How to Conduct PR Research Ethically – Marcia DiStaso

Joining me on this week’s episode is Marcia DiStaso, Associate Dean for Research in the College of Journalism and Communications and Professor of Public Relations at the University of Florida. (Go Gators! – my second favorite orange team). She discusses a number of important ethics issues, including:

Why don’t you tell me about yourself and your career?

I’m the Associate Dean for Research in the College of Journalism and Communications at UF. Before I was associate dean for research, I was the department chair in public relations and I held that position for five years. Before that, I was at Penn State as a faculty member, and I’m super proud of the things that we have accomplished here at the University of Florida. Just a quick mention, we were the PR program of the year for PRWeek last year. We’ve also won multiple top student awards. But in addition to my responsibilities as an associate dean, I also teach public relations courses and I also conduct research. My research has historically focused on social media, financial communications, and investor relations.

My research over the past eight years has been more focused on organizational purpose, and I’ve been having a lot of fun in that space lately. Underlying all of my career, ethics has been important to me.

I want to tell a quick side note about something that happened to me while I was at Penn State. PRSA had a poster, “Act Ethically and Carry On”. If you don’t have one, I feel sorry for you. It’s a great poster. It’s red, it stands out. I got that years ago and put it on my door at Penn State so everyone who would walk by would see it.

And of course…someone stole it. So, I Tweeted about it, “I can’t believe someone stole it.” And I like to think it wasn’t a PR student, it could have been anyone. It’s always been one of those things in the back of my mind, I hope people who conduct behavior unethically reflect on that moment in their life. That person that stole my poster, I hope they remember that that was really a terrible thing to do. PRSA replaced it and I proudly display it in the PR office here at the University of Florida. Only, I learned my lesson, it’s framed.

it’s like I tell my students in the ethics class I teach at Boston University, “It’s an ethics class. If you’re going to cheat, you’re cheating in an ethics class.”

What is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work or that your research has highlighted?

I struggled with this question. One specific example is really hard. So what I think I’m going to do is focus on ethics and research. I am an academic, I support graduate students. I also conduct my own research, but I’ve been in this research space for so many years. I have some examples in that space that I would like to highlight.

I was a co-chair of the PRSA research committee. We would receive surveys that people wanted to send out to members. Our responsibility as a committee was to look at the survey and determine if it was of value for member time.

Is this research that’s needed? Is this research that’s done well? And if not, it shouldn’t go to the members. Member time is valuable. Quite often we would go through these surveys as a committee and really have to think about, are the questions being asked in a way that were misleading? Are they being asked in a way that are biased? Are they being asked in a way where the person is trying to get the respondent to say something specific? And very often, even with outstanding scholars, we would find that there were items in surveys that were doing just that. So we would try to figure out how we could go through and coach people to write the survey instruments in a way that was grounded in ethical principles of research. For years I participated in that.

I’ve seen it in many different aspects of my career, both from undergraduate students writing surveys, to consulting work that I’ve done, to my work with PRSA. And that’s always been a struggle. How do we ask a question from which we’re truly looking to learn? We’re not looking to prove something that we have in our mind and then kind of force the respondents to go in that direction.

And another example that I wanted to highlight is when you’re analyzing your data. You conduct a survey, you get data. Well, sometimes your hypotheses stand, and sometimes your hypotheses don’t. It’s not the responsibility of the researcher to go in and cherry-pick that data or conduct different analyses to get the findings that they want. Truly treating that data ethically and responsibly is another important aspect that I would say. I’ve seen many people try, struggle over that. “Well, what do I do? It didn’t get the findings that I wanted.” Well, that’s research.

I had a good conversation with Katie Payne about that a couple of years ago for EthicalVoices and she shared the example about the colleague that was kept on narrowing down the focus until she’s like, “I can say you have the majority share of voice, if you look at four articles in a two week period.” That’s what it is, the data shows what the data shows.

The data shows what the data shows.

A third example comes down to thinking about how every aspect of what we’re doing is important. A few years ago, a colleague and I met with someone who was telling us about a campaign that he conducted that failed. Campaigns fail. It happens. He was struggling over it because he knew he was losing a client. He was very concerned.

He said, “Well, tell us about the research that went into the pre-campaign. How did you decide what to do in the campaign?”

He said, “Well, I did a focus group.”

