Virtual strategic positioning to create social presence: reporting on the use of a telepresence robot

  • Melanie James
  • Deborah Wise University of Newcastle, Australia
  • Luk van Langenhove Vrije Universiteit Brussel
Keywords: positioning theory, social presence, strategic positioning, telepresence


This qualitative cross disciplinary research examined to what degree social presence was achieved through the use of a telepresence robot by one of the authors, in her capacity as a keynote speaker at an international research symposium. We explored if and how social presence was a factor in her ability to strategically position herself as a notable researcher whilst in ‘telepresence mode’, with the aim of understanding whether one could exercise the same degree of agency in telepresence mode as compared to appearing in person. We were also interested to know how those attending the symposium experienced having a tele present delegate in their midst. The research used an analytic framework based on Hassenzahl’s (2014) ideas of “experience design” and his des cription of the “user experience” and evaluated the tele present person’s ability to strategically position in a virtual environment by applying the analytical lens of Positioning Theory (Harré van Langenhove, 1999).
Findings indicated it is possible to establish a high degree of social presence whilst in telepresence mode. This relates to both the telepresence robot product and the phenomenon of telepresence as experienced by the user and symposium attendees. However, while the user was able to position herself successfully all indicators were that social competencies also played a significant role in her being able to interact in telepresence mode. Attending international conferences using telepresence robots is potentially attractive for economic and ti me saving reasons, but little is understood about how delegates experience telepresence and whether conference attendance objectives can be achieved. We demonstrate how social presence is achieved both through the capabilities of the telepresence robot, bu t also through a combination of the amount of symbolic capital possessed by the user and the user’s social competencies. This has implications for decision making in terms of who is likely to be able to successfully operate in tele present mode at such events.

Author Biographies

Melanie James

MELANIE JAMES, PhD, was an academic at the University of Newcastle, Australia, from 2006-2018. In 2015, she was awarded the National Golden Target Award for Australian PR Educator of the Year by the Public Relations Institute of Australia. Prior to this role, Dr James held executive level communication management positions and provided consultancy in strategic communication. Her (2014) book, "Positioning Theory and Strategic Communication: A new approach to public relations research and practice” (Routledge, UK) placed her as a leading researcher among international academics applying Positioning Theory to their respective fields. She continues to undertake selected projects and consultancy roles (

Deborah Wise, University of Newcastle, Australia

DEBORAH WISE, PhD, is an academic in communication at the University of Newcastle, Australia. Deborah’s research interests are in the area of public relations/strategic communication, and she has published in the areas of health, risk, and political communication. Her doctoral thesis applied positioning theory to analyse the strategic positioning of carbon mitigation policies by political leaders in Australia. Dr Wise has also held high-level strategic communication roles outside of academia, and she brings this experience to her research and teaching. Her current research applies positioning theory to examine inter-cultural communication within the context of higher education teaching and learning. (

Luk van Langenhove, Vrije Universiteit Brussel

LUK VAN LANGENHOVE, PhD, is Academic Commissioner for International institutes and Networks at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. Between December 2017 and January 2019, he served as Academic Director at the Institute for European Studies (IES) at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB). He previously held the position of Director at the United Nations University Institute on Comparative Regional Integration Studies (UNU-CRIS) in Bruges. He currently also teaches at the VUB and has been teaching at the College of Europe, the University of Maastricht and Université Libre de Bruxelles. Since 2018 he is a honorary professorial fellow at Warwick University (