PR dissertation: how to do it badly

8 Sep

I get more correspondence on this topic than any other. (I don’t flatter myself: a simple Google search throws up my previous Dissertation problem page.) Here’s a recent example: ‘NEED HELP. I am just starting an MA program in Communication Studies. I am faced with choosing a topic. I am so confused and I need help. I just read the PR blog and I find it very interesting, but I still need help… Hoping to hear from you soon.’

Let me turn this on its head and list the most obvious mistakes students can make with their dissertations:

  1. Google is truly the wonder of our age, but not everything that can be known can be found by a Google search (yet). Your best starting point for your dissertation is still the library. Start by reading some books and see what questions interest you. Then keep on reading.
  2. You fail to choose a clearly defined subject area (eg internal communications). If you are struggling to write a concise title, it may be that you don’t have a clear subject in mind.
  3. You don’t ask a specific question about your subject area (eg Is internal communications the most important PR channel for FTSE 100 chief executives?).
  4. Your literature review is descriptive rather than critical. By this we mean that you list the books you’ve read and describe their contents, but you don’t show that you’ve read them with the intention of helping you to answer your question.
  5. Your primary research is too little, too late. How does a student focus group help you to answer the question we posed about internal communications? You don’t say because you don’t know.
  6. You don’t connect your literature review to your research findings. If the two things are consistent, what does this suggest? If they are very different, what can explain this?
  7. You don’t reach any valuable conclusions because of the reasons given above. Nor do you redeem yourself by proposing any recommendations (eg about further research).
  8. There are more online sources cited in your references than books (see point 1 above). References are inaccurate (that’s silly: this is one thing you’re allowed to copy without us calling it plagiarism. But you need to read some academic texts to see how they do it.)
  9. You don’t develop a working relationship with your supervisor. This is also silly: they will be marking your work. They may frustratingly believe that questions are more interesting than answers, but they are there to help you, so co-opt them in your project.
  10. Last, but not least: you leave it too late.

7 Responses to “PR dissertation: how to do it badly”

  1. Heather Yaxley 08/09/2008 at 5:53 pm #

    I’m not surprised you get a lot of correspondence along the “help, can you come up with a topic for me” lines. Simon Wakeman wrote a post when starting his CIPR Diploma project last year and is still getting similar comments left.
    I think one key area that this highlights that you don’t cover is that the topic needs to interest the student personally as they will need to work on it for some time and become in effect an expert on the area. If you aren’t really engaged at the start, it won’t sustain your interest (let alone that of your tutor or other readers in due course).
    Another piece of advice is to leave plenty of time for analysing findings, reflecting on these in relation to the literature and original research objective and then providing considered recommendations as well as an insightful conclusion.
    Often the initial promise is let down by poor analysis of the results and a lack of time and word count devoted to the “so what does this all mean” element.
    Having said all this, I really look forward each year to working with new dissertation students as this is an exciting opportunity to dive into a different area and gain new knowledge. Just save me from the Grunig four model topics though, please!!

  2. Richard Bailey 08/09/2008 at 8:02 pm #

    Yes, I enjoy the process too – and like the 6,000 word CIPR Diploma projects perhaps more than the fully-fledged 12,000 social scientific studies.
    But I’m amused by the thought process that leads to someone thinking that the answer to their dissertation problem must be at the end of a Google search. Time to get out and do some reading…

  3. Brendan 09/09/2008 at 9:50 pm #

    Having helped students with their work, some things that came across quite strongly for me were:
    * Don’t write something that is non-commital. That is, try and push things forward. I’m tired of coming across academic material online that promises everything but says nothing. Give an interpretation, and give it up front. As long as your conclusions fit your data, you’re fine. People who work in the industry are always scratching their heads to figure out how to move forward, so any light you can shed on this will be useful.
    * Don’t succumb to the temptation to use very, very, very long words. As a sometime copywriter I’m a firm believer that people use long words to hide the fact that they either don’t know what they’re talking about, or that what they’re talking about doesn’t hold water. There is a temptation to use long words and complex language in academia, certainly, and to an extent within the industry, but the best ideas are the most simply expressed. Einstein put it best, right? Also don’t forget that your tutors will be ploughing through many dissertations, and yours needs both to stand out, and interest them. What could be better than a dissertation which grabs their attention, and makes them actually want to read it? If you use tortuous, long-winded, hackneyed wording, they will get black bags under their eyes, heave a sigh, and read it without really reading it. If you want a career in PR, that is not the way to grab attention.
    * Do start using social media. It’s not totally PR, I know, but it’s part of it, increasingly so, and I learned so much about PR – for free – by reading some great blogs and listening to some great podcasts. I know Richard linked to a recent post of mine on social media – I won’t link to it again but I’m sure you can find it on this blog – but really, it’s such a brilliant thing. You would pay literally hundreds of pounds to spend the same amount of time with some of these people. But it’s free! Good God!
    * Do think about carrying out your own research. Katya Trubilova ( actually came to see me in my workplace, and included some of her interviews with myself, and other PR bloggers, in her dissertation. I was most impressed by the initiative she showed, and very willing to help her. All it took was an email. I think most people working in this field are more than ready to help other people, especially students. Use us.
    Hope this helps.

  4. Katy Marshall 10/09/2008 at 9:48 am #

    Thanks for the advice guys! I just submitted my dissertation pro forma this week after spending months deliberating about a subject area. I have a feeling I’ll be referring back to this post many times over the next few months!

  5. Katya 10/09/2008 at 11:42 am #

    Brendan is right. Social media is a great source of information! I am learning from it all the time. How would I know what to say at a job interview for a position where I lack practical experience? The best way is to look for bloggers working in this industry and learn from their conversations.
    I like social media and open-minded adventurous people who are discovering new ways of getting the most of it!

  6. Help with public relations dissertations

    A link to a useful article by Richard Bailey on public relations dissertations.

  7. Lydiah 26/09/2008 at 1:33 pm #

    Dear Sir,
    I am taking PR and PA course and am in level one. Now how do i handle dissertation, how do i go about it. Example, you have selected a tour company to do a case study.
    Please offer help on the guidelines to follows.

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