Example of a Successful Proposal: COJO

Title of Proposed Project: The Effect of Social Media Participation on Message Interpretation
Abstract: Today, people often have the ability to provide their opinions when reading
information online. Previously, there was less opportunity for this level of interaction when
reading the same information in a more traditional format, such as a newspaper. This leads to
new research questions about how viewing people’s online comments may affect a reader’s
perception of the information presented. This study asks, “(How) does public participation
online affect an individual’s interpretation of a message?”
It uses an experiment consisting of four conditions: reading a news article 1) with no ability for
people to comment; or followed by 2) positive comments, 3) negative comments or 4) mixed
comments. It is anticipated there will be a difference in attitude towards the information
presented in the news article, depending on whether - and what type of - comments follow.
This study has implications for public relations practitioners, news organizations, and the public.
I. Background, context, and goals for the project
The growing use of the Internet and social media has opened up the opportunity for
audiences to communicate directly with organizations, and one another, on a much larger scale
than was previously possible. This ability for audiences to participate online has influenced, and
even changed, the public relations (PR) industry over the past decade (Wright & Hinson, 2008).
Because the digital landscape is changing so rapidly, its effect on public relations has
remained largely unexplored in the academic literature. A review of the major peer-reviewed PR
journals (Public Relations Review, Journal of Public Relations Research and Public Relations
Journal) over the past three years revealed a few descriptive studies on the use of technologies
such as blogs in PR (e.g., Kent, 2008; Wright & Hinson, 2008), but there is a lack of research
addressing specific PR-related research questions within a social media context. Currently, the
body of knowledge about social media use in the field consists largely of PR practitioners’ “best
practices” experience. While helpful, there is a need for more systematic study.
This research project takes an initial step in filling this gap by asking, “(How) does public
participation online affect an individual’s interpretation of a message?”
To illustrate the significance of this research question, think of the experience of reading the
Star Tribune newspaper online. On a given day, Internet readers may choose to read an article
entitled, “Toyota’s reputation for quality tainted,” which is about Toyota’s decision to halt
production of eight of its models due to a problem with the car accelerators (Strumpf, 2010).
What is different about reading this story online is that people have access to the 76 comments
posted by other readers, as well. In this case, comments ranged from positive: “History will
prove the genious (sic) of this recall,” to negative: “I shudder every time I'm on the road and a
Toyota comes by my Ford.”
The goal of this research is to first establish whether the ability of the public to “contribute”
to the information people are viewing online (e.g., their comments) actually affects people’s
understanding of, and attitude towards, that information (e.g., an online news article). If so, a
second goal of this study is to begin to explore how people’s online contributions are changing
message interpretation, specifically depending upon whether the comments are positive, negative
or both. The third goal of this study is to create a research agenda of follow-up studies that
further explore how people’s online contributions are changing message interpretation.
There is a rich tradition of scholarship that is applicable to this question, including areas such
as message processing (e.g., Petty & Cacioppo, 1986; Chaiken, Liberman & Eagly, 1989),
source credibility (e.g., O’Keefe, 2002) and attitudes & persuasion (e.g., Forgas & Williams,
2002; Albarracín, Johnson & Zanna, 2005). However, the majority of this research was
conducted before the mass adoption of the Internet and its widely available two-way
communication tools. Instead, prior research has studied message processing and attitude change
in a static context where the “message” has been read in isolation, without the added potential
influence of others’ opinions now commonly available in today’s online environment.
This current research will consist of an experiment with four conditions: an online news
article with 1) no comments; 2) positive comments; 3) negative comments; and 4) both positive
and negative comments towards the topic addressed in the article.
Statistical analysis will compare the groups to see whether there is a significant difference in
people’s attitudes towards the online news article information, depending on whether or not they
read comments at the end. Including positive, negative and mixed comments will further
increase our understanding of how particular comments may influence message interpretation.
Study measures will include: favorability towards the topic, message believablity, message
credibility, comment credibility, and understanding of the key points of the message.
II. Plan of work
For this study, I will work with two co-authors, who will help me collect data at their
institutions. My role as lead author is to generate the initial idea for the study, write the
introduction, literature review and method sections, develop the theoretical framework, finalize
the study stimuli, develop study measures, contribute to data collection and analysis, edit the
findings and discussion sections, as well as the overall paper, and oversee the project timeline.
My co-authors will assist with developing study measures and collecting data, and will write
first drafts of the study stimuli content, findings and discussion sections.
I estimate that I will spend at least 10 hours/week completing this work. Receiving course
release time will be essential to completing this project within a semester – something that is
important as I prepare to apply for tenure in Fall 2011.
III. Project's value
My objective for 2010-2011 is to focus on professional engagement and scholarship,
consistent with the goals discussed at my third-year review. This project is a logical next step
resulting from my dissertation work (completed in 2008). Therefore, I believe this current
project is an important way to demonstrate that I am continuing my research agenda (I will spend
this summer finalizing a manuscript to submit for publication from my dissertation).
This current work is relevant to strategic communicators, as well as news organizations. For
example, it is useful to PR practitioners who represent the organizations or issues mentioned in a
news article who need to know whether additional online comments influence a person’s attitude
when reading the news. Strategic communicators participating in the online community also
need to know whether it is wise to allow people to post comments (which could be either
positive or negative) on their own Web sites. This research could easily be extended (goal #3 for
this project) from news site to Web site settings to address this question. News organizations
interested in providing accurate information to the public also would be interested in knowing to
what extent a “comment” feature may influence people’s understanding of a story.
This work would also benefit students in the classroom. Public relations professionals expect
this generation to be leaders in social media; this research can provide an example of knowing
how to use technology not just tactically but strategically, and can go beyond textbooks that are
not able to keep up with rapid technological changes.
IV. Evaluation and Dissemination of the project
If awarded a research grant, I will have spent my course release time well if I have initiated a
new research agenda by completing a conference paper by the end of Fall 2010. I would plan to
submit this paper to the PR division of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass
Communication (AEJMC) annual conference.
Additionally, I would expect to have finished planning for, and possibly collecting, a second
wave of data for a second conference paper that could be combined with the first to form the
basis of a manuscript for publication.
Ultimately, I would consider this project to be a success if it led to publication in one of the
two leading peer-reviewed public relations journals: Public Relations Review or the Journal of
Public Relations Research.
The “Project Timeline” column below lists what I believe would be realistic to accomplish
within one semester. Because I will have the assistance of co-authors, I also have included the
“Additional Work If Time Allows” column to show how I would spend course release time if the
work goes more quickly than anticipated.
April 2010
Project Timeline
 Turn in IRB paperwork
 Arrange with other UST
professor(s) to collect data in
their classrooms
Additional Work If Time Allows
 Design and pre-test research
measures (questionnaire)
 Develop and pre-test study
stimuli (online news articles and
 Draft introduction and literature
October 2010
 Collect data
 Draft method
 Plan next steps for a follow-up
study and publication
 Develop and pilot test research
measures – phase II
 Develop and pilot test study
stimuli – phase II
 Analyze data
 Draft findings
 Collect data – phase II
 Draft discussion
 Revise and finalize entire
conference paper
 Plan next steps for a follow-up
study and publication
 Analyze data – phase II
 Begin drafting second
conference paper and/or
manuscript for publication that
combines the two studies
January 2011
 Revise and finalize second
conference paper
 Draft manuscript for
publication that combines the
two studies