Public Relations Writing: Lesson #10 - p. 1

Public relations research

The dirty little secret of PR writing is that too many public relations professionals don't do enough research. And as a result, too many PR writing students get little guidance from the professionals who teach them.

In fact, quality research is one of the measures of PR as a profession ... without quality research, PR writers are "flying by the seat of their pants," giving advice and writing copy based on instincts and impressions. Of course, this is a lot more fun than doing the detailed research necessary for professional work.

One survey1 showed that "research is talked about more than it is practiced in public relations," in part because of "apprehension about the complex process of survey research," as well as cost and time considerations. In other words, it's too much trouble.

But with the growing convergence of IMC -- integrated marketing communications -- the quality of reseach in public relations is increasingly important. Otherwise, public relations remains the "art of intangibles," while advertising and marketing becomes more and more sophisticated. That's not as it should be.

One expert2 asks us to imagine an exchange between a public relations writer and his client, where the writer takes the position that research is unnecessary because PR produces only "intangible benefits":

    "What do you mean by 'intangible?'"
    "I mean that public relations deals with things that can't be measured or counted."
    "Why should I pay you for something that can't be measured or counted?"
    "Because every organization needs public relations, and I am an expert."
    "Good points. Here's your money."
    "Where? I don't see any money!"
    "Of course not, it can't be counted. It's what you call 'intangible.'"

Research is the necessary first step in PR writing. It's so important that entire courses are devoted to it. In this course we are going to focus on two techniques of research, but you need to know that this is just the tip of the iceberg.

One text lists six categories of public relations research: 3

      You need to know the rules -- both "the company line" and any external regulations that may apply to your industry. Maybe your client "George Baker Ltd" never mentions the fact that the boss's full name is George Baker Jr., nor that the company was started by the late George Baker Sr., nor that it is in fact owned by his mother... Our techniques will cover "policy" but only generally.

    Background material
      You need a full list of "Key Ideas" before you can begin your PR writing. Some of this information will come from the client, and some from independent research. This is the area of research we will concentrate on.

      Targeting the audience of your marketing efforts is one of the most important principles of integrated marketing communication. We will assume a "general reader" in most of our writing for the mass media, but we are including consideration of our target audience when we declare the objective at the top of every Message Planner. Our research techniques will partially cover the target audience.

      In the words of the text, "Whether it is one public or several, you are generally well advised to begin by reducing your message to a single simple idea. Remember, though, that a single simple idea is not necessarily an insignificant or simpleminded idea. Reducing what you want to say to this level is necessary to help keep you on the right track as you shape your message." The text doesn't make the point, so I will: an important aspect of research is testing the message through surveys and focus groups. Of course, we will work extensively with the message in this course, but not message research.

      Connected to the consideration of target publics are the decisions about which channels to use. Obviously, PR writing targeted on seniors will not use the same media as that targeted on single working mothers. We'll take a pass on this complex subject, and simply concentrate on mass media for mass audiences.

    Program evaluation
      The final category of research is for evaluation of your PR efforts. Once benchmarks are established before the campaign, follow-up research shows how attitudes or behavior have changed as a result of the PR work you did. Our course will not include this critical area of public relations research.

Primary and secondary research are two types of research that you will need to know how to use:

    Primary research is the first-hand information you gather. It can be from consumers through surveys and focus groups, or from board members of the company, through interviews, or from observation, or any of a variety of similar means. On the next page I'll give you a crib sheet to use when interviewing the clients themselves, which mixes secondary with primary research.

    Secondary research is the "second-hand" information you have gathered from such sources as encyclopedias, books, magazines and newspaper clippings, and the Internet.

In every serious marketing campaign, someone is doing a lot of research -- that's how we

  • get the information that we need to plan the campaign,

  • test our assumptions about what will or will not work,

  • set benchmarks so we can later evaluate whether we "moved the needle"

A PR writer should master the research process because otherwise he or she is required to follow someone else's lead in this all-important area.

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