Strategy by numbers

Up-front research doesn't yet have a permanent place in PR.

Up-front research doesn't yet have a permanent place in PR.

Everybody knows they should get their cars tuned up at 50,000 miles. But if money's tight, a motorist might make do with an oil change and put off the rest. Or, they might do it themselves if they have the right tools in the garage. Market research is similar. PR people know to use it to fine-tune campaigns, but it's not always top priority. The desire for research hasn't waned, even though budget crunches delay some projects, says Jennifer Sosin, president of KRC Research, a division of Weber Shandwick. "We certainly have had our share of research budgets being scaled back and postponed, but it's rare that they decide not to do research [at all]," Sosin says. More often, clients stick with the research methods and questions they deem most vital to their campaigns. "It's on our wish list," says Al Maag, chief communications officer for Avnet, an electronics and computer components distributor in Phoenix. His company invested in a branding study and some IR research recently, but he hasn't focused the microscope on media relations efforts. Controlling the costs Research costs can easily escalate if surveys aren't tightly focused, notes Graham Painter, corporate communications SVP at Sterling Bank in Houston. "It's not cheap, but if you don't poll for more than you need, it doesn't have to be that expensive either," says Painter, whose employer began brand research before hiring him last year. "There is a tendency for people to commission for more information than they really need. You get a lot of interesting things, but they aren't particularly actionable." PR practitioners often jealously eye their advertising brethren's larger research budgets, but the pragmatic acknowledge vast differences in budgetary scale. "Clients have difficulty swallowing $20,000 to $50,000 on research when most PR budgets are around $100,000 per year," notes Paul Owen, president of Owen Media in Seattle. "But $20k or $50k is a drop in the bucket for a $10 million ad campaign." What's more, PR research can be more expensive because PR often targets more specific audiences than advertising, says Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief knowledge and research officer for Burson-Marsteller in New York. In a perfect world, however, people wouldn't consider research an optional or extraneous expense that sucks resources from campaign execution, says Greg Gordon, VP of research and strategy at L.C. Williams & Associates in Chicago. "We would do well to stop thinking of research as something that takes away from the PR budget. Instead, it should be an important component in its own right," he says. Money isn't the only hindrance to the use of up-front, campaign-forming market research. Time also can be a factor, many agree. "Most often, what happens is companies finally come to a decision that they need PR, and they don't want to wait. They want to jump into it," notes Gaines-Ross. Many PR practitioners perceive research taking weeks or months, even though internet tools and omnibus studies can yield quick, relatively inexpensive results. In fact, PR agencies and corporate communications executives are more likely to directly commission research for image studies, corporate reputation management, or quick-turnaround crisis communications projects than for product launches, Sosin says. "Very often what happens with a crisis is that the company thinks the entire world is talking about it and understands it," Gaines-Ross says. Research results that show only vague, muddled awareness can shock executives. Culture can be another roadblock to research. Advertising, for example, has a much longer heritage of using research than does PR. For better or worse, PR still struggles with underdog syndrome where its more expensive cousin is concerned. "The ad guys are much more tied into the whole marketing process than the PR guys are," laments Brian Cummings, VP and COO of Michael A. Burns & Associates in Dallas. He sees PR emerging from stepchild status, however, due in part to the tech boom's emphasis on the discipline. "What's going to drive us there is when PR budgets are big enough that if we miss, somebody is going to be in deep doo-doo." Only within the last two years has NSON Opinion research separated PR firms from advertising agencies in its database, says sales and marketing VP Arvino Singh. "The market-research industry itself isn't as mature as it should be in my opinion," Singh opines. "As the industry itself gets mature, people are going to find niches, and I think one of the best and biggest niches is the public relations firms." Likewise, not everyone on the PR side has topped the research learning curve. "As a discipline, we still have a long way to go in professionalizing the use of science to inform art," says David Rockland, Ketchum's global research director. "PR practitioners probably have not gone to school on social-science research methods or viewed their craft as including up-front research as a really important first step," observes Lisa Richter, SVP and director of Fleishman-Hillard Knowledge Solutions. Stronger academic emphasis on statistical analysis in journalism and PR curricula is helping cure that problem, but while newer graduates may be more interested in research, they aren't