How can effective research strategies and tools best drill down to reach stakeholders?

Fielding research online can help reach critical audiences in emerging markets and can provide anonymity, which helps negate potential bias sometimes found in face-to-face data collection.


Raoul Bhavnani, Global practice leader, strategy consulting and research team, FTI Consulting

Robert Fronk , EVP, global reputation management, Harris Interactive

Bradley Honan , CEO, KRC Research

Molly McKenna Jandrain , Director, PR, McDonald's USA

Heidi Sullivan , SVP, digital content, Cision

Raoul Bhavnani, global practice leader, strategy consulting and research team, FTI Consulting
A company's license to operate is largely determined by its key stakeholders.

They can be myriad, but frequently include groups such as customers, clients, employees, investors, media, elected officials, and regulators. These audiences, when aggregated, have immense sway over a company's ability to generate economic activity. Without their support, a business can quickly wane.

In today's volatile world, the sentiments of key stakeholders and the implicit per- mission they grant a company to prosper can be difficult to determine. They are certainly more influenced by online stimuli and the changing dynamics of the news cycle. What influenced stakeholders in the past may not hold sway for them any longer.

Does that leave the communications professional stranded? Hardly, but it under- scores the need for real-time insights via research into the thinking of key stake-holders in order to reach them effectively.

The same tools that influence key stakeholders can increasingly be utilized to measure sentiment effectively. Primary research - such as surveys, interviews, and focus groups - is now easily fielded online and increasingly considered an acceptable, mainstream research technique.

Also, the ease and anonymity of responding online can help to address some of the response biases in face-to-face data collection. Moreover, the aggregation and analysis of public dialogue in social media provides a real-time pulse on key stakeholder sentiment and can be a very useful tool.

And newer techniques are emerging all the time from river-sampling to crowdsourcing to mixed Internet/traditional modalities, all of which are innovative and efficient ways to reach key stakeholders.

Robert Fronk, EVP, global reputation management, Harris Interactive
Thoughtfully designed, executed, analyzed, and interpreted research can and should provide a company with appropriate insight and actionability to most effectively manage key stakeholder relationships.

At the outset, research should help a company define who its key stakeholders are, and armed with this knowledge, subsequent research and advanced analytic efforts can be tailored to each stakeholder to provide answers to the following questions: 

  • Relationships. What is the nature of the relationship my company needs to have with this stakeholder to further business objectives and help satisfy the stakeholder's unique objectives? Also, what's the status of this relationship today and what frictions, if any, need to be overcome?
  • Beliefs. Companies need to understand what are the most impactful beliefs that each stakeholder needs to hold to drive the most positive outcomes for both the organization and stakeholder. It is also vital to know what initiatives and assets affect this positive change.
  • Messaging. Which channels, media or otherwise, have the most positive impact on these outcomes?

Companies also need to gauge when is the right time to engage particular stakeholders. The challenge for many businesses today is that the focus of research is on the tools and not the strategy or effectiveness. The rise of one-size-fits-all research tools has made it easy for companies to get answers, but at the expense of using research to ask questions that are most appropriate to the company and its unique stakeholders.

Reaching key stakeholders is not the issue. Engaging them when appropriate with in-formation that satisfies their agenda and leads to mutually desirable outcomes should be the core of an effective research strategy.

Bradley Honan, CEO, KRC Research
There are three fundamental questions to answer in order for companies to maximize the benefits of research from stakeholders:

  • What's the white space? The most impactful and successful research supporting PR campaigns begins with questions about what do we know versus what don't we know and what must we know the answers to? These questions, more than anything else, will allow companies to fully leverage their resources - human and financial capital - to hone in on what is necessary to uncover and quantify with their research efforts.
  • How will the research be used? There are a variety of different types of research that companies can undertake.

    Besides knowing what companies need to learn, it's critically important to understand how the research will be used. Is the stakeholder research being undertaken to create content or drive an online conversation? Or instead, does a company want to measure reactions to its products and services or gauge sentiment around issues it's involved with?

    All of these are valid and common uses of research, but how the analysis and insight will be used significantly impacts how the stakeholder research will be carried out.
  • How does your programming rate in pre-testing? The most successful stake- holder campaigns go to great lengths to pre-test the most important aspects of their programs before they are launched - and this includes messaging, tactics, and collateral.

    Pre-testing enables client-side communicators and their agencies to refine and ad-just their programming based on specific and broad feedback they receive.

    As PR plays an even more important role in how companies function and operate, ideas and tactics will increasingly be systematically tested to ensure only the most successful ever see the light of day. 

Molly McKenna Jandrain, director, PR, McDonald's USA
Research within the communications space is becoming increasingly important.

We are operating in a complex and extremely cluttered environment and our key audiences are smarter and more skeptical than ever before.

As PR pros, we are often challenged with maximizing our limited budgets, and research can unfortunately sometimes be the first thing to go. When research does make it in the mix, many businesses and brands focus their insights and any funding they have on messaging and positioning.

While understanding the right messages and tone is still critical in the PR space, another important step in most effectively reaching your company's key stakeholders is first understanding who they are. Who are your fans? Who will advocate for your brand or products? Are you reaching them?

Brands often spend too much time trying to reach their detractors or people that aren't their customers or fans. The a-ha moment comes when research identifies who really cares; is most interested in your brand, or has the potential to be; and reinforces the fact that your key messages and business actions are actually speaking to the right people who will support your business and advocate to others about you.

The more we can understand and not assume through this technique, the more impact we'll have and the more credibility we'll gain as a PR industry.

Heidi Sullivan, SVP, digital content, Cision
Data is at a crossroads - both innumerably big and uniquely content driven - and key stakeholders look to us to interpret and advise when it comes to choosing the best re-search strategies and tools for their business.

Managing data can seem overwhelming in a PR and marketing space replete with the exchange of messages. Every aspect of storytelling competes for attention. Clients have an expectation that we provide the tools to manage data and effectively do their jobs - but if we truly wish to drill down and affect their strategy, we must evolve with the conversation and advocate for practices that provide the biggest return on investment.

To reach stakeholders, we must start by informing. Tapping the thought leadership within our own organizations is ideal, and corporate blog posts, webinars, and expert panels are just the tip of the iceberg.

On a social networking and communications level, we must act as a filter for new technologies, favoring methods that are high yield, time conducive, and mindful of customer engagement, while panning tools whose results are hard to measure or analyze. We must illustrate real-time practical applications that have the largest impact on our audience.

Lastly, we must optimize. Not only should we help our stakeholders measure results, we also need to help them interpret success and make it easy to repeat the process.

The PR and marketing industries have myriad strategies and tools at their disposal, but the ones that are streamlined for big data's barrage of content, while remaining easy to implement and sustain, are the ones that will provide a truly valuable service.

The Takeaway 
  • Fielding research online can help reach critical audiences in emerging markets and can provide anonymity, which helps negate potential bias sometimes found in face-to-face data collection.
  • PR and marketing professionals need to help clients establish repeatable strategies. Initiatives that can handle big data, but re-main easy to implement will have the most value.
  • Campaigns that invest in pre-testing are the most effective. Feedback from stakeholders will allow a company to vet messaging and tactics and incorporate refinements that better resonate with the target audience.

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