With the raft of information sources now available, from specialist
research studies to the internet, there is a wealth of data PR people
can use to inform their planning.
But while the likes of MORI polls and Mintel studies provide a
sophisticated picture of markets and issues, these generic resources are
available to everyone. As the emphasis increasingly falls on brand
differentiation and organisations’ intangible assets - including social
and environmental impact - some believe there is a need to deliver a
sharper focus by more bespoke examination.
Jennie Kettlewell, management consultant to the communications industry,
including Bulletin International, thinks that PR could benefit from many
of the tailored techniques used by advertisers.
’The PR industry is making great strides in research and evaluation,
partly due to advertising account planners being employed by PR
consultancies,’ she says. ’But the emphasis is still largely on
post-campaign evaluation, rather than pre-campaign research and
Certainly, data from the PR Week Countrywide Porter Novelli Proof survey
last year (12 March, 1999), seems to bear this out, showing that around
60 per cent of respondents used post-campaign content analysis, but just
three per cent used pre-testing.
’PR could make much better use of focus groups to test concepts, and
tone messages,’ says Kettlewell. ’Consumers are savvy and bring you down
to earth about jargon and management speak.’
And if PR fails to get a handle on planning now, then exploiting the
digital explosion will prove tricky. As communication channels continue
to proliferate and audiences become ever more niche, companies
increasingly need their strategy to be proactive and to meet issues head
The on-line world also still contains many unknowns, such as how people
interact with e-commerce and how they react and respond to on-line
But to maintain a competitive edge, is it vital to have knowledge that
others do not? To relate to business objectives more closely and build a
closer relationship with customers, should PR research be bespoke?
’Tailored research is not as vital as it used to be, as there is so much
real-time information already out there now, particularly on the web,’
says Ruth Yearley, planning and research director at Ketchum. ’In
addition, the research companies like MORI now take a much more creative
approach for their customers and offer services such as syndicated
qualitative surveys,’ she adds.
Ketchum recently reorganised its planning function to place knowledge
and insight firmly at the core of its business. Known as the EPICENTRE,
Ketchum’s Exploration, Planning Intelligence Centre is a
multi-disciplinary team that offers strategic insight, scientific
knowledge and trend forecasting to all clients, through generic and
According to Yearley, this shake-up was in response to clients’
’They wanted PR that was responsive to their business aims and was
arresting and creative, because it was grounded in an interesting and
meaningful strategic direction,’ she says.
However, while Yearley believes that it is not always necessary to
commission a bespoke study of issues and markets, she also highlights
more practical reasons for why secondary research is sometimes a winning
solution. ’Tailored research is a real luxury these days, because you
don’t always have the turnaround time or the budget to buy something
in,’ she says.
The expense may prohibit use of some widely available research tools,
such as BMRB’s Target Group Index, which also provides highly complex
data that demands a certain level of specialist knowledge.
Last month, to arm the industry with what it claims is a user-friendly
planning resource, media planning, analysis and research company Metrica
announced the launch of its ’Lifestyles’ tools. ConsumerPulse, which
will be launched in the summer, comes under this umbrella.
Costing between pounds 500 and pounds 3,500 per year, depending on
usage, subscribers will receive a twice-yearly CD that helps analyse the
whole UK adult population’s lifestyles, related to media consumption,
internet and mobile e-commerce usage, leisure activities and attendance
at shows, exhibitions and other PR-related activities. Initially this
will be based on a database of 1,000 respondents. Metrica Lifestyle
chief Peter Crowe is hoping that this will set a new standard as a
generic tool for PR planning. ’In an age when media proliferation is a
real issue, it will help to pin down the media consumption of target
audiences, not just by the usual demographics, but by the products
people consume or the services that they use,’ he says.
But the choice between a resource that a competitor may access and more
individually-tailored study depends on the client’s objectives. If the
need is simply to get a broad-brush view of the market or confirm a
hunch about trends, then existing research is usually up to the job.
’Generic research is really useful if the market is well-established and
you have a bunch of people you can track,’ says Stephen Martin, managing
director of Aspect Consulting, the research arm of The Argyll
Consultancies. He uses the analogy of maps , explaining that the type of
planning people undertake should be informed by the level of direction
’If you drive to the south of France, at the outset of your journey, all
you need to know is whether to go by Paris,’ says Martin. ’It’s when you
get to down to ’should I turn left or right here?’ that you want the
detailed picture,’ he adds.
Indeed, commissioning bespoke research simply for the sake of it can be
a costly, misleading business. But there are some occasions when there
is little or no timely information about an audience. This is especially
true when entering a new market, such as launching an internet service
or with tightly targeted business audiences, such as opinion
Marc Moninski is joint managing director and head of planning at
corporate and public affairs specialist Fishburn Hedges. He says while
research companies and industry analysts publish reports of specific
publics such as City journalists and the directors of the UK’s top 500
companies, there are other drawbacks besides competitors having access
to the same information.
’Firstly, such studies tend to be undertaken annually, so if you’re
looking at issues surrounding new media, for example, the information
can be out of date. Secondly, they tend to be so big, it can be hard to
hone the data down, and lastly they are expensive,’ he says.
To get around this problem, FH does a lot of ad hoc research on market
dynamics, firing off e-mails and undertaking informal telephone
interviews with key audiences.
