Better campaigns: Research: 3 ways to use it

Used properly, research can be a powerful PR tool and has the potential to achieve anything from a quick headline to a change in the law. Cathy Wallace finds out how.

Research: tools of the trade
Research: tools of the trade

If you want a quick press release, commission a survey. So says Rick Nye, director at research agency Populus. 'And if you are looking at a long-term campaign to make real changes, you have to go about it like a political party or well-funded NGO would, and use research.'

Of course anyone working within a market research company would extol the benefits. But a research-based campaign run by Mandate, without the involvement of any third party company, scooped PRWeek's prestigious Campaign of the Year award for 2009.

This reminds us that when used well, whether in-house or by an independent agency, research can be key to many groundbreaking campaigns.

It can also make politicians sit up and listen.

Two months after the death of reality TV star Jade Goody in March 2009 from cervical cancer, Metro, the morning freesheet, asked market research agency Harris Interactive to run a poll of men and women across the UK. The agency asked more than 2,000 people for their views on screening practices for cervical cancer.

The poll found that 82 per cent of 16- to 24-year-olds in England wanted the smear test age lowered from 25 to 20, and 79 per cent of all adults wanted the age lowered. It also revealed a significant number of people - 36 per cent - felt the Department of Health did not screen women before the age of 25 because of budget restrictions.

As a result of the poll and consistent pressure, the independent Advisory Committee on Cervical Screening ran a review of the current arrangements for cervical screening.

Although the committee did not recommend the screening age be lowered to 20, it did introduce a national audit to improve the detection and diagnosis of the disease. The audit, the first of its kind, would identify early indicators of cervical cancer and help reduce investigations on healthy people.

Although the death of Goody was a hot media topic, using hard evidence helped keep the issue relevant and at the forefront long after the media had their fill of the former Big Brother star.

'The media and research can be used to make politicians aware of issues that are not currently on their agenda; basic stuff like understanding what the public level of knowledge is about cancer, and how concerned the public is about it,' says Andrew Freeman, senior media research consultant at Harris Interactive.

When it comes to research, one size does not fit all. Here PRWeek looks at three different ways to use research to support your campaign - how to generate a quick headline; how to change government policy or even the law; and how to best employ academic research or the Freedom of Information Act.


1. Generate a quick headline

If you want to get your client a bit of coverage, a survey is the ideal way to achieve a quick, easy and cost-effective headline.

Some dismiss the PR-led survey as a pointless exercise and claim newspapers are becoming wise to the technique, but Doug Shields, editorial director at OnePoll and 72Point, says there is no evidence that this is the case.

'In the past few years the number of surveys we have run has nearly doubled,' he says. 'People have said there may come a time when newspapers don't use surveys but the media are not always looking for doom and gloom headlines.' In fact, with the explosion in online news and social networking, surveys may if anything become more popular. 'People won't forward on a gloomy story to their friends, but they might forward on a survey of mums if they are a mum, or a survey of car drivers if they drive cars.' Then one recipient may tweet the story and coverage is further enhanced.

Shields says the recession may be a driver in the popularity of surveys as brands have cut down on their advertising budgets but increased pressure on their PR campaigns and demanded more instant results.

Anna Cliffe, head of research at Brahm, agrees the survey technique is still effective in generating headlines but warns that for a newspaper to take a survey seriously, it must have a decent sample size. For a survey of the general public, 1,000 is a minimum acceptable sample and it must be nationally representative: 'It's common sense really but if you are running a poll on a website then that is not necessarily a representative sample.'

Also consider using a demographically targeted sample. For example, if you are looking to make headlines for a brand aimed at mums, a survey of mums will be more of a fit than a survey of the general population.

Campaign: Premier 21 Current Account
Client: Alliance and Leicester
PR team: The Lounge Group

Alliance & Leicester launched a bank account for 16- to 21-year-olds who have chosen to start their working life rather than go to university - the Premier 21 Current Account. The bank wanted to offer something different to its customers other than the traditional one-off gift of an iPod or a free travel card, and help create more of a connection.

The PR team used research to help launch the account.

A survey was put together asking young people why they decided not to go to university, whether or not they would benefit from a career mentor, and whether they felt not going to university had hindered their career. The survey also asked whether young people felt there was a need for stronger career support for those who chose not to go to university, and how much they anticipated they would be earning in ten years' time.

The research was used to generate multiple news hooks to be rolled out through the eight-month campaign. It was accompanied by an incentive for young people to take out the account and be in the running for a session with a celebrity mentor, such as presenter Denise Van Outen, pop stars McFly and rugby star Danny Cipriani.

In total 2,612 people in the UK responded to the survey, and of these, 1,065 were young people aged 16 to 21, the target audience. The campaign generated nearly 400 pieces of news coverage including national, regional, consumer, online and broadcast media such as The Sun, Metro, More magazine, and BBC Radio One.

The research was used not only to generate headlines but to act as a talking point for spokespeople when giving interviews to the media. The findings of the research were also tied in to the celebrity mentors, and each mentor was announced to the media alongside the findings.

1,173 - 2009
940 - 2008
634 - 2007


2. Create focused campaigns

For a campaign with a long-term goal, such as to change government policy or the law, research can be a useful way to keep an issue in the public eye.