necessarily willing to pay for it, Cummings says. Because of tight budgets and tradition, PR people are apt to fall back on what Painter calls "mirror" research. "You look in the mirror and you generate your own opinions based on talking to yourself," explains Painter. Such an approach won't work unless the PR person is part of the target demographic. "You can't trust your mirror research. You've really got to take it to the field and get professional help if you don't feel confident in doing it yourself." This tendency to rely on "self-referencing criteria" can make research a hard sell to PR firms, agrees Dianne Vickery, sales VP for International Communications Research. Pooling with advertising to commission studies can be effective, and research-company execs report growing business from companies with integrated marketing departments. Integrated research can be difficult, however, especially when tight budgets limit the number of survey questions that can be asked, Gaines-Ross notes. One company for which Rockland recently worked conducted research before deciding how to use the various marketing disciplines in a CSR campaign. That level of integration and research emphasis remains rare, however. "I would suggest that that's how marketing-communication functions ought to work - in congress. That the same research done for advertising and marketing can be applied to PR so long as PR is incorporated into the survey planning up front," says Mark Weiner, CEO of Delahaye Medialink. Breaking ad/PR boundaries More often, PR and advertising functions remain somewhat siloed (especially when outside agencies are involved), and PR teams must build relationships with their marketing or advertising counterparts to gain access to data or influence up-front research studies. "Even if you're at an integrated firm, you have to stay involved," Owen says. "You have to push and insert yourself into the strategic process." While using data gleaned from studies designed for other departments might not be ideal, it can be effective. "Big companies do way more research than we do for them," Rockland says. Attitudes-and-usages studies can be great resources if a company's number crunchers analyze them from a PR perspective, he adds. Ultimately, PR's rising status and demand for proof of ROI - the same factors pushing evaluation measurement to the forefront - may encourage more up-front research. And along with greater respect comes greater scrutiny, says Marianne Eisenmann, managing director of Echo Research. Back-end evaluation can be done without front-end research, especially for media relations campaigns supported by clip packs and broadcast monitoring. Calls to action - such as directing consumers to websites or 800 numbers - also can be easily tracked. But many PR execs agree that measurement is much more meaningful when it can be compared against precampaign benchmarking. "People are also recognizing that they are going to be held accountable for meaningful business outcomes," says Weiner. Client recognition that up-front research is part of the ROI process, just like back-end evaluation, will drive its adoption, he predicts. "I think tying evaluation to some kind of baseline would be one force to make that happen, says Owen. "I see PR firms becoming more aware of the need for pre-campaign research, and I think we are beginning to prime the pump of expectations." Among the largest cultural barriers to strategic research may be the belief that PR is just too subjective to measure. But those who conduct surveys and focus groups beg to differ. At Fleishman, for example, Richter focuses on what she calls the three A's: awareness, attitudes, and action. "That's kind of a mantra that we've developed," she says. "That's what we can measure in communications." "What I hear all the time is, 'You can't measure that. You can't test that. Let's just go with our gut,'" Rockland says. "My argument is, of course you can measure that. Of course you can test that. Spend a little money up front to make sure the money you spend at the end [for evaluation] is worth it." ----- What will it take for research to be routinely demanded? "Just being very externally focused as a company and realizing that you need to tap into your audiences" Leslie Gaines-Ross Chief knowledge & research officer Burson-Marsteller "When CEOs fully appreciate the importance of communications both internally and externally, the value that PR can actually bring in sales, they will ask for more results" Al Maag Chief communications officer Avnet "What will have to change is the knowledge base. We will have to educate the public relations industry, and the public relations firms will have to educate their end clients." Arvino Singh Sales and marketing VP NSON Opinion Research "When the communications department is in the main reporting loop to the folks who count the numbers" David Rockland Global research director Ketchum "I think you need to have a senior-level edict, and then the resources, internally or externally." Marianne Eisenmann Managing director Echo Research "It's the responsibility of the individual to effectively communicate the need for that up the ladder. It should be easier than ever right now to communicate the need for brand research as well as tracking." Graham Painter Corporate communications SVP Sterling Bank

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