Is choosing a public relations dissertation topic really that difficult?

Back in February, Simon Wakeman wrote a blog post entitled: Choosing a public relations dissertation topic.  Being an issue that interested me, I added some thoughts and signed up to receive updates on comments posted.  Over the past five months, there have been a steady stream of people adding to the post.  But, after the initial conversation, it is noticeable that the comments have amounted to no more than students stating that they have to do a dissertation and have no idea of topics so can someone help them.

One of the points of a personal assignment like this is that it develops self-directed (independent) learning and reflects a very important set of skills that are required in the work place.

The third element of the CIPR Advanced Certificate and Diploma qualifications involves selecting a topic that is of personal interest, and professional relevance, for a 2,500 word critique and a 6,000 word research project respectively.  A number of PR degree courses also involve selecting a dissertation topic, and post-graduate studies are often entirely based around a specific research area. 

Many students find this the most difficult part of their studies – even those who have succeeded in producing excellent work in responses to questions or topics set by examiners. 

It may be the fact that there is such freedom of choice, and candidates feel they have so many ideas and areas of interest that it is difficult to narrow these down.  Others claim to have no ideas at all and seem unable to even start the process of thinking of a suitable topic (despite the wealth of advice that is available). 

As a tutor, I find that getting students to complete an outline based on a series of reflective questions is a helpful starting point.  Students do need guidance to ensure that they produce a coherent piece of work, that adds something to existing knowledge.  This originality can be as simple as a different perspective, a contemporary update or application to a specific organisation or sector.

In public relations, there is a growing body of knowledge, but still plenty of gaps where really interesting critiques, projects and dissertations can be developed.

Although the tutor can offer guidance and inspiration on topic choices, candidates must realise that they cannot produce good work if they simply ask someone else to give them a topic.

What’s more, the “real world” increasingly wants people who can not only solve problems, but identify problems that need to be resolved.  Choosing a public relations topic demonstrates such skills – if you read widely and have engaged with your studies, you should have a list of different areas where additional reflection and research would be interesting and of value.

Your tutor can then help you refine these to fulfil the format and other requirements of the individual assignment, but students do need to have the skills to originate a topic themselves.

Once you have identified a few areas of interest, I suggest students ask themselves some questions:

  • What is the aim of your project – what would you like it to achieve?
  • What interests you about this topic?
  • What is already known about this topic – and where are there areas of debate or controversy?
  • What areas of theory that you have studied are relevant to this topic (and which authors are prevalent in the area)?
  • What problems do you anticipate in undertaking a project on this topic?

We could apply the same questions to real life problems – knowing the aim, why it needs to be undertaken, what is already known, what tools can be applied and what issues could prevent a successful solution.

Rather than seeing the selection of a dissertation topic as a challenge, I believe this is an opportunity to apply the very skills that makes a successful public relations practitioner.

33 thoughts on “Is choosing a public relations dissertation topic really that difficult?

  1. Hi Heather – great post – I’m sure it’ll really help many of the students posting cries for help on my original post on this subject!

    I have been surprised by the number of people struggling to identify a suitable topic to work on – after an extended period of study I would have thought that most students would have a few thoughts on the direction for their projects.

    The other thing that I’d say is a pre-requisite for choosing a topic is that you must have a personal interest or passion in the subject – that’s what keeps me going when I hit those inevitable low points on a project like this.

  2. I would like to also suggest that students dive into the public relations journals, such as Journal of Public Relations Research.

    1. Find out what has been done to identify new territory to explore.

    2. See if you disagree with a study (the literature, methodology, or conclusions). If so, test your opinions through your own study.

    3. Look for the sections addressing ideas for future research. These appear at the end of most journal articles.

    As Heather said, make sure to pick an idea that will sustain your interest. Choosing a context you care about will help. For example, if you are passionate about ballroom dancing, do a public relations study that is nested in this context.

  3. Hi all,

    I’ve been trailing the web for about 30 mins now and have come across many sites where people are either crying for help because they don’t know what to write about or are just generally confused….