It’s like, “Ooh, a focus group.” So one focus group is not good practice. That’s not textbook practice. Typically, we want to do at least two focus groups. The idea being you can have someone in a room that can dominate the conversation. You can have something wonky happen. You can have random people that are not truly representative of your population that you’re trying to learn about. Good practice is to have at least two where you can compare.

If those rooms are different then you do a third, and if those are different, you do a fourth, then you keep doing it until you hear similar information. It’s getting that quality, ethical data. He said, “A focus group.”

I thought, oh, no. Okay, well, maybe that’s the problem. So then I said, “Well, how many people were in the focus group?” The textbook says six to 12 people. You don’t want too many. You don’t want too little. You need enough to get that quality data.

He said, “Well, actually, it was just me and another person.” Okay, well, that’s not a focus group.

That’s an interview. Maybe. Maybe an interview. I’m still research-minded. Okay, so he did an interview. And so I thought, breathe. I want to know how long the interview was and what the setting was, but okay, let’s keep focused.

I said, “Well, what did you discuss? How did the interview go?”

He said, “Well, I told him my idea for the campaign and he liked it, so that’s what I did.”

That’s a conversation. And not even a two-way conversation. There is nothing research about this. He then told the client that he had done a focus group and came up with the way to do the campaign. This was a hundred percent misleading. It is the reason, in my opinion, the campaign failed.

It’s a strong example of someone who did not lead with ethics, someone who did not pay attention to how and why we do research. Ultimately, this is someone who’s no longer with that client and no longer, I think, in public relations.

That’s a chilling story. It brings me back. Another proud Gator friend of mine, Judy DeRango Wicks, she set the example early in my career when we were working on Fiserv and we were trying to get people to pay bills online.

Everybody knew the reason to pay bills online was because you hated writing checks for two hours. This is back in the old days. But we actually looked at the data from the research and we found out that was not the most compelling reason. It was the third most compelling reason. Convenience and the ability to control when the money comes out of your account were more important.

I think back, if we hadn’t checked the conventional wisdom, we would’ve had a great campaign. We would’ve the same amount of media coverage because the reason wasn’t what drove the media coverage. But we wouldn’t have driven change. That really hit home to me at a very early age why research is so vital and you need to check your assumptions.

This individual did none of that. He even led the interview. He came in and said, “This is the campaign I think we should do. What do you think?”

This is going off topic a little bit. I am spending all my free time is with generative AI right now. I used to draft a research survey to see how it did. It was okay for a basic survey, but I don’t know. Have you seen any studies or have you seen usage around generative AI and survey questions?

I have. Typically what I’m seeing is if you’re asking non theory driven research using the common scales that are available, you can get an okay survey. But when you have to really think about and connect that research to both previous practice scholarly approaches, as well as really thinking about what the client needs or what the campaign needs, that’s where it falls short because it can’t think into the future and it can’t totally synthesize everything.

Sometimes it’s not that straightforward. If you say you want to use a trust measure, well, there are 52 different trust measures. Which one is the appropriate one for that audience? It can’t properly analyze.

You said you look at purpose a lot, and many of the conversations I’ve had with people have dealt with ethical failures around purpose, greenwashing, woke washing, all of these things. What has your research found in terms of this? Are companies being authentic? How can we get companies to be authentic?

I have another great ethical example of that. I talked to a Fortune 50 CCO who said, “We practice purpose when we’re talking to the media.” That’s not the right way to do it. That was a handful of years ago, and that individual is actually doing really great work now, but that person didn’t buy into purpose at the time.

If you don’t understand the value of purpose, it’s really hard to get your team on board and to do it in the right way. If you understand the value, if you understand what your stakeholders need, then doing it authentically is a little more natural. Is there greenwashing? Yes. Is there purpose washing? Yes. Is it the bulk of people? I doubt it. I really do. There’s enough research that supports, that’s why people choose to work for companies and choose to stay because the company’s doing something of value and they understand it.

Doing purpose work and not communicating about it is also problematic. Communicating about work that you’re doing in a way that over inflates it, problematic, all of that. The stakeholders have eyes and ears and they can see, and they can give you feedback in a variety of ways. Oftentimes, they walk. And it’s customers, it’s employees. We know what people expect and we know how to deliver it, but is it a priority for everyone? That’s where we find things can be problematic.

Have you seen it becoming an increased priority and more authenticity?


Beyond your own personal experiences, what are you seeing as some of the key PR ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?

