise Bortree and Melanie Formentin (Penn State University)

I would like to share a few other notable papers that I believe make an important contribution to the field of CSR and sustainability communication. One interesting paper covered the overlap between CSR and public relations. An important contribution of this paper is how CSR has been integrated into business strategy and goals.

Title: Untangling the Relationship Between Public Relations and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR): A Best Practices Perspective of PR Goals and the Use of CSR Initiatives

Author: Holley Reeves (University of Georgia)

Abstract: Eleven in-depth interviews explore the relationship between PR goals and CSR programs. Findings indicate that CSR initiatives primarily serve the community and support long-term business goals. PR interests are secondary.

I first met with the author of another paper, Matthew VanDyke, a few years ago, and I knew he would make an important contribution to our knowledge of environmental communication. His paper at the conference, with fellow grad student Zijian Gong, proposed an interesting study to test perceptions of green messages during crisis.

Title: Does Green Strategic Communication Help During Environmental Crises?: The Influence of Personal Involvement and Crisis History on Company Evaluations

Authors: Matthew S. VanDyke, Zijian Gong (Texas Tech University)

Abstract: This experiment tested the influence of a company’s environmental crisis history and individuals’ level of crisis involvement on perceptions of a company’s pro-environmental messages. Participants evaluated messages using continuous response and self-report measures. Results inform theory and practice of the roles crisis history and personal involvement play in subsequent evaluations.

Two studies at the conference confirmed what public relations professionals have long known. CSR communication has an impact on media coverage, but certain types of CSR initiatives are more likely to garner coverage. Using the agenda setting framework, both studies had somewhat similar findings.

Title: Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Communication: Intermedia Agenda Setting Effects between News Releases and Press Coverage

Author: Laishan Tam (Purdue University)

Abstract: Based on intermedia agenda setting theory, this study examines the extent to which CSR-related news releases published by electricity providers in Hong Kong influences press coverage about CSR. News releases on CSR topics which are more relevant to the core operations of the corporation and have higher impact on society are found to be more likely to be reported in the press.

Title: Agenda-building in corporate social responsibility: Analyzing influence in corporate crisis

Authors: Young Eun Park, Sung-Un Yang (Indiana University)

Abstract: Following agenda-building theory, content analysis of CSR news releases and CSR media coverage involving two time frames (before vs. after crisis) will be conducted. This study demonstrates (1) positive associations between salience of issues in CSR information subsidies and media coverage and (2) influences of information subsidies on media coverage.

Research on social media seems to dominate at IPRRC, with many academics and professionals searching for better ways to quantify the impact of social media engagement. One study of Twitter posts looked specifically at CSR communication.

Title: CSR dialogue on social media platforms: An analysis of CSR tweets

Authors: Lina M. Gomez (Universidad del Este, Puerto Rico), Lucely Vargas-Preciado (Johaness Kepler University of Linz, Austria), Ramiro Cea-Moure (Universidad de Burgos, Spain), Ismail Adelopo (University of the West of England, UK)

Abstract: This paper aims to discover who the most important “CSR actors” are and what they are discussing about CSR on twitter. Our research conducted a content analysis of 1623 public tweets from different twitter users. Cross collaboration between actors is needed in order to enrich the practice of CSR communication.

At the awards ceremony on the last day of the conference, Executive Director of the conference, Don Stacks asked members of the audience to raise a hand if they had travelled internationally for the conference. About a third of the room indicated that they had. And, the impact of international researchers is evident in the conference schedule this year. Here are three examples of good projects that look at CSR in an international context.

Title: Green Social Movements and Government Public Relations Efforts in Turkey

Authors: Gülşah Aydın, Duygu Aydın Aslaner (Yeditepe University, Turkey)

Abstract: This study discusses Green Social Movements in Turkey and PR efforts developed by the government. It is scrutinized in the scope of media relations, reputation and crisis management.

Title: Corporate Social Responsibility: Perceptions and practices among SMEs in Colombia

Authors: Nathaly Aya Pastrana (Adinas Group S.A.S, Columbia), Krishnamurthy Sriramesh (Purdue University)

Abstract: This study sought to understand the perceptions and practices of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) among a sample of Colombian SMEs. The data were collected using a self-administered online questionnaire (54 corporations), and from interviews with five opinion leaders and two representatives of SMEs permitted to assess the activities, motivations, stakeholders, decision-making processes, communication processes, resource allocation, evaluation, and the benefits of CSR among Colombian SMEs. Additionally, the study presents a brief analysis linking the findings to the specific socio-cultural context of the country.

Title: Corporate Responsibility in Post-Communist Eastern Europe

Author: Sorin Nastasia (Southern Illinois University Edwardsville)

Abstract: This paper discusses corporate responsibility in Eastern Europe, taking a critical public relations approach to examining cases from Poland, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. Data was collected through archival research. The study discusses the opportunities and challenges for corporations to position themselves as accountable and responsible social actors in Eastern Europe.