    Luckily, i fall into neither of the two categories and can happily (but not arrogantly) say that i’ve got quite a good title!

    As mentioned by several practicioners and academics, a good way to start is to identify something that you are passionate about and i must say, that being on my industrial placement this year has helped me immensely in identifying something that i’d like to know more about.

    I do stress to anyone who is currently studying a PR degree to take any opportunity to spend a year in the industry and experience first hand what it has to offer. Afterall, you never know, you may find your dissertation topic quite early on!

    However, for everyone who’s still looking, i personally think that you should write down a list of topics that appeal to you and view them in a PR perspective…start wide and then try to narrow it down…

    Hope that helps!!

  4. Hi, I do believe choosing a dissertation title is hard. As a mature sture I thought that there would be no problem finding something that interests me, therefore giving myself a ‘question’ to answer. But this is not the case!
    I am in my 3rd year of a PR degree and the whole course has interested me but my favourite subject has been Corporate Image and Corporate Identity. I have been sat for weeks reading books, checking out blogs, forums and other sites to get some kind of inspiration but to no avail.
    My tutor has been helpful to an extent, but obviously I need something a little more concrete to present to them.
    Big sigh!!!!

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  6. JT – I think that choosing a dissertation topic does need tutor support, but as you say, it has to be your decision and the tutor needs something robust to work with. I tend to find that drawing on different areas can be quite helpful as you can identify where two bodies of knowledge have not been brought together. For example, I know of a student who is looking at social media and ethics – good reading in both areas and little that has been written to connect them so far.

    Corporate image and identity is a rather broad area – so I would recommend you need to focus down. What is it that interests you about this? What other areas could you draw on – such as semiotics or persuasion theory. Or what about stakeholder theory – or linking image/identity to crisis or online communications?

  7. Hi Heather,

    Could i possibly email you – i know it defeats object of blogs and comments but would be great to discuss some thoughts on dissertation topics with you?

    Look forward to hearing from you!

    Thanks

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  11. As a student who is just crossing to this discipline is quite challenging.I hope thhis write up will do me alot of good, am sitll looking for a project topic.

  12. Hello all,
    I have exactly the same problem with this topic dissertation on PR, I have a half idea I am really interested to, but I it’s quite confusing:

    On PR theories is quite important the humanity and giving importance to any single worker (appreciate people’s job and work on human relationships).
    But human beings are quite selfish and tend to admire their superiors and ignore the subordinates (that’s a fact).
    What I’d be interested to talk about is how PR can behave that way if at the end they explain to companies how to be more human and so.
    The point is: behaving like this for a traditional boss is normal werther for a PR shows incoherence and not professionalism.

    Does it make any sense? Please email me: claudia.ferreres@gmail.com

    • Claudia – I think that looking at employee empowerment would be interesting for you in relation to the comment you left. There is a lot of relevant literature that looks at this in respect of power which you could then relate to PR and its role in respect of management and employees. Main thing though is to avoid being too opinionated yourself and look for a way to investigate a topic more objectively. So if you believe already that management does not respect employees, perhaps it is worth examining how empowerment could be improved through internal communications for example.

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  15. Hi, Im so interested in completing my dissertation in the ‘celebrity pr’ field. Im really not sure how to narrow the title down though? Could it be something along the lines of “Exploring the important role PR plays in manufacturing and maintaining celebrity brand image” I literally dont have the first idea where to start, uni is offering no solid advice ANY advice you could give me would be so so so grateful. Thank you so so much.

  16. Grace – there is plenty of good advice in the comments above. In particular I think you need to consider the nature of your dissertation – for example, if it requires you to undertake primary research, what is feasible in relation to celebrity PR for you to do? Your suggested title wouldn’t really enable you to undertake primary research if required and sounds more like a reflective essay title.

    I suggest you start with reading around the topic of celebrities and PR – there are plenty of books and journal articles that you can find. Authors such as Erdogan (see http://fulltext.ausport.gov.au/fulltext/1999/cjsm/v3n3/erdogan&baker33.htm) have looked at various theoretical aspects relating to source credibility and so forth.

