PR pros rely on research to devise and implement plans. And, finds Aimee Grove, public records are a highly economical, all-inclusive option for gathering information.As everyone knows, research is the cornerstone of any solid PR effort, both in the planning stages and for benchmarking progress toward objectives.
However, today's tighter budgets make the investment of time and money for custom-tailored surveys and focus groups a tough sell, both to cost-cutting clients and bottom-line-conscious CEOs.
Fortunately, there is a quick and affordable alternative. Public Records Research (PRR or Secondary Research) is the gathering and analysis of existing facts and figures, study findings, and published reports stored on free and paid databases, within media sources and in government records.
With a wealth of online search engines that no longer require mastery of Boolean Logic, anyone can instantly access Congressional reports, corporate financials, census data, and newspaper articles from the past decade. Even better, most of the information is available for free, or for a nominal fee.
Often overlooked by marketers seeking "fresh insights,
PRR can yield a host of practical applications for PR pros. A basic scan of media coverage and recent analyst reports can help a company determine how competitors are positioning themselves and how the influencers are talking about them.
San Francisco-based Applied Communications identifies what it calls "discussion drivers,
or certain key issues in the public debate around which a client can either associate or disassociate itself in order to differentiate from competitors.
Similarly, PRR can be used to select an effective spokesperson for a particular target audience. Fleishman-Hillard, which was working with the National Osteoporosis Foundation to increase milk consumption by adolescent girls, found by searching through previous surveys and textbooks that moms are the most respected source of information for pre-teen and teenage girls. Thus, the client was advised to tailor its outreach to speak to mothers, as well as the girls. Another firm, using PRR searches, was actually able to uncover that a celebrity it was considering as a spokesperson for the client's product actually had a hidden criminal past.
PRR is also effective in measuring communications performance in comparison to competitors, especially regarding the volume, prominence, and slant of media coverage. Within this area, two schools of thought prevail: Those that advocate measuring coverage across a wide universe of media outlets, and those who focus on measurement across a select number of key publications - what San Francisco-based Horn Group calls "the bulls-eye approach."
In the same competitive intelligence vein, PRR can be used to monitor the online landscape - chatrooms, newswires, job postings on corporate websites - to anticipate a rival's future moves.
An increasingly common application is to track daily media and/or legislative action to identify issues of concern that may require immediate action.
For example, a Horn Group research team does a daily scan for news on issues and trends affecting clients - including rumors and rivals' announcements - and assembles a "rapid response
report for the account teams, and, if necessary, clients. Along those lines, StrategyOne, a research firm owned by Edelman, monitors daily the progress of legislative bills that affect pharmaceutical clients.
Despite these useful applications, persuading clients to allocate funds for PRR can still be a struggle. Applied SVP and partner Tim Marklein says his firm tells clients that "done right, research can be a cost-saving tool
since, "$2,000 in research might lead to spending less for media relations."
William Black, head of PR21's Competitive Intelligence Services unit, uses the economy as a selling point. "Clients need our analysis more than ever,
he says, "because they can only afford to do two programs versus the 10 they would have tried in the past. They don't have the money to waste on even one misdirected effort."
What about clients who protest PRR is simply regurgitated data they could find themselves? "Maybe they could if they knew where and how to look, but it's not a good use of their time,
says David Swanston, SVP of TMP Worldwide Integrated Marketing Communications. "We can do it more cost-effectively."
So, now that you're sold on PRR, and your client is on board, where or how can you get started? You could farm out the work to a specialist firm.
But if you want to keep the work in-house, you have two choices. You can either subscribe to a high-end service like Biz360, which enables companies to track media and analyst coverage against competitors and process numerous other metrics to measure PR performance, or you can hire a dedicated researcher, ideally with a background in library skills and research analysis.
Your firm will also need to invest in at least a few key data-mining tools. Lexis-Nexis, and recently launched Factiva (a hybrid service from Dow Jones Interactive and Reuters) are both industry standards - pricey, but invaluable to any kind of real PRR. For detailed business and financial information on thousands of companies, Hoovers Online is also a standard, if costly, tool. For web crawling and monitoring internet activity, eWatch and Webclippings.com are just two of the paid services available. And there are also a wealth of free search engines and public databases, from the website for the Library of Congress (thomas. loc.gov) to Brint. com, an aggregator of content and media coverage about tech businesses, and Pollingreport .com, which posts recent survey results from public opinion polls such as Gallup, Roper and Harris Interactive.
Data mining is only the first step to truly effective PRR, however. Turning data into actionable intelligence for clients is the key second step.
More and more PR firms, have invested thousands of dollars into developing proprietary analysis technology.
However, "Don't ever assume number-crunching is enough,
warns Horn Group partner Shannon Hall. "It's the final-mile human analysis, pointing out what it means and what we should do with the information, that really bumps up the value for clients."
PUBLIC SOURCES OF INFORMATION
Public databases. Census Bureau, Library of Congress/ Congressional Record, American Demographics magazine.
Survey results from polling organizations, such as Gallup, USA Today, Roper and Harris Interactive. Trend studies available at Pollingreport.
com. For a fee, Simmons Market Research provides reports of studies on consumer-centric trends.
Newspaper and magazine articles via paid services such as Lexis-Nexis, Factiva, Yahoo! Document Search, and publications' websites.
Brint.com: portal of business and hi-tech news and info.
Pollingreport.com: compilation of findings from studies of trends in public opinion.
Thomas.loc.gov: the website for the Library of Congress; "the starting point
for legislative and congressional information.
Zenithmedia.com: links to every search engine, plus links to online directories and image banks.
Newspaper Links: links to all US newspapers that have online content.
1. DO stay focused. The amount of information available is overwhelming, so narrow your search to key publications, audiences, and competitors
2. DO provide insight, rather than just data or clips. Explain how your client can put the information to use
3. DO develop a "knowledge partners network
of in-house and external experts in different areas
1. DON'T make it a one-time thing. "If PRR is going to be useful, it needs to be done regularly,
emphasizes Applied Communications' Tim Marklein
2. DON'T put all your eggs in one basket. PRR can be limiting, as everyone has access to the same information. Use PRR with primary research
3. DON'T forget ongoing training to keep research staff current on tools and methodology.