In addition to international context, the studies of CSR and sustainability looked at environmental issues that hit close to home, affecting the quality of life in local communities. Here are two examples.

Title: Strategic Ambiguity in Crisis: Fracking Information Designed to Educate or Deceive?

Authors: Kristi S. Gilmore, Sun Young Lee (Texas Tech University)

Abstract: This textual analysis of company websites examines the use of strategic ambiguity in the crisis communication efforts surrounding one of the petroleum industry’s most recent controversial activities: hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.”

Title: Improving Grease Disposal among Latino Populations in North Carolina: A Public Relations Case Study

Authors: Alan R. Freitag, Robin Rothberg, Sayde Brais (University of North Carolina at Charlotte)

Abstract: This project aimed at addressing the problem of improper disposal of fats, oils and grease (FOG) by population segments in North Carolina. This project aims to gauge levels of issue awareness among the target populations, identify constraints preventing desirable behavioral changes, then craft and implement a strategic communication plan to encourage proper FOG disposal.

And, I will wrap up this blog post on a topic particularly close to my heart, nonprofit communication. Christine Willingham at Florida State University took a look at the controversy between Susan G. Komen and Planned Parenthood and discussed the role of brand values as they match with cultural values. (Note: See my earlier blog post on this case study

Title: Susan G. Komen and Planned Parenthood: The Cost of NOT Understanding the Connections Between Cultural Values and Brand Values for Nonprofit Organizations

Author: Christine Willingham (Florida State University)

Abstract: The SGK—Planned Parenthood case demonstrates the necessity for organizations to understand the connections between cultural values and their brand values. Further, it is important for public relations practitioners to understand how stakeholders are conceptualizing the brand; particularly a nonprofit brand that encompasses a vision of an idealistic future.

The strong presence of CSR and Sustainability research at the conference indicates to me that the public relations field sees increasing value in knowledge about effective communication strategies in this area. The Page Center is about to launch a new Sustainability Communication Initiative to fund professionally-focused research in this area and offer useful research-based insights for practice. More information to come on this new initiative.

Denise Bortree

Denise Bortree

** Denise Bortree is associate professor of communications at Penn State and senior research fellow in the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication.

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Researching What Makes Persuasive Games Effective

by Brett Sherrick **

Many of the most popular video and computer games are designed for entertainment purposes, but games designed primarily for non-entertainment purposes – often described as serious games – are increasingly common as both commercial and not-for-profit offerings. Persuasive games are one category of serious games used to change attitudes and convey particular messages.

For example, the company Persuasive Games designed a computer game for the UK Clinical Virology Network.  The idea was to change the public perception about swine flu. Similar games have been used to advertise candy products, to create better habits for diabetes care, and to encourage more environmentally friendly attitudes toward energy consumption. These persuasive games have been created by major international corporations, governmental organizations, non-profit groups, and even motivated individuals.

Understanding whether and how persuasive games can be persuasive is an emerging area of research for persuasion and media effects scholars. It is an area of research in which I am personally invested.

With support from the Page Center, I am working on a research project that will examine what aspects of a persuasive game help or harm its persuasiveness. This research is aimed at determining the ideal way at communicating with various stakeholders via digital games. Specifically, I am investigating how the gameplay and the narrative of a persuasive game can – independently and in tandem – change people’s opinions and attitudes.

With the help of three undergraduates, I am creating a casual computer game for use in a research experiment. These students, both from within and outside Penn State’s College of Communications, have specialized skills in art and computer programming that are essential to make a polished, effective, and fun persuasive game for my research project.

The overall message of this game is one of healthy, balanced eating. This is a message common to many persuasive games, but the game and project that I’m working on will hopefully improve upon those games through investigation of what aspects of the game are most effective at conveying the intended message.

The gameplay, for example, includes a quota system that should convince players of the importance of balancing food types in their daily diets. The narrative, on the other hand, should convince players that college students should take charge of their own eating habits, since many college students are planning their own diets for the first time.

At this point, the game design team and I are simply trying to prove that the game we design can communicate the intended messages, but the ultimate goal is to determine what aspects of the game most effectively communicate those messages and, importantly, why. When completed, this research will provide empirical evidence to inform best practices for organizations hoping to communicate a message via games.

As more organizations adopt games-based communication, empirical evidence about the effectiveness of persuasive and communicative games will be helpful in crafting those games. One of the expectations of my project is that games are an efficient vehicle to provide multiple messages in one package, which – if proven correct – should prove especially useful to organizations and their communicators. Video games are becoming increasingly popular as an entertainment medium, but this research will hopefully show that their value as communication tools is yet undervalued.

Brett Sherrick

Brett Sherrick

** Brett Sherrick is a Ph.D. candidate in Penn State University’s College of Communications.  His research has received support from the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication. 

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Page Center Home to New Sustainability Communications Initiative

A step has been taken to make Penn State a national leader in sustainability communication with the formation of the Sustainability Communications Initiative.  The Arthur W. Page Center will be the “home” for this effort and it will be led by two Page Center senior research fellows, Denise Bortree and Lee Ahern.  For more information, check this out.

