Get 100% from your survey

If you need to generate headlines, a survey can be ideal. Cathy Wallace asks the experts how to commission and use a survey to gain maximum impact

TIf an organisation has no ‘natural’ news, a survey is one of the most popular and effective ways to create headlines.

Instead of relying on a new product or service launch, an inspired survey can generate blanket news coverage in a cost-effective manner.

‘Research can give you something to talk about, not just to the press but to customers, potential customers and stakeholders,’ says Andy Rowlands, a director in the corporate issues and technology practice at Burson-Marsteller.

Surveys are one of the oldest PR tools around – but they have only survived as a viable tool because they are so flexible.
If it is done properly, a good survey can create a starting point for a comprehensive PR strategy. Findings can lead to
news stories that spark blogging and debate online, and entire campaigns can be created and carried out based on the findings of a survey.

If you want a steer on what kind of survey will get you the coverage you want, do not rule out phoning journalists to ask what they would be interested in. Offering the survey results as an exclusive can be an effective way of ens­uring your research does not go to waste.

But it is crucial to get the survey itself right. For a start, make sure you actually have a clear objective in mind. Tim
Weber, business editor for BBC news, radio and interactive, warns: ‘People overdo surveys; there are too many and most are poorly researched and presented or spun.’

Ron Finlay, director at Fishburn Hedges, says he sympathises with Weber. ‘We should all be more discriminating,’ he
admits. ‘There are cases when a survey will either inform or entertain – but if it does neither, we shouldn’t be doing it.’
So to help you get it right, here is PRWeek’s guide to commissioning and using market research.


If you want to carry out a survey that will generate headlines in the media, you need a minimum sample size of 1,000 people unless you are surveying a very difficult to reach or elite group – such as FTSE100 chief executives.

Perhaps unsurprisingly,  Andrew Coo­per, founder and strategic director of pollsters Populus, advises choosing an agency with a name big enough to gain the respect of the press. ‘Using polling companies that are regularly seen in newspapers adds credibility and creates an affinity with the reader,’ he explains. ‘If the research is contentious, media debate can start, and this is why credible research con­ducted by an independent research company is critical.’

Dr George Terhanian, president of market research agency Harris Interactive Europe, agrees: ‘Clients want a third-party brand that is known for producing credible, trustworthy information – otherwise people won’t trust them and they can do more harm than good.’

Do not try to do the research yourself, unless you really know what you are doing. Many PROs think they can do ‘stakeholder research’ but all too often they have just rung round their mates in the media and politics. This is not ‘robust research’.

Having chosen your agency, view your relationship with it as being the same as a client-PR agency relationship. Brief agencies as you would like to be briefed by a client. Make sure the agency understands the objectives you want, the timeframe and the budget. Give it a clear definition of what you want, but do not impose on it the methodology it should use – that is the expertise you should be buying.

Have an idea in your head of the kind of headlines you would like to achieve and what questions you would like to ask, but do not be tempted to structure the questionnaire to aim for a particular response. ‘We are obliged, because of the Market

Research Society code, to make available any documentation that people want to see relating to the survey,’ warns Terhan­ian. ‘If anyone doesn’t want to do that we won’t work with them.’

But do try to be as involved as possible in the whole process. Outline the goals, provide sample questions, and question things if you do not understand them.

A good researcher will always be able to explain and justify their methodology.

Resonate account director Alex Wood adds: ‘PR agencies should be involved at every stage of the project – without this
involvement the survey risks lacking focus or drifting off objective.’

The ideal scenario should have both parties bringing their expertise to the table. PROs bring their knowledge of the client field, consumers and media needs. The research agency provides the survey exp­ertise and analytical ability.


Once the results come in, what do you do next? Hopefully the research fits in with the ideas that you had in mind when you first commissioned it. But if not, do not panic.

‘Remember the whole point of doing the survey is to get added perspective and debate on issues,’ says Rowlands. ‘Look at something else that might work if the research comes back with unexpected findings. Can you use the research to highlight gender differences or regional differences instead? There’s usually a story you can get out of it.’

However, Caroline Randle, UK director of corporate practice at Waggener Eds­trom, says: ‘If you don’t get the results you are looking for, why are you commissioning the research in the first place?’

Once you have your results and have worked out what angle you are going to take, do not rule out going back to the market research agency for more help. Often agencies will check press releases to ens­ure the data has been used correctly. Poorly interpreted data can quickly lead to the wrong type of coverage.

Present the numbers as simply as possible and do not overuse percentages, advises Finlay: ‘Eight out of 10 is easier to understand than 79 per cent.’

The process does not end with sending out a press release, though. The strongest use of res­earch involves integrating it
with other tactics to create a package of PR activity.

This would include online content, stimulus for blogging and online chatter, and a point of action to which you could drive the target audience once it is engaged with your activity – all tied together with a wider creative campaign platform.

Case Study Safe Text

Client    118118
PR team    Resonate PR
Date    March 2008

Resonate was asked to align the 118118 directory enquiries brand with texting. Research into consumer mobile use revealed the phenomenon of Britons suffering injuries when distracted by their mobile phones. Based on this finding Resonate commissioned more focused research that found there were an average of 6.5 million ‘walk and text’ injuries a year in the UK.

On the back of this research, Resonate partnered with the street safety body, Living Streets, to create a ‘Safe Text’ campaign aimed at cutting these injuries. Huge branded pads were fixed to obstacles in London’s Brick Lane – the most dangerous street in the country for injuries – as a pilot before being rolled out to the rest of the nation’s high streets.

At the launch of the campaign the initial research was distributed to media in a release highlighting the scale of the problem alongside 118118’s solution. Coverage evolved from the initial splash into a debate about the role of the nanny state and the innovation the Safe Text scheme represented.

Bloggers and forums followed the story. Coverage appeared in TIME magazine, the Daily Mirror, the Daily Express, the Daily Star, the Evening Standard, The Guardian, ITN Central News, BBC London, The Scotsman, TalkSport and Virgin Radio among other outlets and online. The client reported an 11 per cent spike in text volume around the launch of the story as people texted in to learn more about the Safe Text pilot.

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