Deep Dive: Telling stories through stats - PR and research studies

With evermore pieces of research being commissioned and published by PR agencies across the globe, what are the reasons behind undertaking such significant projects? And are these studies always reliable?

Whether it’s politics, sports, lifestyle, technology or even food, in today’s world data and statistics play a more significant role in shaping consumers’ lives and feelings than perhaps at any point in history.

More than ever before is it possible to breakdown and quantify all the various factors that go into making up a complete picture of something: a politician’s reputation, an athlete’s ability, a recipe’s success or how healthy it is. And, perhaps most significantly for the communications industry, a consumer’s behaviour.

Almost anything these days, it seems, can be measured, recorded, analysed, indexed and translated into a series of numbers, charts and infographics. What’s more, people – and businesses – cannot seem to get enough of it.

Data insights, for many, bring easily digestible answers to complex questions that can significantly inform an agenda or behaviour.

With that in mind, the rapid rise in the number of PR agencies investing in data-based studies and research into a whole range of economic, social and behavioural issues is perhaps only to be expected.

In the past couple of months alone PRWeek has received at least six such reports, each on a separate area of research but all with the same goal of providing data relevant to the PR and communications industry.

Moreover, increasingly firms are looking to produce data and insights specifically regarding Asia-Pacific, as clients look for how to best grow their businesses in the region’s maturing markets, and consumers become more sophisticated and engaged.

Data-driven conversations

For PR agencies to most effectively advise brands these days, data and insights have to be part of the package now, says Ian Rumsby, chairman of Weber Shandwick Australia and chief strategy officer for APAC.

Over the past few years in Asia-Pacific alone the agency has published reports including Food Forward, The CEO Reputation Premium, and Engaging Cities.

"Our ability as an organisation to have conversations with our clients and broader market players that are based on research-driven intellectually rigorous insights is quite frankly an expectation that clients rightly have," Rumsby (pictured) tells PRWeek Asia.

This notion of bringing to clients’ attention the wider context in which they are operating, particularly in a region as diverse as APAC, is key to defining the topics that PR agencies choose to investigate.

It’s important to recognise here that brands have been using research and consumer insights for many years now; the process is not new.

What is changing, says Henry Wood, vice president and head of insight & analytics and creative at WE Communications, is how this process is now starting within the PR agency rather than the brand.

"Agencies are coming in at the start of the process and working all the way through it," he tells PRWeek Asia, which has led to the broader thinking about what insights a brand is looking for.

Specific data on a product or market is undoubtedly useful, and Wood says WE also conducts secondary research specifically for clients across APAC.

However, the best way for agencies to drive important, topical conversations in the marketplace is through the bigger, wider projects that track more intangible issues and trends like consumer behaviour.

"Studies help to contextualise the importance of either a brand or a product to help focus on not just what that is, but why it’s relevant to the market or consumer," Wood says, pointing to WE’s Content Matters report, which analyses multiple sectors in nine Asian markets.

"We believe it provides real insight in cutting through the clutter of complexity so often bandied about and allows brands and marketers to focus their budgets on impactful communications."

Indeed, this wide-angle lens that PR agency studies provide can have a telling impact on brand strategy and inform their comms campaigns, says Barsha Panda, Yahoo head of corporate communications for India and Southeast Asia.

"Studies are a good wake-up call," she says, highlighting the Edelman Trust Barometer and Ketchum Leadership Index as examples of research that puts big concepts – trust and leadership – into a comms context that is valuable to brands.

"They rouse one from the inertia of working on pre-defined patterns and following a process that might have worked in the past, but is unlikely to be as effective in the light of new data," Panda continues.

"If we use these studies the right way, we actually learn new things. They challenge the status quo and push us to experiment."

Moreover, Panda (pictured) admits that it is always helpful when trying to change comms strategy if a brand can "point to third-party research that endorses what we’re proposing".

This return for brands from a decent study has clear benefits for agencies too. The more respected a report is, the more likely it is to be talked about between businesses.

By providing detailed research on important themes across the PR spectrum, agencies put themselves on the radar of prospective clients who discover the study and want to talk more about how its insights might affect them.

Rumsby says: "There’s a relationship building aspect too. It [publishing studies] creates the opportunity to have a conversation we may not otherwise have."

He highlights Weber Shandwick’s Engaging Cities report, which looks at the importance of ‘soft power’ influences across eight cities in APAC.

