Nathan Gilkerson2017 Scholar of the Year

What does your research focus on, and why does it matter?

One factor that ties together and informs my research is my experience working professionally in politics, public relations, and advertising. Shortly after college, I worked as a press assistant for a U.S. Senator in Washington, D.C., and then later worked on a campaign in my home state of South Dakota. Experiences developing strategic communication messages in politics led to a position working at a Minnesota PR firm, and then later to a small Minneapolis advertising agency that specialized in public affairs and political campaign clients. When I decided to go to graduate school and pursue a career in academia, I naturally gravitated toward the study of mass communication, politics, and how people are persuaded through media content and campaigns.

Recently much of my research has focused on political public relations and social media, with several studies examining how companies and organizations navigate polarized political issues in a fast-moving communication landscape. Qualitatively different — and arguably much more challenging — compared to when I worked in politics and public relations, today’s communication professionals face an environment of instant controversy and crisis, in which situations are often exposed and exacerbated via social media channels like Facebook and Twitter, and then amplified by a fragmented news media.

Beyond politics, I’ve also been working with colleagues on an interesting project on the development of health communication advertising campaigns and issues of college student binge-drinking behavior, and another, broader initiative focused on public relations and communication measurement and evaluation. I have been able to bring my professional experience to these projects, while also transferring what I’ve learned into the classroom. In addition, this research has also allowed me to make some great connections with industry leaders for our students in the College.

What is a project that you are working on now?

With several colleagues from both academia and industry, I am working on a project titled, “Evaluation & Measurement Programs in Private Sector Communication Departments.” It involves in-depth, qualitative interviews with chief communication officers and top PR leaders of corporate communications departments in major U.S.-based and global companies. The research has been supported by the Institute for Public Relations, allowing for increased access to key organizational leadership, and it has been exciting to make connections with and learn about cutting-edge and innovative communication measurement and evaluation practices from the industry’s top executives.

What excites you about this project? What do you hope to learn?

Our research focuses on corporate communication departments that have achieved a high level of success in implementing and utilizing communication evaluation and measurement strategies. It has been fascinating to learn what has worked well, but also what barriers may be holding back organizations that are either less dedicated to communication evaluation or not as sophisticated in their measurement practices. Industry leaders have stressed that accountability is a key issue facing the area of strategic communication and I hope that, through this research, we find ways for improving on the practice of communication measurement and evaluation, helping to build greater organizational credibility for the communications function.

What project or projects will you be working on next?

I’m finishing a book chapter focused on a recent PR nightmare encountered by the Wisconsin-based clothing retailer Lands’ End, related to a fumbled content marketing strategy — including a glossy catalogue interview by the CEO with feminist icon and controversial women’s rights activist Gloria Steinem — and the perhaps predictable fallout and online backlash from its foray into polarized politics. By the end, the company managed to alienate both the political right and left. As a case study, it serves as a “what not to do” exemplar for communication and marketing professionals.

I have been especially interested in what seems to be a growing trend of companies becoming more political in their messaging strategies, and the mixed results from this trend. (Think Starbucks and its CEO talking about topics ranging from gun control to race relations, or the recently pulled Pepsi protest-themed ad featuring Kendall Jenner.) As part of my next research project, I am interested in further exploring and better understanding the dynamics of these types of strategic communication efforts, which can result in both positive and sharply negative public responses, and can evolve quickly and unpredictably on social media platforms.