MARKET FOCUS: A question of cost

While few in PR doubt the value of doing up-front market research, the opinions vary over who should pay for it.

While few in PR doubt the value of doing up-front market research, the opinions vary over who should pay for it.

Mounting a PR campaign without market research may be a little like ordering dinner for a finicky eater without first asking him what he likes. With money tight, nobody wants to send back the main course and start over; but then again, most companies aren't ordering filet mignon. Advertising has long embraced advance research that helps define markets, gauge perceptions, and target messages, but the PR industry has adopted it more slowly. "The up-front research has a long history on the public affairs side," observes Jennifer Sosin, president of KRC Research, a division of Weber Shandwick. "The people who run public affairs often come from political campaigns where research is often a part of the tool kit." Likewise, government agencies often invest in research, as do clients affected by brewing crises or complex issues. PR execs with consumer-products companies also frequently delve into research before launching new offerings, but they often take advantage of data collected for other marketing functions. Otherwise, market research solely for the sake of PR often is limited to generating statistics to spice up press releases. Increasingly, measurement techniques are used to gauge the effectiveness of and justify PR expenditures. PR practitioners are beginning to realize, however, that if they want post-campaign numbers to add up, they must devote time and resources beforehand to targeting the right audiences with the right messages. "The best way to do that is to do the work on the front end. That insures the programs we develop are related to business," says Linda Hadley, Porter Novelli's worldwide research director and GM of its Chicago office. "Without research, you're just taking a guess. You're flying by the seat of your pants," says Henry de La Garza, chairman and CEO of de La Garza Public Relations in Houston. "[Research] minimizes management's risk. It protects a client's resources." Older PR practitioners often put less emphasis on market research than do more recent graduates, observes Bob Novick, president of Impulse Research in Los Angeles. "Many senior PR folks grew up as newspaper writers," agrees Brian Cummings, VP and COO of Michael A. Burns & Associates in Dallas. "They aren't marketers. They are more in the area of ideas. To them, a successful PR program looks at messages you got across to influential publications." Those who come to PR from the marketing world bring more research-friendly perspectives. "Marketing communications programs are usually run by people who have gotten their MBAs in marketing," Cummings adds. "They're used to research. They live and die by research." Corporate communications people accustomed to integrated marketing fuel the growing use of market research in PR, Novick says. "Typically, they've already learned to use research in connection with advertising." Also, as corporate communications execs ask for (and get) more boardroom clout, they need to understand more than the local television stations' nightly news deadlines. Those occupying C-suites also expect top PR people to understand the business world. Because of this trend, Fleishman-Hillard's Knowledge Solutions division formed what it calls its "competitive intelligence" function in 1999, to scour media databases and other secondary sources to bring corporate communicators up to speed. "Traditionally, communications wasn't expected to know that much about the business environment," says Knowledge Solutions director and SVP Lisa Richter. "For communications to support the achievement of the business goals, we had to get smart fast about what those business challenges were." Financial frustration Despite the PR profession's appreciation of market research's value in targeting campaigns and bolstering business savvy, cost remains an annoying speed bump, if not a road block. Advertisers seem more willing to invest in up-front research than do those shopping for PR services. Perhaps PR's reputation as a less-expensive marketing tool causes clients to balk at heavy research investments. Or maybe the relative cost of research doesn't seem like such a big deal to companies paying large sums for slick TV commercials and airtime. Some agency executives argue that market research should be part and parcel of any PR campaign. "We need to approach research as a basic tool that is factored into the overall strategic and tactical process," says Golin/ Harris SVP Mark Rozeen, "as opposed to thinking of it as something that you should add on as an extra along the way." Smaller agencies scrambling for modest accounts, however, admit price-conscious clients may not want to foot the bill for market research. To remain competitive with firms not using it, Suzanne Boland, president of RFB Communications Group in Tampa, FL usually proposes research as a separate line item. "Possibly, we as PR