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Advice from the PR Pros: Bill Margaritis

The Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication has conducted oral history interviews with dozens of the nation’s most influential public relations practitioners. The Page Center website features a vast collection of transcripts and videos of these interviews. On this blog, we will highlight some of the advice given by professionals on attaining positions in the field of public relations.

Bill Margaritis

Bill Margaritis

Bill Margaritis is the former corporate vice president for global communications and investor relations for FedEx Corporation. After graduating from Michigan State University, Bill worked in the Michigan senate as a legislative assistant and was the deputy director of the Reagan-Bush ’84 presidential campaign.



Political experience valuable in corporate communications

“I think political experience is very profound and valuable in the corporate communications world. First of all, you have an outcome that takes place.  You have a defined time frame by which to operate.  You have multiple stakeholders with issues and agendas at play.  You have a competitor.  And you have to apply a lot of research rigor to understand the makeup of the population you’re dealing with, whether it be at a local, state level, or a national level.”

“So it forces you to move quickly, to have a strategy, to have a very clear execution plan, to be able to manage multiple aspects of a campaign—like a project management program would.  And to use analytics to target messages, target-positioning statements.  Understand the use of polling and research—much like you would in business between two corporations whether it’s Pepsi/Coke or FedEx/UPS.”

“And also, perhaps this may be the most important, is the power of volunteers. Of really collaborating and inspiring and leading volunteers.  People who aren’t getting paid but they believe in the cause.  That’s so important when you become a manager, an executive in the business world because it trains you in how to really motivate people when they frankly don’t even have to be there.”

“Plus, I think every executive from the CEO on down needs to understand how public policy and how legislation and how coalitions get developed.  Because every company is exposed to some regulatory or political issue, whether it be in the U.S. or abroad.”

“If you understand politics at the grass roots level and how decisions get made and how coalitions develop, you can then understand how the elected official or appointed official is going to think through their position.  And then what’s it going to take for you to connect with that person or persuade that person?  So you have to find something politically palatable.  It’s an art and a science.”

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Page-Sponsored Researchers to Speak on Corporate Social Responsibility at ICA Meeting in Seattle

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) research projects supported by the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication will take center stage from 1-5 p.m., May 22 in Seattle at a pre-conference session of the International Communications Association annual meeting.

“The research presentations will address a broad spectrum of CSR work, including environmental sustainability, social responsibility, nonprofit-corporation partnerships, employee diversity, and measurement of CSR impacts,” says Dr. Denise Bortree, senior research fellow in the Page Center, a research unit of Penn State University’s College of Communications.

“Following a panel of prominent scholars discussing recent CSR research, local practitioners will share their experiences with practical application of CSR in the field,” says Dr. Bortree, who is coordinating the pre-conference session.

Seven scholars whose CSR-related research was funded last year by the Page Center will present perspectives on their work.  They include:

  • Richard D. Waters of the University of San Francisco who will discuss an experiment to measure the effectiveness of communication of CSR efforts among non-profits.
  • Kati Tusinski Berg and Sarah Bonewits Feldner, both of Marquette University, who examine how corporations talk about the social impact of the CSR efforts and what the public expects from corporations in terms of social issues.
  • Jennifer L. Bartlett of the Queensland University of Technology in Australia.  She looks into best practices and future trends in communication about diversity.
  • Sora Kim and Mary Ann T. Ferguson, both of the University of Florida, who will look at predictors to evaluate effective CSR communication.
  • Denise Bortree of Penn State University who will discuss strategies and impacts of environmental sustainability communication from Fortune 500 companies.

The International Communications Association is holding its annual meeting at the Seattle Sheraton Hotel May 22-26.  The ICA is an academic association for scholars interested in the study, teaching, and application of all aspects of human and mediated communication.

The Page Center at Penn State is named for Arthur W. Page, longtime vice president for public relations at AT&T.  Page is often regarded as the founder of the modern practice of corporate public relations.  He was widely known for management according to the Page Principles, his guidelines for ethical and effective communication with key publics and for responsible corporate behavior.

The Page Center seeks to foster a modern understanding and application of the Page Principles.  It supports innovative research, and educational or public service projects in a variety of academic disciplines and professional fields.

Denise Bortree

Denise Bortree

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Page Center Co-Founder Left His Mark on Our Telephones

Although they are separate organizations, there is a lot of cross-pollination between the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication and the similarly named Arthur W. Page Society.

The Page Center, of course, is a research unit of the College of Communications at Penn State University.  The Page Society is the premier professional association for senior corporate communications executives.

Roger Bolton, who is president of the Page Society, is also on the Advisory Board of the Page Center.  Recently, he wrote a blog post for the Page Society about the late Jack Koten, who was a co-founder of the Page Center in 2004 as well as first president of the Page Society.  It seems that Jack is likely the person responsible for putting the * and # symbols on our telephone keypads.  Read Roger’s post here.

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