It was a focal point of conversation at the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan last year, where Rumsby was speaking on Tokyo’s global branding opportunities ahead of the 2020 Olympic Games.

"It drew commentary from a range of people," he explains. "Without something like Engaging Cities, we would not have been able to have those sorts of conversations."

That emphasis on dialogue and shaping debate is a crucial issue for PR agencies. A study not only allows brands access to detailed market insights and wider trends, it helps comms agencies have a point of view on the key issues facing their industry.

"Our research helps to give voice to our expertise, offering our perspective on the world and how it operates," says Jason Born, Edelman APACMEA senior manager for regional marketing & owned insights.

"We make investments to establish ourselves as thought leaders, and to develop insights that help create actionable ideas."

For that reason, it is also critical to agencies that their studies are undertaken independently, and not to satisfy the whims of a client. Even more important is that the data is not skewed to suit any particular purpose.

"One thing we’re very clear about is that we don’t want to force conclusions," states Wood.

"We would look to extract the story we want to tell through analysing data and finding interesting conclusions, rather than hope to find data that supports what we want it to tell us; that is selecting some data and ignoring others."

Ensuring rigor

For all the desire to create thought-provoking conversation in the PR industry, observers say the fundamental tenet underpinning all studies, and their success, is credibility.

With the range of free options online to create snap surveys and data sets, the methodologies behind a credible piece of research must be unshakeably robust.

Panda says: "It really matters if the studies have been conducted with rigorous research, and if the process has involved slicing and dicing of data at a global and local level.

"The rigor almost literally shines through in the sharpness of the findings and the depth of the insights. For any study to be credible, it has to have a voice that cuts through the noise."

As specialists in reputation management, this has to be the starting point for PR agencies, especially in a market where several firms are publishing their own research.

As Wood (pictured) puts it, tactical use of data and statistics "drives eyeballs" but agencies have to ensure "that there is clear substance to our reports over pure clickbait".

It starts by having a strong system in place for developing a theme, involving thorough discussion and debate within the agency.

For this, Wood says, agencies have to broaden the scope of their talent and have people at the firm "with clear analytic and research education, skills and experience" who understand how to analyse data and make valid interpretations.

For the data itself, experts say the surest way to ensure rigor is to get help. External research providers ensure that a survey is robust, with a credible sample size and clean, independent data.

WE, for example, has partnered with YouGov in APAC for more than two years, while Weber uses its sister research agency KRC and other firms. For the Edelman Trust Barometer this year, 33,000 respondents from 28 countries were surveyed with the help of external research agencies.

The downside of not adhering to these basic principles is obvious to people who work every day to maintain clients’ reputations.

"Not only are we competing for attention with other agencies, but we are competing with every other type of research out there in the market," explains Born (pictured).

"To continue to earn the attention of our audience, it is essential that our studies are credible and topical."

Rumsby perhaps puts it most clearly. "Anything we’re putting into the marketplace needs to have gone through a very clear process of due diligence, to ensure the information and commentary we’re providing, as best we can, is accurate."

Unsurprisingly, there are issues, as with any industry, of people being less scrupulous with their so-called ‘research’. Nice fonts and snappy infographics can dress up a poor study and get it more attention than it deserves.

This is something everyone who works diligently on research is wary of, both agency and brand side.

"I’m careful about the ones that show shoddy research methods, or tend to generalise from tiny sample sizes," says Panda at Yahoo.

"Strangely enough, some studies show very clear biases and non-inclusivity, even in what they’re trying to answer. Those are the scariest ones!"

Wood at WE suggests that while the market is not there yet, there will probably come a time where there is more cutting of corners, leading to worse results and a devaluation of the entire research process in PR through the actions of a dishonest few.

"But I also believe that if you can defend valid data through excellence, studies will always serve a purpose for a variety of reasons," he adds.

Moreover, while some APAC PR markets are relatively new to the data and insights phenomenon, Rumsby has faith in brands and consumers’ abilities to spot a fraud.

"People in our region have very quickly learned to decide what is a strong, valid, relevant and credible research initiative and what is one designed to create a spike in noise," he says.

"The reality is there is a wide gap between a ‘quick and dirty’ survey generated to create a small amount of news, and a more substantial initiative to create a robust conversation."

With the extraordinary rate of change in PR continuing apace and clients increasingly expecting clearer and better insights from agencies, it seems the world of research and studies will keep playing a significant role in shaping brands, conversations and the industry itself. 

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