Social capital and the impact of advocacy networks

by Jeff Merron '92 (Ph.D.)

When most people talk about social networks these days, they’re referring to Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram — the apps and websites that form the backbone of social media. But when Adam Saffer, an assistant professor of public relations at the UNC School of Media and Journalism, talks about social networks, online connections form only a piece of the puzzle.

Saffer’s research takes a network perspective to investigate a range of communication questions around how the concepts of social networks and social capital work in public relations, political communication and health communication. “Social networking sites have helped us visualize and think about how we’re all part of different and expansive social networks,” said Saffer. “Network research studies how our social connections influence our behaviors, attitudes and understanding of the world around us.”

Network analysis moves away from studying the correlations among individuals’ attributes — such as age, race, gender, political affiliation, etc. — to examining the relationships among individuals and the ways those relationships impact us. Relationships are the unit of analysis for network research.

“The reason network analysis is so powerful is that it can provide a more precise measurement of how communication campaigns are having an impact,” explains Saffer. “It’s not enough to know that people are just generally talking about a campaign, or what they're talking about. We need to know who they're talking about it with, because people's behaviors are often influenced by how they think other people will perceive that behavior.”

Sophisticated campaigns that use both traditional and social media can add this knowledge to their toolbox and reshape what is being conveyed in order to better achieve goals. “If we know how these campaigns are being shared within social networks, then we might want to change the messages in the ads,” said Saffer.

Advocacy Networks Form Around Content

Traditionally public relations is thought of in functional terms — messages are created by public relations professionals and consumed by a target public. Saffer’s network research takes a different approach. Instead of assuming publics simply receive messages, Saffer studies how a target public interprets a message, retells a message and how that retelling impacts the relationships in a network.

This is crucial to understanding where Saffer’s research is going. Some researchers study how public relations practitioners use communication tools to build relationships, but Saffer studies what practitioners communicate to build relationships. “All of the new online platforms haven't changed what we’re communicating,” Saffer says. “What we really need is to better understand what is being communicated — and how that affects behaviors and relationships.”

Saffer examined an international advocacy network to study how content affects relationships. His mixed methods approach blended qualitative research — text analysis and interviews — with network analysis. This enabled Saffer to reveal the structure of the advocacy network as well as the points in the network where messages were retold. His focus on the retelling of messages revealed the shared meaning in the network, and how this shared meaning strengthened the relationships within the advocacy network.

Exploring How Social Networks Impact Interpretations of Anti-Tobacco Ads

Saffer uses communications theories to inform what is, at its heart, an examination of public relations that has immediate, practical applications. Now Saffer is exploring how network research can inform other areas of communication research. In early September, he received a grant from UNC’s Center for Regulatory Research on Tobacco Communication to use network analysis techniques to study the FDA’s “Real Cost” campaign. Saffer, the project’s principal investigator, will be assisted by MJ-school Professor Seth M. Noar and Marissa Hall, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Health Behavior at the Gillings School of Global Public Health.

The “Real Cost” campaign, which began in February 2014, utilizes many types of media to communicate specifics of tobacco’s harmful effects. Aimed at teens, the campaign uses the web, social media, print, TV, radio and billboards to warn of tobacco’s addictiveness and many negative health effects.

Specifically, Saffer will be studying how interpersonal communication and social networks influence individuals’ awareness of the campaign in general, as well as its specific elements. The research will also examine what young adults are talking about when discussing the campaign, who they’re talking about it with and how these secondary interactions prompted by the campaign affect behavior.

“The Real Cost campaign has started a lot of conversations among people, especially adolescents, within their social networks, about the cost of smoking,” says Saffer. “We know these types of advertisements get people to talk, but what we don't know is who they're talking about it with and what affects their social networks have on how they interpret the message of the advertisement.”

In short, while there’s evidence that the “Real Cost” campaign has worked, there’s less understanding of what specifically has contributed to its success. To this end, Saffer and his co-researchers will be using network research methods to look at interactions about the campaign within social networks. One unique aspect of the study is that it is using “ego network” analysis — in which each individual is the central player in his or her own network, with all of the “ego” nodes interlocking to form larger social networks.

The data collected via surveys will produce complex social network maps, and enable Saffer and his co-researchers to examine how, for example, an individual’s conversation about tobacco use with a family member may vary from one with a peer, or how a discussion with another smoker may differ from that with a non-smoker.

Saffer began teaching at UNC in 2014 after receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Oklahoma’s Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication. Over the past few years, his research has appeared in Public Relations Review and Public Relations Journal. In that work Saffer explored the complexities of digital communication used by opponents of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), who succeeded in blocking the bill in 2012 using a variety of coordinated protests, including Web site “blackouts.”


Jeff Merron is a freelance journalist who was a staff writer for, a columnist for and a contributer to many other websites as well as national publications. He received his Ph.D. in Mass Communication from UNC in 1992.