PR TECHNIQUE: Pitching Surveys: Turning a survey into a story

For a survey to get attention, it has to not only be credible, but be of interest to the media. And a touch of quirkiness certainly won't hurt.

For a survey to get attention, it has to not only be credible, but be of interest to the media. And a touch of quirkiness certainly won't hurt.

Nine years ago, Don Middleberg and Steven Ross, a professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, conducted a study of journalists' use of the internet. Middleberg was then in charge of a small, relatively unknown 12-person PR agency. Even though Euro RSCG Middleberg is now four times larger, that same study, the Middleberg/Ross Media Survey, is the most-wanted annual report on the use of technology in the media. It is typically released at a special media-packed event (this year, it attracted 180 journalists in New York City; last year's event in San Francisco drew 300), and garners the type of coverage from The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and USA Today that every PR agency covets. Doing more than 15 speeches a year on the subject, Middleberg says he's become known as an authority in the area. And two years ago, he published a book on the subject, which has sold more than 10,000 copies and has been printed in five languages. And it all started with a survey. "Over the years, we've grown, and so has our reputation and branding," Middleberg says. "And this study has been the primary reason why." A survey can be a powerful branding tool for PR agencies and clients alike. A survey can establish authority and credibility; it can be a great newsmaker for clients that don't generate hard news per se; and it can be used as support material for larger PR campaigns. But conducting a survey and pitching it to the media requires sticking to some basic rules that even the best PR and marketing professionals sometimes forego. Just two weeks ago, Omnicom came under attack in The New York Times for its "growing role in drug research," as the paper sarcastically coined it. Omnicom had commissioned a small research firm it owns to conduct a study on a new drug, aimed at showing that it has the qualities that patients desire. "Science is being sacrificed for the sake of promotion," read the article - hardly a good promotion on the part of the client or the agency. When it commissioned the research to an agency it owns, Omnicom ignored the most important factor in conducting a survey: establishing credibility. "It's important that you use a third party, an outside firm, to conduct the research," says Leanna Clark, a principal at Schenkein Public Relations in Denver, CO. Joan Schneider, whose Boston-based agency Schneider & Associates specializes in launching products and services, recommends partnering with a respected professor or university. For a report on new product launches, Schneider teamed with the Boston University Communications Research Center and an associate professor of business administration and marketing at the Harvard Business School. The result was a success story, from the reporters and analysts anticipating the survey every year thereafter, to the speeches, to the upcoming book on the subject. In many cases, though, agencies and clients don't have the resources - or a subject serious enough, for that matter - to outsource. "The minute you start outsourcing services, it becomes a very pricey undertaking," says Michael Olguin, president of Formula PR, a midsize agency with clients in the lifestyle, fashion, and other "fun" industries. Formula counts on creativity to get its clients in the media. For a video dating service, the agency created the Cost of Loving Index and a survey of America's Most Lovable Cities, looking at cities with the cheapest hotels, restaurants, and all other things related to dating. "The media is more interested in the quirky, interesting results of the survey than with credibility, because these are not necessarily scientific surveys," Olguin says. "These are fun topics. It's not like we're trying to change the world here." And quirky, funny, or unusual surveys are just as sure to get in the paper as the newsworthy studies that uncover trends and illuminate the future. In 1998, Agnew Carter McCarthy (now MS&L) commissioned a survey on New Englanders' bathroom habits to accompany the New England launch of Purely Cotton toilet paper, made by Seattle-based client Linters. The survey exposed some tremendously useless - yet fascinatingly funny - gender and regional gaps: Men are more likely to read in the bathroom than women; women are bath-tissue "scrunchers," while most men are "folders;" residents of Portland, ME, make 7.2 trips a day, while Hartforders go 5.1 times, and Bostonians average 5.8. These statistics and others were rolled into an exclusive Wall Street Journal piece: "Firm Surveys New Englanders for Bottom Line." "The Journal found it so interesting, they wanted an exclusive," says Julie Gladu, who used to work for the PR agency that did the survey. "Then broadcast media caught up on it, and people still remember it." And if you don't have bathroom humor to charm journalists, try highlighting results they wouldn't expect. The "wow" factor is another sure way to get you in the door. "Once you get the results, you obviously want numbers the media will be interested in - you look for surprises," says Stephen Oakes, VP of GCI Group, which helps manage Dell's PR strategy in Austin. "No one is going to write about how 99 out of 100 airplanes landed safely today. The news is the one plane that crashed - the surprise is the news." Interesting results often come with luck, but by carefully crafting the questions of the survey you can increase the chances of getting the answers you want. Heath Shackleford, a senior account executive at Ketchum in Chicago, recommends that the agency should get involved with the journalists as early on as it can: Contact your target reporters, tell them what kind of survey you plan to do, and ask them what they would be interested to know about the subject. And be consistent. "With surveys, consistency breeds coverage," says Shackleford. If reporters get used to receiving your survey regularly, they might well conclude that you know how to do a credible survey. Soon enough, they'll start bugging you about the next one. --------- Technique tips Do make sure that the survey supports your client's communications goals Do craft the questions to elicit information that is either newsworthy or, at the very least, quirky and unusual Do link the release of the results to current trends Don't feel obligated to cover every topic on which your client may want an opinion Don't create a survey that asks questions others have already asked Don't be too client-centric. The survey is supposed to add third-party credibility

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