Research is a big part of doing public relations work properly, across virtually every practice of PR. Whether you’re doing background research on a public affairs issue so that you get your strategy right to market-based research on a consumer communication so you get your messaging right, research plays into it.
Research is also critical to conducting good measurement. You need to research in order to determine what a reasonable baseline is prior to establishing a measurement program, for example. And, depending on what measurement approaches you will use, you might need to do even more in-depth research prior to implementation, and deploy ongoing research and analysis as your measurement program progresses.
With the importance of research so clear, here are some tips on how to approach research, how to refine your focus so you aren’t doing unnecessary work, and how to streamline the incorporation of ongoing research into your daily PR practice.
How to approach research
Research conducted prior to making a pitch for new business should be thorough and look at the following:
- Who, if anyone, has been doing the PR work you’ll be pitching for in the new business pitch? If there is an incumbent PR firm that you’re looking to displace, are there any industry publications that have covered the work currently being done for the prospective client? This can provide insight into why the company might be looking to make a change. This information will help guide how you tailor your pitch.
- If you are pitching a company that is consumer-facing, research what is going on with competitors. What does the competitor’s product coverage look like—is it positive or negative? Is the competitor a leader in the industry? Are there new companies breaking into the same space? This information helps give you the lay of the land in the industry.
- What are the leading media outlets that report on the prospective client’s industry? Who are some of the most important journalists who cover this particular beat? This research will help you propose an effective media outreach strategy in the pitch. If you already have relationships with some of the industry’s leading reporters, you can highlight this in your pitch.
This information will help to shape an effective pitch above and beyond what might be directly requested in a request for proposal (RFP). RFPs can be incredibly detailed or maddeningly vague. Use research to help identify and then address issues that play to your PR firm’s strengths, and incorporate this into the RFP response where possible.
Using research to refine your focus
When using research for existing clients, the volume of information available that is relevant to a client or an industry can sometimes be overwhelming. During an ongoing program, you might be using monitoring to watch keywords for competitors, your client, your client’s industry, regulatory concerns, social media, and, if it’s a global company, you might even be watching for all of these factors in different countries. You can use research to better focus not only what you are monitoring, but also to refine strategy, and make more informed decisions when determining where goals should be set, what outreach targets should be, and more. Research before and during a PR program should look at:
- What are the ideal target audiences for programs comparable to the one you will be conducting, and is there any information available on the successes or failures of similar programs?
- Use research to identify and review any online communities that might make sense for outreach, and then do deeper research to see how such outreach might be received. Do these communities care about your product or issue? Would they be receptive to, or openly hostile if approached by someone representing the brand? Don’t restrict your research to just locating where target audiences are—use it to better inform your outreach strategy.
- Similarly, you can use research to uncover where there might be opportunities that are less obvious. For example, if you are working on PR coverage for a new educational toy, logical outreach targets are parents and grandparents—but don’t forget that many of those kids are going to be showered with gifts by uncles, aunts, and friends of the parents. Although they aren’t parents themselves, in the right setting they could easily be receptive to a pitch about a toy—but you have to research where that “right setting” might be.
It’s important to remember that ongoing research shouldn’t be confined to what you can identify through monitoring, even though that is an important and cost-effective way to do your research. Research also encompasses actively collecting information, such as conducting surveys and focus groups. Although these are typically more expensive than media monitoring, they can yield important data about PR programs. Whenever it is possible to secure the budget to do this type of field research, you should.
Incorporating research into daily practice
Public relations programs can run into trouble when they start to get too routine—and this can happen in any practice type, from public affairs to internal communications. Once a firm hits on a successful strategy, there is significant pressure to replicate that success, and that can result in reusing the same playbook over and over. By consistently incorporating research into your PR practice, you’ll be more likely to come across new ideas and new ways of looking at communication—and this will help inform creative strategy.
In many ways, this type of research is closely tied to your daily monitoring. It does involve using your monitoring results to both ask and answer questions. For instance, when you see an uptick in positive reactions to a line of messaging, it involves reviewing the data collected to identify what the reasons for the uptick are. Did the person delivering the message change? Was there a change in wording that made the audience more receptive? And then, about the audience: did it change in some way? Were there external factors—such as a relevant news story that received concurrent coverage—that caused people’s attention to focus on your issue or product?
Active reviews of monitoring will naturally lead to these types of questions and answers, which then become relevant as research when the next program comes around.