I would say the key challenge is… well, we kind of already mentioned it, AI. AI brings a lot of additional ethical challenges. They bring ethical challenges today, and they’ll continue to bring ethical challenges into the future. We need to think about the inaccuracies, the discriminatory outcomes, the embedded bias.

There are a lot of different elements to that that come to play. I also think that it’s something that as educators, we have a responsibility to make sure that we’re training the future PR pros to really understand what these tools are and how to use them. But also to think about the ethical components of using them. Just today, I saw the New York Times did an article saying AI can create essays to get into Harvard and Yale and all the top institutions, but is that ethical?

We’re struggling with every component of all of this right now. We’re trying to think about, what do we do? How do we test students? It used to be, you’d tell them to write an essay and you knew it would be their thoughts. We’re not in that situation now. That’s the education viewpoint and the easy in many ways. But we have a lot of different challenges, like you said, creating a survey. If you hire a team or tell your team to create a survey to figure out what stakeholders need, and you’re doing it using AI, are you getting the best survey? Are you putting proprietary information into the world? All of these different components bring different added challenges and the ethical implications just continue to grow.

I agree. That’s why I helped the PR Council draft their AI ethics guidelines. And now ChatGPT has finally announced a sandboxed element, which gets rid of one of the major issues that people have had. Now, mind you, they’re not transparent about their pricing yet. So we’ll see how that kind of plays out. And if the average person can afford it or small business can afford it.

That’s it. That’s it right there. And so many people will say, “Well, why would I pay for it when there’s a free tool?”

What are some of the ethics questions people should be asking about AI? I know you already mentioned bias. Are there other elements?

I would look at the accuracy. At the end of the day, we need humans to think about what it’s giving us. I’m not saying don’t use it. I think there’s a lot of valuable uses, but then we need to be considering when we’re using it, why we’re using it, how we’re using it, and then what we’re getting from it. If what we’re getting is worth not having someone else do it, and we’re not having to redo it, and it has the quality, we need to really think about why it is able to come up with that quality that we can’t get in-house. And if in fact, it is true, higher quality. There are plenty of case studies that show that it is not true higher quality. Speed is not everything.

I had a conversation with someone, who has a premise that AI’s inaccuracy, makes it much more human and effective because humans make mistakes and cite sources confidently all the time. So AI is actually acting like a human. And I’m just like, “Yeah, but you’re supposed to eliminate some of those issues to make it useful and not claim it as a benefit.” It was a very interesting take on the matter.

Yeah. And I can see that. And there’s examples of people saying, because of that human element, it’s harder to catch when people are using it. It doesn’t sound like a robot. But again, does that give us a false sense of security and comfort that it’s accurate, and there’s enough examples of where it is not accurate. So I’ve seen it cite my own research incorrectly.

When you talk to students, what are the ethics issues that most engage them?

I don’t teach an ethics class, so keep that in mind. I teach principles, the entry level. So I would say a lot of students come into this with the idea that organizations are bad. Going out and working for an employer that’s going to ask you to do something that crosses your ethical or moral guidelines.

How do they plan for that? How do they navigate that space? That’s the biggest concern that I hear again and again, and that seems to be increasing over time. As we peel back and learn what public relations is, then they get it more. That doesn’t remove those questions and we add to that list. But I would say predominantly the biggest is how do I make sure that my voice about what I think is ethical and what I think is moral matters when I’m entry level, is the biggest with students at that entry level stage.

I spent a lot of time with students talking about that and how you can get that autonomy and advocacy and if you can’t, where you can find somebody to help be the champion.

You’ve given some great advice and some great insights, what is the best piece of ethics advice you ever received?

If in doubt, don’t do it. And then to follow it up. Mickey Nall, who’s a PR professor here at UF and outstanding PR Pro, past president of PRSA, all amazing person, he likes to say, “We do PR, not ER.”

I think that dovetails really well with what we’re talking about. We’re not running with our hair on fire the majority of time. We can slow down and think about what we’re doing. We can slow down and think about is this the right way to do it? And if it’s not, find someone to help do it the right way. There’s enough people out there to serve as counsel, as advocates, so you can call, especially educators, you can call us up. Ask us our opinion. We’re here. And make those truly informed decisions before we act.

Listen to the full interview, with bonus content, here

Mark McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA
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Mark W. McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA, is the general manager of C+C's Boston office. C+C is a communications agency all about the good and purpose-driven brands. He has more than 20 years of tech and fintech agency experience, served as the 2016 National Chair of PRSA, drove the creation of the PRSA Ethics App and is the host of


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