Survey says: This could make news

Conducting a survey - whether serious or frivolous - can be highly effective in generating news for a client during a dry spell. Christie Casalino finds out how it's done

Conducting a survey - whether serious or frivolous - can be highly effective in generating news for a client during a dry spell. Christie Casalino finds out how it's done

While for many people the word "survey" can bring to mind the negative connotation of answering an endless list of questions, those in the industry understand just how vital a tool one can be when hard news is unavailable for a client. When conducted correctly, a survey can translate a client's message to any type of media. Whether the topic is as serious as public opinion of presidential candidates or as quirky as what type of person is most likely to dunk Oreo cookies in milk, both have one thing in common - the potential to garner ample media attention.

Regardless of the method you choose, the first step is to envision what you want to achieve. Sheri Smith, president of Publicis Dialog's Dallas office, suggests working backward by always considering the headline and the message that you're trying to send to the media. This means special attention needs to be taken during the formation of the questions, as this will greatly impact the final outcome.

"Having an open-ended question may be more expensive, but you can get more robust responses, as well as added creativity, whereas you might not be able to with close-ended responses," says Smith.

When working this way, it's always important to consider the chance that the final results may not be what you originally intended. "Explore every data point on its own merits," says Tom Coyne, president and CEO of Coyne PR. "After a thorough investigation of the numbers, if the survey takes you in another direction, you can reformulate your pitch to the results."

Coyne used this method when generating coverage for client Medco's annual drug-trend report, an 80-page report on prescription drug use. After mulling over all of the data sets, one chart confirmed that spending on prescriptions for children under the age of 19 was growing at the fastest rate - and an entire campaign was born from that single piece of information. "Sometimes the best media results come from the surprises," says Coyne.

Although the method greatly depends on cost, exhaustive surveys, especially those regarding sectors like the medical industry, are best conducted by an objective third party. "The right vendor is critical," says Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief knowledge and research officer at Burson-Marsteller. "You want a market research firm that has a well-known name, and is established and recognized as having a lot of credibility."

If your client's budget isn't large enough to use a globally or nationally recognized market-research firm, or if the information being sought is of a less serious nature, there are still plenty of other routes to take.

Lisa MacKenzie, founder and president of MacKenzie Marketing Group, has had success for client The Career Exposure Network by simply conducting quick polls on each of her client's four websites. Because the sites had an active base of job-seekers, employers, and recruiters who constantly returned, short online polls were all that was needed to get ink in titles from Glamour to The Wall Street Journal.

The task of getting media attention from surveys doesn't end when the numbers are in. "Everyone wants quantification," says Gaines-Ross. "There is definitely an interest in surveys, but there are almost too many out there. To really feel confident in using one, you have to dig down into the details."

One of the best ways to do this is to flesh out the bare bones of the numbers with a spokesperson - but that doesn't always mean a celebrity or household name is needed. Sandra Sokoloff, EVP and senior media strategist for Belsito & Co., includes a question in each survey asking participants if they would be willing to speak with the media. "This is essential for media coverage, since reporters like to humanize a story beyond the survey statistics," Sokoloff says. She adds that including this question also helps identify interviewees in various geographic markets, which is important for more localized stories.

In addition to securing local participants as interviewees when conducting a national survey, it's important to send regional breakouts of the data to the media, as well. When the AP broke the national story of Coyne's "The Hole Truth" survey conducted for LifeSavers, local media also picked up the story, concentrating on each region's eating habits regarding the hard candy.

If the client's marketing-research team has conducted previous surveys for the client, it can serve as a good source of advice - even though media attention might not have been the goal at the time.

"Really work with the client's marketing team or market-research group because a lot of the time, they've done similar surveys and can help decide what will and won't work," says Michele Rest, director of corporate PR for Dorland Global Health Communications. "Just be specific and let them know that you're doing it for media relations purposes only."

If a survey created to gain media exposure fails to do so, don't panic. It's more important that you view the picture as a whole. Rob Wyse, president and CEO of Media First Public Relations, says, "A lot of times, [in those situations] we'll end up with information from a client's customers that helps [the client] understand what the customers think about certain issues affecting the business - and that information, in turn, can be used by the sales force."

"Even if a survey wasn't successful in getting media exposure, what it was successful in doing was introducing our spokespeople and giving us a venue to share more insight on what this person can be turned to in the future," says Heath Shackleford, PR manager for American Healthways. "You'll build relationships with journalists regardless of media hits."

Technique tips

Do tailor your survey method depending upon the client's audience. For example, teens are more likely to respond to web surveys

Do field both national and regional results

Do use a spokesperson to humanize the dry data of a survey

Don't forget to identify the third party that conducted the survey

Don't fail to delve deeper into the survey's data for unexpected findings

Don't neglect to look at the positive by-products of the survey, aside from media hits

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