MARKET FOCUS: Use your intelligence

Four case studies show how research can make a difference

Four case studies show how research can make a difference

Florida State Board of Administration and Ketchum Retirement benefits are not a matter to be taken lightly. So, in 2001, when the Florida State Board of Administration undertook a program to explain to the state's 650,000 public employees the variety of plans available to them, it set aside a large budget for an up-front effort to figure out exactly how to go about its communications. The board, which now manages 25 funds and assets of more than $120 billion, turned to Ketchum to fashion an understanding of the large and diverse audience. That research, a combination of telephone polls, in-person interviews, focus groups, and other techniques, yielded some crucial surprises and ended up turning the firm's assumptions about how it would execute the PR program on their head. Ketchum's account team planned to base its communications around workers' employment, differentiating among state workers, local workers, and teachers. The audience research, however, demonstrated that this wasn't the best way to segment, and sent the team back to the drawing board. Says David Rockland, Ketchum SVP and global director of research, "If you looked across the three groups, there was no difference in terms of demographic characteristics like income, age, ethnicity. If you looked at financial attitudes, there didn't seem to be much difference among the three, either. We asked, 'What is different? Are there different groups of people?'" After trying a few different methods of segmentation, Ketchum arrived at a plan whereby it would segment based on financial knowledge. The audience was divided into three populations: Don't Knows, Don't Cares; Could Be Interesteds; and Wall Street Wizards. These categories were then translated into personas that were used in the brochures, posters, and videos. After this, the team implemented another phase of quantitative and qualitative research that put to the test proposed creative approaches and messages. Even now, the program undergoes regular analysis, with an annual tracking survey that measures awareness, comprehension, attitudes, and behavior. Florida State University professor Jay Rayburn, who was hired by the state to do quality control, hails the program as a "textbook" example of research use. He says, "If the campaign is not created on sound information on who people are and what they know, then you might give somebody just enough information to make the absolute wrong decision, which means come retirement time, they don't have any retirement. And it doesn't get any more critical than that." Internap and GCI Group Internap's story is a tale of tech survival. Formed in 1996, the niche ISP player went public three years later and quickly became one of the many companies swelling the massive tech bubble. At one point, it had a market capitalization of $14 billion on just $12 million in sales. But the bubble burst. Internap's stock declined badly. The company, however, persevered. In 2002, Internap moved from Seattle to Atlanta and hired a new CEO, which marked the start of a long process of repositioning itself in the post-bubble world. The company's leadership spent that year and part of 2003 putting its finances and cost structure in place and trimming back the headcount. Internap entered this year fresh with acquisitions and new initiatives, ready to be repositioned in the media. The company hired GCI, which began its proprietary "ecosystem audit," a process in which a team from the agency and its parent, Grey Global Group, immerses itself in the client company, seeking out objectives, challenges, core competencies, and its overall direction. The Internap audit involved interviews with executives, analysts, and the media. The team also attended Internap's sales conference, spoke with customers, and hired an outside firm to conduct a detailed media analysis. The sum of all this research was that, as the company communicated its new position in the marketplace, it had to take a different approach to the media. "All this helped baseline the general perception out there of who we are and what we do," says David Sutton, senior director of strategy and marketing communications. "It helped us focus. Instead of doing a shotgun approach to communications with our positioning, we've really become far more focused in terms of messaging. We're positioning [ourselves] as a tech company versus a carrier because carriers today carry a lot of not-so-positive baggage. We're really a tech company that helps businesses do what they do over the internet better." Narrowing its list of target media meant a better quality of coverage, including pickup in a range of publications including the Atlanta Journal- Constitution, eWeek, and InfoWorld. "We've had tremendous results over the past three months," says Sutton. "We've really upped the gain in terms of getting real stories, where we've got reporters interviewing us and writing original pieces rather than picking up and writing stories from a press release." TXU and Delahaye Medialink Since Susan Atteridge has led communications at Texas-based energy company TXU, she's insisted on a culture that supports research and measurement. But in the fall of 2002, when the implosion of TXU's European operation threatened to take the entire company with it in a crisis that spiraled out of control almost overnight, that culture became more than just a sensible way of managing. It became a key to the company's survival. That's because a strong reliance on numbers - a quantification of how the media was covering TXU in its most dire hour - was keeping alive a crisis communications strategy based on open and timely responses to media inquiries. This strategy was responsible for mitigating the reputational damage, maintains Atteridge, SVP and CCO. As is often the case when the media barbarians are at the gate, TXU leadership and legal counsel wanted to batten down the hatches. Atteridge says, "The executives were closing up and we had the potential, [due to] legal challenges and the fear we could have massive lawsuits along with reluctance to be exposed, [that] we'd just stop communicating to the media." But in her daily meetings with TXU's leadership she was able to convince them to stay the course, largely because she made her case for openness in clear terms. Her team commissioned weekly spot checks from Delahaye Medialink in order to demonstrate, using the company's "net effects" score, where TXU stood in relation to other companies in the same industry at similar points in their crises. The general correlation is that TXU fared better in controlling the crisis because of its openness with the media. "We were able to show them through research that our approach was more effective than [that of] other companies," she says. "The respect of my colleagues in the executive suite went up enormously, as did our credibility." The reports also provided guidance to the corporate communications team, which was more than a little nervous as it moved forward, especially since it had bucked its outside PR counsel's advice. "We needed the research to reassure ourselves that this is a huge gamble, but one that's working," she says. Altria, Morgan & Myers, and NOP World For many years, there was but one way to describe the relationship between farmers and the companies that make up the conglomerate now known as Altria: buy-sell. And, as in any such relationship, there was a tendency for each side to view the other as an adversary. In the late 1990s, Altria, then still known as Philip Morris, opted to change this by launching a major research program to close the gap between the agricultural producers and companies like Kraft and Miller Brewing which use so many farm products. The Shared Solutions program began in 1998 with benchmark focus-group-based research that identified farmers' perception of Philip Morris companies. "They weren't really viewed as being leaders within agriculture," says Bob Giblin, senior PR counselor and research director at Jefferson, WI-based PR firm Morgan & Myers. "They weren't really understood as creating a market for farm products." That research sparked a number of initiatives under the Shared Solutions banner, from environmental concerns and food safety to biotech programs. Working with Roper Public Affairs (part of what's now known as NOP World), Philip Morris and the American Farm Bureau Federation, co-sponsor of the study, began, in 1999, a comprehensive survey of consumers' and farmers' perceptions of each other, as well as of issues that affect both. "A key thing we found is that it's helpful having the different key players or constituencies because they often think they understand each other when they don't" says Annie Weber, VP at NOP World. "It's a very powerful tool when you can ask each of them the same question separately." The research identified several areas of mutual concern. The findings were then shared with media and a number of agricultural groups. "The biggest thing with the gap research was that it was a huge door-opener," Giblin says. "It brought new knowledge and understanding to the table of what consumer and farmer opinions were and how close or how far apart they were." Says Katherine Trent, director of agricultural relations at Altria, "It helped us shape the entire focus of the program. We have used it to develop great relationships with ag groups. For all these programs we've worked on, that research has been the basis of it." In 2001, Altria conducted another round of research. It found that the objectives laid out two years earlier as a result of the benchmark research had been met and the company had shored up its reputation as an agriculture-based consumer group.

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