FOCUS: MARKET RESEARCH - Keeping your PR tactics on target - A PR campaign can generate a lot of coverage, but still turn consumers off Lexie Goddard discovers how agencies can reap the benefit of research.

The public was bombarded with articles about the demise of PEPs and TESSAs and the birth of the Government’s new financial brainchild, the ISA, in the run-up to the end of the last tax year in April. The personal finance firms which peddled these investment products must have congratulated themselves on a PR job well done.

The public was bombarded with articles about the demise of PEPs and

TESSAs and the birth of the Government’s new financial brainchild, the

ISA, in the run-up to the end of the last tax year in April. The

personal finance firms which peddled these investment products must have

congratulated themselves on a PR job well done.

But was it? Consumer research by Countrywide Porter Novelli at the time

showed that, despite acres of coverage, 82 per cent of those who read

the print had no intention of buying a PEP, ISA or TESSA.

As it turned out, some half of the agency’s 520-strong consumer panel

simply didn’t understand what an ISA was. Even more surprisingly, eight

per cent actually felt more negative towards ISAs after seeing the

coverage, no matter how positive it was, as they could not afford to

participate in the buying bonanza.

The findings highlight an obvious but often forgotten fact: just because

consumers read a favourable review about a product, it does not

automatically mean that they will buy it, or that they will think

positively about it.

This does not just affect the perception of editorial coverage. When

shown a voucher offer for half-price flights in a national newspaper,

some interviewees concluded that the airline must be under-performing to

launch such a good deal while, as with ISAs, others felt resentful

because they didn’t have the funds to take advantage of the offer.

The research is included in the first stage of CPN’s new survey, ’Closer

to the Consumer’. The study, which will be conducted twice a year, will

scrutinise consumer attitudes to a host of PR tactics. The agency is

hoping it will improve planning and enable staff to pick the best tactic

and medium for the job. It could also cut down on the ’hit and miss’

element of consumer PR. The findings will be for agency and client eyes


The panel was representative of the UK population, being 51 per cent

female and 49 pre cent male. A third were aged 25-30, 10 per cent were

18-24, 35 per cent were 45-54 and two per cent were 55 and over. Panel

members came from an even geographical spread in the UK.

The panel completed a 30-page questionnaire on their shopping habits;

leisure interests; ownership of consumer durables; media consumption and

demographic information relating to their home, family, work, education

and income. They then assessed a range of press-related PR tools

including an advertorial, a voucher offer, and product reviews, as well

as coverage of issues such as ISAs and GM foods.

Members were asked whether they had seen the coverage, the impact, if

any, it had on their attitude towards the company or product, and

whether the tactic had influenced or changed their buying behaviour.

Other areas such as broadcasting and the internet will be covered in

future reports.

Countrywide director Nick Hindle believes the PR industry should invest

more in consumer research if it wants to shake off its unscientific


’Advertising and direct marketing both have a very good grasp of how

their work affects consumer behaviour, but historically PR has been weak

at consumer research and interpretation,’ he says.

Hindle acknowledges the limitations of research, however. The ideal

solution, he says, is to fuse the findings with a client’s own data on

how its customers regard the company’s brand and products.

’By combining the two you can build a body of evidence about how people

respond to both the brand and the PR.’

The Proof survey carried out by PR Week and CPN this year shows there is

room for more consumer research: only a third of consumer PR agencies

used surveys.

Mike Fairchild, author of the Research and evaluation toolkit, says: ’In

many consumer PR campaigns, the research may already have been done,

it’s simply that PR people don’t know where to find it. By tapping into

existing research answers can be had for very little. We’ve certainly

got to educate clients to pay for R&E, but first we have to persuade PR

people to become more familiar with research.’

So what did other consumer agencies make of the research? Some were all

for evaluating tactics and felt CPN had taken a step in the right

direction in making PR more measurable.

’Countrywide deserves due credit for trying to measure the value of PR,’

says Lexis PR chief executive Bill Jones, but he adds a caveat: ’I hope

the research is genuinely useful and provides better insights into the

outcomes of PR and doesn’t end up being just another new business


Lexis itself often commissions research, which the agency pays for, into

consumer perceptions of companies or brands, usually with new business

in mind. ’Where client programmes are concerned, we try to be hands-on

with as much research as possible, including the mass of data often held

by clients,’ says Jones.

However, other consumer PR outfits had reservations about the usefulness

of broad consumer research.

Alison Miles, director of Grayling, says: ’For campaigns which are

trying to generate general noise in the media, broad-brush research is

fine, but to see if you are reaching your target market it’s better to

target as tightly as possible and then measure which tactic had the best

effect on the group.’

At QBO, managing director Trevor Morris agrees: ’We test specific

concepts on people who are definitely in the market for a product. If

they are not customers of a particular company, there is no point in

asking them questions about that company.’

Morris uses QBO’s sister company Brands and Issues Research for

qualitative research, and focus groups and Mori or Gallup for

quantitative research.

He believes using the same panel each time could mean that they begin to

give the answers they feel are expected, rather than giving a natural


’The danger of asking ’would you buy this?’ is that people always

over-claim,’ observes Morris. ’If consumers always did what they said

they would, all new product developments would be successful.’