practitioners haven't been as aggressive as we could be in suggesting the use of market research," Boland says, positing that the relative dearth of research in PR may be the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Then there are those who argue research costs don't belong on PR balance sheets. "The client should not be looking at research as a percentage of the PR budget," contends George Ryan, SVP of NFO Research. "Take [the cost] out of the PR spending bucket, and put it in the marketing bucket." As Cummings points out, "Budgets usually don't allow for a full-blown, statistically valid piece of research for PR purposes only. Research can take a couple of months' worth of fees." Often, corporate communications teams and the PR firms serving them mine research conducted by their ad agencies or in-house marketing departments for information they can apply to PR. "Often, there just isn't the need to do additional work," says Barry French, corporate PR director for Dell Computers in Austin, TX. His staff regularly pores over mammoth customer surveys conducted by the company's branding department. Creative research alternatives No matter what the underlying reasons, most PR practitioners have come to accept that small research budgets are a fact of life. As such, they often find creative ways to get the information they need. From a quantitative perspective, PR teams often save money by subscribing to syndicated research services that conduct polls on general consumer topics. They also may pool resources to participate in omnibus surveys. Brenda Edwards, marketing VP for TNS InterSearch, explains that individual customers pay to have several questions compiled into broader omnibus surveys. When forced to choose between qualitative and quantitative methods, PR people generally lean toward focus groups that allow for deeper and more open-ended examination of issues, Novick reports. "I love to have the opportunity to touch the people involved if I can," opines Chris Cocoran, VP of Sterling Communications in the Silicon Valley. If no research money is available, PR firms often fall back on what Cummings calls "mother-in-law" polling, or asking family, friends, and coworkers how they feel about topics. "It's better than not doing anything," Novick concedes. And since successful media relations means finding the point where the interests of journalists and target audiences intersect, many PR professionals say they often informally ask reporters' opinions. Cummings and de La Garza use their Worldcom PR Group and Pinnacle Worldwide affiliations, respectively, for low-cost research. Cummings sometimes queries Worldcom members informally, and de La Garza takes advantage of a Roper ASW subscription that Pinnacle members share. In the end, market research may not be such a hard sell when PR agencies do a little of it on prospective clients before pitching them. De La Garza and Cummings agree that working interesting data into presentations can not only help win accounts, but it can also showcase the value of research. On a larger scale, Rozeen says Golin always invests in research when pitching accounts worth more than $500,000. "If you can drop a few little pearls of wisdom, all of a sudden money is not such a factor," de La Garza claims. "Now, it becomes, 'How quickly can you get me the results?'" ----- Ethnography raises the research bar People don't always do what they say they do, even when they think they are telling the truth. To understand that gap between thought and action, intention and reality, some marketers are turning to ethnographic research. The corporate and organizational use of ethnography began when academic anthropologists began applying their skills to study things, like work flow and product usage. Dr. Rick Robinson founded E-Lab - one of the first ethnography firms dedicated to product and brand research - in Chicago a decade ago. He later sold the business to Sapient. "We're past 'fad' and moving into 'trend' now," says Dr. Robbie Blinkoff, cofounder of Context-Based Research Group in Baltimore. Ethnography has gained popularity among advertising account planners in the last five or six years, but it hasn't caught on as well in PR circles. Through ethnography, anthropologists observe people in their homes, or while using or shopping for products. Observation may be done in person, via video, or through the use of in-depth interviews, journal keeping, and/or photography. "Instead of pulling people into a focus group to ask them what they think of the new Ravens Stadium, we go the new Ravens Stadium in Baltimore and sit there with them," Blinkoff describes. PR research executives with some of the larger agencies say they have dabbled in ethnography, but don't use it often. "It's something that we have looked at expanding on," says David Rockland, SVP and global research director for Ketchum. Clients, however, find focus groups and tracking studies easier to understand. "There's not much demand for [ethnography]," Rockland notes, "and we do operate as a profit center."

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