The health screening poll by Metro, cited at the beginning of this article, is a good example. By the time the poll was carried out the media had probably had their fill of stories about Jade Goody. Providing a new and evidence-based angle helped keep the wider issue of screening for cervical cancer in the limelight.

Rick Nye, director at Populus, adds research can be useful in showing what the general public thinks in the face of a minority who are exceptionally vocal. This is a technique often used by supermarkets around planning applications where a vocal minority is objecting. The supermarket will commission a poll to see what the silent majority thinks about the application and use it to support its case.

This technique can work where the goal of a campaign is to influence policy or have it changed. 'An MP is more likely to back a campaign if there is hard evidence behind it,' says Nye. 'If you can back up your campaign with research that is impartial you are more likely to be taken seriously.'

If the goal of your campaign is to achieve a change in policy or the law, ultimately it is politicians that need to be reached.

Showing how the public feels about an issue can generate headlines in itself, and it will encourage politicians by showing the popularity of a move.

Increasingly PR agencies are using research in a way that was once the domain of political parties or NGOs, says Nye. Andrew Freeman, senior media research consultant at Harris Interactive, adds: 'The early days of New Labour were marked by politicians using research to be more appealing.' Now politicians are on the receiving end as brands and organisations are using research to show politicians how to be more appealing to the electorate.


Client: Dignity in Dying

Research team: Ipsos Mori

Dignity in Dying asked Ipsos Mori to carry out research looking at the public's opinion of the current laws around assisted dying for the terminally ill. It also looked at the opinions of MPs on whether doctors who help terminally ill but mentally competent adult patients to die should be prosecuted.

The research forms part of an ongoing campaign by Dignity in Dying to change the law in the UK. Bobby Duffy, head of public affairs at Ipsos Mori, says: 'For a campaign to change the law, particularly around an emotive subject such as this, it must be able to demonstrate the support of the general public and there is no better way to obtain this proof than through robust and defensible research.'

The research found that 53 per cent of MPs felt the law should be changed to let doctors help terminally ill patients die without fear of prosecution. It also found three-quarters of adults felt a family member or friend should not be prosecuted for helping a terminally ill but mentally competent adult travel abroad to commit suicide.

The story was covered by The Times, The Guardian, The Telegraph and the Daily Mail. The survey was timed to coincide with consultation on draft guidelines on the issue of assisted suicide and final guidelines are expected in March this year.

As MPs are a far smaller sector of the population the sample size was just 112, but the research was still considered highly credible by the national media.


3. Academic studies or FOI

There are occasions when 'traditional' research, such as a survey, a series of focus groups or a set of telephone interviews, will not yield the desired response.

In these cases, the Freedom of Information Act may be the way forward.

As the Freedom of Information Act is a legal requirement for public bodies, using it means the organisation is compelled to respond. Unlike a traditional survey, which anyone is free to refuse to take part in, FOI requests have to be answered.

Mandate used FOI very successfully for its award-winning campaign for the Rarer Cancers Forum. The campaign surveyed primary care trusts about decision-making processes on exceptional case cancer patients. The research was used to provoke a policy change that unlocked £175m for cancer treatment.

'By using FOI we were able to target PCTs directly,' says Mike Birtwistle, MD of Health Mandate. 'We did not feel trusts would have filled in a survey.'

Another useful avenue is academic research. This adds clout and newspapers frequently feature academic findings, from the straightforward to the bizarre. Unity recently achieved a double-page spread in the Daily Mirror with a campaign for Direct Line that used academic research to prove the calming effects of a cup of tea. The story quickly spread across social networking websites as people shared it via Twitter.

The story went on to generate further headlines as broadcast outlets put the theory behind the calming properties of tea to the test. Unity co-founder Nik Done says Direct Line is now planning more activity around the tea theme, as the overriding message was to align Direct Line with tea as being helpful in times of crisis.


1. Know your aims. Decide what you want to achieve before commissioning research. Do you want a quick news story? Evidence to lobby politicians? A bit of feedback from your target audience?

2. Use a reputable agency. The 'big' market research agencies such as Ipsos Mori, OnePoll, Populus and Harris Interactive are all recognised and using one will give your research an impartial, credible edge. But big agencies can be expensive so do not rule out using a less well-known agency, as long as they are registered with the Market Research Society (MRS). The MRS Research Buyers Guide, available online, is a good reference point.

3. Be flexible with methodology.

An online poll is by far the quickest, cheapest and easiest way to get results, but if you are targeting a demographic that may not be internet-literate, consider using telephone interviews, face-to-face research or focus groups.

4. Use a decent-sized sample, ideally a minimum of 1,000 people, and make sure it is nationally representative if you are surveying the general public. Alternatively consider using a demographic sample, which represents your target market.

5. Take advice. Research agencies are experts in what they do. Use their knowledge and expertise. Do not be tempted to think you know best when it comes to drawing up a questionnaire.

6. If traditional research does not fit the bill, consider alternatives (see above). The Freedom of Information Act may be a useful avenue, or an agency may want to carry out its own research. Many larger agencies have their own research teams, but the research must be credible. Audiences may see through research that has been conducted by a PR agency to obviously tie in with its aims.

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