Hill and Knowlton uses a kids panel, a youth panel, and an adult panel

to test financial products. It also has access to sister companies

within parent group WPP, such as market research firms Millward Brown,

the Henley Centre and the planning departments of advertising agencies

Ogilvy and Mather and JWT.

Hill and Knowlton business development director Jason Gallucci says: ’We

are not a generalist agency, more of a collection of specialist


With a company of our size, operating in so many markets, we have to use

both generic and specific research.’

For many agencies, however, the final decision over whether they conduct

an in-depth study, or just stick a handful of questions on an Omnibus

survey, ultimately lies with the client.

’Increasingly we are getting clients to agree to focus groups, but they

have traditionally been reluctant to spend a lot on market research,’

says Morris.

’It’s an age-old problem. If clients are spending pounds 50,000 on a PR

campaign and you ask them to spend pounds 20,000 on market research they

fall over, but pounds 20,000 is nothing compared to the money spent on a

big advertising campaign,’ he points out. ’PR budgets are getting bigger

and more is being spent on evaluation, but we also need more consumer



Cut-out coupons in local newspapers are one of the most traditional

consumer public relations tools, but they don’t exactly shout ’glamour

and excitement’.

Research into the tactic by Countrywide Porter Novelli, however, shows

that the humble coupon is still one of the most powerful PR tools.

As part of its ongoing consumer research survey into the effectiveness

of PR tactics, ’Closer to the Consumer’, the agency showed its

520-strong panel a coupon from McDonald’s which appeared in a large

number of regional newspapers. The voucher offered readers a free

portion of McDonald’s 99p pancakes at participating restaurants.

The results were convincing: 30 per cent were already aware of the offer

and 67 per cent of whose who saw the offer said they intended to cut out

and try the coupon.

When it came to the effect on attitudes, 29 per cent reported a more

positive view of the fast-food giant after seeing the voucher. Just one

per cent felt more negative towards McDonald’s.

’The results really surprised us as the positive response was much

higher than expected,’ says Mary Baker, associate director of planning

and research at Countrywide. ’Cut-out coupons are pretty standard agency

stuff, and this was a low-value offer. We had begun to take vouchers for

granted, but the research shows just how effective this tried and tested

tactic is.’ According to Baker, the results also yielded information

about the usefulness of particular media, which will aid the media

planning process. The fact that they did not appear in a glamorous

glossy or high-circulation newspaper points to the value of regional


’The regional press is quite often ignored by agencies, but they attract

interested, loyal readers because they relate to local people,’ says



The survey as news hook is still a popular tool for generating coverage

and aiding positioning.

Beatwax, the youth communications specialist, doesn’t often have the

luxury of clients with big budgets to lavish on research. Only one in 20

might devote the funds to analysing the market and then money is

minimal, so it needs to make results pay.

Having received a brief from Canadian Club whisky to target 25-plus

opinion formers, Beatwax went to 40 of London’s hippest bars and

conducted face-to-face interviews with 100 drinkers. It discovered that

most worked in the entertainment and communications professions and

decided to target them at work through their trade magazines.

The agency created a branded, CD-sized guide to forthcoming music, film,

fashion and the arts in London called The List and inserted it into PR

Week, Creative Review, Marketing and Marketing Week.

Account manager Simone Pound says: ’It is proving to be a successful

campaign with our target audience, including PR people, graphic

designers, marketers and creatives on The List database, and it has seen

a significant increase in brand recognition and profile.’

As part of its healthcare work, Grayling uses a behavioural psychologist

in planning sessions in a bid to understand the motivations behind

consumers’ actions. The psychologist also ensures campaign literature

fits with the attitudes of the target market.

The agency received a brief from the Consumer Health Information Centre

to encourage men to look after their health. Instead of preaching to

16- to 34-year-olds, the healthcare team and psychologist produced

100,000 information leaflets in mid-May entitled ’Are you getting

enough ... from your body’, with a cover shot of a half-naked woman.

Grayling also commissioned a Gallup survey to find the men’s ’health


Director Alison Miles says the research showed that there was much work

to be done to stimulate young men’s interest in their health - many saw

Paul Gascoigne and Robbie Williams as health role models.

On a more light-hearted note, Lexis PR asked Dr Len Fisher of Bristol

University’s Physics Department to run a two-month study on behalf of

biscuit giant McVitie’s into the ’science of dunking’. Dr Fisher emerged

from his laboratory with a proven formula to predict the length you

should dunk, which biscuits dunk best and the best dunking angle. The

study caught the media’s imagination and coverage in all the nationals

and TV and radio items followed.

’Consultancies like ours are much more likely to use research-based

planning to create a strategy up front, rather than just recommending

another survey to get PR coverage as a tactic within a programme,’ says

Lexis PR chief executive Bill Jones.

However, Consolidated Communications managing director Alastair Gornall

believes some agencies are still producing unscientific research which

will never get past survey-weary journalists.

’Traditionally PR agencies put two or three questions on an Omnibus

survey in order to demonstrate the need for a product and make a point

that might become a headline,’ says Gornall.

’But a few questions is not a robust piece of research, and journalists

are asking for more detailed studies.’

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