PR people should be pushing for more access to better research.When Fireman's Fund Insurance Co. decided to embark on a relaunch of its brand, its head of marketing pitched a strategy that would mark a return to the philanthropic roots of a 140-year-old firm that got its name for giving 10% of its profit to the widows and orphans of firemen. Before the rebranding strategy was settled, the company's CEO wanted a straightforward yet complex question answered: would insurance agents and potential customers find that philanthropic positioning a meaningful one? To answer this question, Fireman's Fund VP of marketing services Darryl Siry had a few options. He could have his own research group carry out a few focus groups, he could work with a general research firm, or he could find a PR agency with both a capability for research and a sensibility for the reputation issues the company was confronting. After issuing an RFP for a pure research project that drew proposals from a spread of pure research and communications firms, the company chose PR agency Ketchum. "A pure research firm might not have been able to understand where the red flags are as they're asking people about their reactions, whereas a communications firm will see the red flags immediately," Siry says of his rationale. "It's almost like you're doing real-time issues-management work." Research and relationships Because Ketchum's research work on the validation question gave the rebranding a direction and eventually even won the agency the PR account, this might seem like an ideal application of an agency's research capability. Moreover, the findings were used creatively in the fashioning of the campaign's grassroots advertising effort. However, these episodes are far from the norm. Because Fireman's Fund marketing and communications are centered around Siry - he manages those operations, as well as the company's research and strategy group - it was easy to keep these functions aligned internally and with Ketchum. But this isn't always the case with other clients, especially the larger ones. "The greatest opportunity for market research and PR's use of research is to develop relationships - and for clients to facilitate relationships - between the [client's] market research group and the research group within the PR firm," says David Rockland, SVP and global director of research for Ketchum. "Very often what we find is that the research part of the [client] company is reporting somewhere other than where the PR part is reporting. So hooking all the dotted lines together and benefiting from their data, as well as your data, and pulling that together in some intelligible fashion does not happen." The downside to this is significant: The research can miss its objectives or can be redundant and end up costing the client more money than it should. Good front-end research tailored to communications issues makes the effective execution of the PR program and useful back-end measurement and evaluation possible. "We need to go in with as much intelligence as possible," says Jennifer Scott, general manager of StrategyOne, Edelman's research firm. Secondly, we don't want to reinvent the wheel, so if we know certain things about the way a product is being received or the way target audiences are relating to the product, then it makes our research more efficient." But the fact remains that clients, especially larger companies, pump significant resources into research for product development, marketing, advertising and a number of other functions before PR even enters the picture. Often this data comes from brand management, marketing, or, at the largest firms, a pure research department. Dell, a $40 billion company, is a case in point. The sheer expense of conducting up-front PR research, coupled with the fact that the company's massive marketing effort is constantly trying to quantify the health of the brand, leads the communications department to largely steer clear of research efforts. "In the communications department, we tend not to spend a whole lot on polling or focus groups because it's so expensive," says Barry French, corporate PR director at Dell Computers. "We do regularly track message delivery in the media and watch that on a global and regional basis." French's department regularly relies on research from other departments that, even though not explicitly aimed at individual PR efforts, can be helpful in understanding consumer attitudes toward the company, which in turn informs messaging strategies. But, he says, associating research with particular disciplines or functions is difficult in such a large corporation with so many marketing activities running at once. "We have a very large marketing organization at Dell, and they periodically do research, but also our central brand organization does regular surveys on the health of the brand and what attributes are driving the health of the brand," French says. "We take a look at that regularly, but it's not tied to any specific program we execute, per se, although the messages we seek to deliver are consistent with what they want to see in terms of strengthening the Dell brand. If you assume we're all trying to drive the brand in the same direction, then progress in the brand surveys is partly a result of what the communications department does and partly what a number of other organizations do." French says that Dell is good about trading data across departments, but this isn't the case with every company. "A lot of PR people don't ask what research is available in the company, and it is for the reason that research is siloed away from the PR department," says Don Bartholomew, managing director of the technology practices at GCI Americas, Dell's agency of record. "If the agency is only working with the PR representatives of their clients, then they may not have good visibility into the research base that exists because the PR people at the client frankly may not have good visibility." Some, he says, are content with relying on a handful of focus groups, which provide some directional insight but don't get at a quantitative analysis. Data plus strategy In many cases, a client's obvious objection to investing in in-depth research before the execution of a PR program is cost. But another objection comes from the idea that the client already knows what the research will show, a function of the wealth of available data. "There's a general sense from the clients' perspective that they know what's going on and that they don't need to validate messages and attitudes and things of that nature," Bartholomew says. "Qualitatively, most people kind of know how their customers or prospects feel about certain things. They know generally the feeling; what they don't know is the intensity of the feeling." Says Scott, "The issue I confront more than budget is that clients say, 'We know it already. We've done this; we're tired of doing it.' I think the key is that our research is not designed to show simply what's going on. We present our research to show what's going on and what you need to do about it. Our end-deliverable is not data, it's strategic direction." That is how most PR firms position their research capabilities: data plus strategy. This differs from the approach of most existing research from other business disciplines, which is described by Scott as "having very clear objectives: to fine-tune product specifications, for example, or to determine price points or packaging. Very seldom has the research served the goal of making the PR campaign as strong as it can possibly be, so there's always a role for our research." As for larger, more brand-name research firms, like Gallup, Roper and Yankelovich, Scott says it's rare when StrategyOne faces competition from these firms, save for when a client wants exposure for the research itself. "If the client wishes to release the data and make the showpiece of outreach, as opposed to having the data inform their strategy, then a larger, well-known company has a lot more clout than we do. We often defer to the client and say, 'Yes, go with Gallup.' We often supervise studies for clients." While most agree that PR people need to find more ways to incorporate up-front research into their programs, there have been instances when PR research or execution can affect those overarching messages that come from the brand-management organization. "In the act of conducting a PR program, we'll conduct national consumer surveys that are focused on pulling out brand attributes and then retelling them in a mediagenic fashion," says Tom Coyne, president and CEO of Coyne PR. "In that process, in which we're asking different questions than the traditional marketer asks, we find that we touch on pieces of the brands that have caused clients to not only look at and listen to great PR results but step back and change other marketing elements the following year to match the insights from our campaign." But, Coyne adds, this is not usual. "In the marketing mix, we are a spoke on the wheel; we are not the hub. Whatever those market research firms find, we have to be a consistent spoke on the wheel."