2020 was marked by a global pandemic, a massive movement for racial justice, and political unrest. Seeing this climate as a unique opportunity for research, Illinois State graduate student Kelly Murphy ’18 decided to study how professional sports teams have communicated with their fans on social media over the past 10 months.

When starting this project, Murphy discovered not much research had been conducted into professional sports teams’ corporate social responsibility (CSR), even though CSR has become commonplace for professional sports teams across the country.

“Especially with social media being such a huge way to disseminate information today, I was very surprised that few researchers had focused on this from a public relations perspective,” said Murphy.

This absence of research presented the perfect opportunity for Murphy: She could pair her academic expertise with her passion for sports. However, she struggled to figure out where to start with her thesis. She began her research by consulting with one of her thesis advisors, Associate Professor of Communication Dr. Rebecca Hayes.

“I’m primarily a social media scholar, so I look a lot at the uses and effects of social media by brands,” said Hayes. “Brands can use social media all they want, but if it’s not effective, what’s the point? We still see a lot of organizations where the leadership is like, ‘Why are we expending resources doing this?’”

Murphy and Hayes saw this as an excellent opportunity to provide insight into how teams’ social media audiences react to CSR messages and how those campaigns can impact an organization in the long run.

“Not only are sports a huge culture in the United States and across the world, but sports teams can have a major impact on the lives of citizens,” said Murphy. “I wanted to know what initiatives teams are engaging in and how their fans are responding to it on social media.”

In her research, Murphy has analyzed the social media accounts of 32 professional sports teams across all four major leagues in the U.S.: NFL, NBA, NHL, and Major League Baseball. She categorized the types of CSR initiatives that teams partake in, such as health or education, and then assesses whether the social media feedback is positive or negative. She has analyzed responses across multiple social media platforms but has found that the most indicative fan responses are on Twitter.

“You can use the response that those actions are getting on Twitter as a proxy for the public perception,” said Hayes. “We will know what the public values.”

Murphy and Hayes emphasize that researching CSR’s return on investment is of the utmost importance for influencing teams’ business decisions, and they also suggest that this type of research can be applied to understanding CSR efforts in industries such as health care, hospitality, and entertainment.

“Once we document the base level of the initial response to CSR efforts, you can build off that and use it to drive further fan interaction, such as increased commitment to the team or purchase behavior in terms of merchandise or tickets,” said Hayes. “Organizations should adjust their CSR initiatives to increase their return on investment.”

Murphy began working on her thesis after classes shifted online last March due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Her research does not have concrete findings yet, but as she is preparing to wrap up her thesis, she is thankful for the guidance she has received from Hayes and the rest of her thesis committee. She especially credits Associate Professor Dr. John Hooker and Associate Dean for Research, Facilities, and IT Dr. Joseph Blaney for the roles they have played in ensuring her research is strong and valid.

“Everyone has just been incredibly supportive,” said Murphy. “I’ve been working on this for a while, and it goes without saying that it has been a difficult past 10 months for us all. But they’ve been a great help at each step of the way.”

Hayes notes that working on a thesis is hard enough as it is—let alone in the middle of a global pandemic. Despite this, she is proud of how Murphy has prevailed through new challenges.

“Everything is disrupted, but Kelly’s focus on this project from March through now has been excellent,” said Hayes. “She’s been keeping all of her deadlines, and when we’ve hit roadblocks, she’s been excellent about working around them.”

Murphy, who earned a bachelor’s degree from the School of Communication, is set to graduate in May with a master’s degree from the school and enter the workforce, where she believes this research experience will prove to be invaluable.

“I want to help organizations understand the value in the philanthropic initiatives they’re engaging in,” said Murphy. “My passion is helping organizations better connect with their communities. I think this is really important work.”