    If you do need to undertake primary research, then you could perhaps think about an area such as celebrity use of social media which is an area where you could undertake robust content analysis. For example, you could consider something like whether celebrity use of social media reflects dialogic communication with followers. Or look to build a model (inductive research) on basis of studying the approaches that the celebrities use to build and maintain their follower base. Or you could compare and contrast those known to use PR agents to produce their social media content with those who are using the mediums themselves.

    Outside of the online world, perhaps you could look at the role of celebrities with charities – and undertake primary research with PRs within charities. Or if you don’t think you could access these, then start with who you could survey – for example, fellow students and look at something like the extent to which coverage of celebrities in magazines is viewed to be influential by GenY.

    There are lots of avenues, but best starting point is theory and relevant academic knowledge, 2nd consider what primary research you can do and thirdly talk with a tutor to bring the two together.

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  18. Can someone suggest me how would diversity in PR be for a dissertation topic? it is something i have always been interested in as i feel cultural diversity is one of the main issues in any organization… but i really don’t know how to go about???

  19. Hi heather, echoing grace, i am overly confused and i cant find any help from people in school, can i email you personally to discuss, in urgent need

  20. Gagan – sorry not to have responded earlier. Diversity is a good topic and there is beginning to be specific literature that you can read on the issue(s). What you need to do is look at which area of public relations you wish to connect to the concept – are you looking at a country, a sector, a particular aspect of diversity and/or the relevance of particular models within PR. A lot of the academic work on diversity links into other disciplines – such as identity, legislation, role theory and so on.

    Sounds interesting so good luck

  21. Stacy,

    Not sure how I can help you with your studies. You need to have some idea to start with and have based this on your syllabus so that you have a topic that you are enthusiastic about researching which is based on a body of theory. What are your initial ideas?

  22. Hi Heather,
    I posted on Simon Wakeman’s post too, but it seems inactive! I was hoping maybe you could help me out! I have a dissertation plan due this week, and my areas of interest would be entertainment PR and social media. I am very confused, as it could really be anything from fashion or celebrity PR to analysing Kony 2012 campaign-like some of my colleagues did. I am looking for something current and original, but I’m stuck and cant narrow it down any further!
    Could you please help?
    I should stress here that I’ve only done a fully academic dissertation in the past-meaning that I only used books and on-line sources without conducting any primary research- so the topic that I choose should be something that I can apply to PR! Any help would be greatly appreciated!

  23. mpfalangi – I can’t really help individual students and I expect that Simon has found, as I noted above, that comments are primarily people asking for such help. I gave some advice in my initial post and that still stands. In your case – I would have 2 comments:

    1. Start with the theory – as you indicate you’ve done an accademic dissertation previously without primary research, that’s actually a great start as you should use that experience to identify a relevant body of literature and theoretical framework around which to base your topic. So if thinking of entertainment PR and social media, then what is the theoretical basis for your interest and investigation? What have you already read or studied on both aspects (entertainment PR and/or social media) that could inform the study? Are you looking at something like Grunig’s models eg 1-way vs 2-way or perhaps implications for the gatekeeper role (so could look at communications theories such as Westley-McLean)? There’s no point in analysing any campaign if there’s not a robust literature review related to PR theories underpinning the research.

    2. What research methodology is realistic and valid in relation to the objectives of the study (which need to be derived from the literature review)? Don’t think of a topic in flat terms, but think of it as an “an investigation into…” or identify a question. For example: Does the use of social media by celebrities threaten the gatekeeper role of their PR advisors? Or what are the benefits and drawbacks of using social media: A case study of celebrity Twitter use.

    Then you need to be clear about what is feasbile – I would suggest social media is going to be content analysis primiarly – so you need to read up on this as a method of research not just think you can analyse a situation without understanding the academic side of conducting online research.

    Hope this helps.

    • Thank you very much for your help, really appreciate it. I think its great that you are so eager to share your knowledge with others, and more professionals should follow your example!

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