Last year however, for its client Shell, FH established a panel of
academics, City media, analysts, MPs and NGOs including
environmentalists, who are consulted at least twice a year. ’This is a
costly commitment,’ says Moninski. ’But it ensures that Shell is
absolutely informed about itself and industry issues.’
The real answer to whether PR people should use generic or bespoke
research in their planning is, of course, that they should use both.
Microsoft, for example, is a highly research-driven organisation. To
keep a finger on the pulse of its business audience, Microsoft uses a
range of generic information, from FT and Economist surveys into IT
trends, to detailed studies from industry analyst, the Gartner Group, on
Tariq Khwaja, managing director of August.One Communications,
Microsoft’s main UK PR agency, says: ’Generic research helps us define
who our audience is. For example, studies show that in a quarter of
companies, the purchasing decisions about technology are made entirely
at board level. So yes, we do need to speak to those people.’
However, according to Khwaja, it is Microsoft’s bespoke research that
best informs its communications. Every year, the company commissions a
global customer satisfaction survey, which is conducted by MORI in the
UK. ’It’s about getting things the right way round,’ says Khwaja. ’What
is it that the audience wants to hear. What are the issues that excite
customers or keep them awake at night?’
Since last summer, Microsoft has also undertaken a ’Business Barometer’
survey with the Cranfield School of Management. This provides a
temperature check of the UK’s top 300 CEOs, examining how they view
business issues such as global competition and the current economic and
’It would be easy to assume that everybody understands e-commerce and
just bang on about it,’ says Khwaja. ’But this research shows that
Microsoft needs to be empathetic to people’s worries and provide more
education, to help them through the maze of issues.’
As PR continues to move centre stage and claim its place as a strategic
business tool, it needs to justify this position by taking a more robust
approach to planning. The type of research that guides this process is
always likely to be dictated by time, budget and objectives.
But research on its own is no guarantee of a fail-safe foundation.
Planning does come first, but at the same time, PR people must not
become slaves to research by losing sight of intuition and failing to
extrapolate information using common sense.
CREDITING RESEARCH WITH BRIGHTENING A SERVICE SOLUTION
Last year, BACS (the Banks Automated Clearing System), briefed Manning
Selvage and Lee to promote the electronic payment service, direct
credit, to a business audience. Owned by the UK’s banking industry,
direct credit is the flip side of direct debit, where payments go
straight to a bank account.
On its own, this is not a service that readily excites either
journalists or audiences. However, using a 1998 quantitative usage and
attitude study by Continental Research, MS&L identified a new
opportunity for direct credit among the small business community. It
found that only 21 per cent of small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs)
were currently receiving payments from their creditors by direct credit,
but this could be changed by using banking details on bills.
It was agreed that the campaign should reach at least 70 per cent of
SMEs with the key message of asking creditors to pay using direct
credit, and a supporting message highlighting the benefits. The bottom
line was to increase the inclusion of banking details on SMEs’
The PR team created the concept of a ’pay me direct’ media relations
By commissioning a tailored, independent study from Continental
Research, MS&L uncovered the current issues and concerns running through
small business and incorporated the findings into a wider business
For example, evidence that SMEs in the UK were overdrawn to the tune of
pounds 4 billion at any one time gained mass national, regional and
The campaign was formally evaluated and, by the end of December, MS&L
had raised the number of SMEs who included their banking details on
invoices from five per cent to 36 per cent. And the number of SMEs being
paid by direct credit increased from 19 per cent in 1998 to 75 per cent
by the end of 1999.
A METHODICAL APPROACH TO MECHANICS
TRW Automotive Aftermarket Operations (TRW) manufactures and distributes
a broad range of car components through dealers and independent channels
under the Lucas brand. These include everything from brakes, batteries
and bulbs to state-of-the-art engine diagnostic equipment.
Traditionally, editorial messages about TRW’s investment in the future,
forward-looking approach and innovative product range were fed through a
wide range of trade press titles. In the latter half of 1999, TRW’s UK
PR agency, Countrywide Porter Novelli, decided to re-examine this
approach and check whether there were more direct routes to reach Lucas
customers and its ultimate end-users, the garages.
Although CPN could draw some broad conclusions about garage workers’
media consumption habits from BMRB’s Target Group Index and the National
Readership Survey, it wanted a more in-depth understanding.
Last November, the agency conducted telephone interviews with 100 garage
mechanics and distributors to explore their reading, listening and
This revealed that while the core trade titles, such as Motor Trader,
Car and Accessory Trader and Autotrade still ranked quite highly, many
others were scarcely read. In addition, although only read by a third of
respondents, consumer title Auto Trader was by far the most popular
As one in three mechanics consumed no trade or consumer title at all,
CPN wanted to uncover whether they might view their daily newspaper as a
more comfortable medium for messages. The results showed that they were
three times more likely to read a local newspaper than a national
Another top-line finding indicated that give-aways of practical items,
such as mugs, were a winning formula.
CPN and TRW are still finalising the details of incorporating these
findings into the communications strategy, but CPN director Keith Taylor
says: ’To complement our trade channels we are taking a much more
open-minded look at regional activities.’
As a result of the research, local commercial radio remains an option,
as does supplying more educational-style press material to the regional
and popular national newspapers.