If your experience can be summed up as "Research is
easy!" you probably didn't do it right. Research is hard,
which is why lazy PR writers try to avoid it. Research involves
finding sources, evaluating those sources, extracting useful
information, and then summarizing that information. It always
requires keeping careful track of each source -- and doing some
research on the sources, as well.
Web research is not about simply downloading pages
of information -- that's the easy part. The real task is to
start with that information and then distill the relevant facts,
evaluate them, organize them, and fill in the blanks where
information is still needed.
When you do your research, don't
simply pad your notes with page after Web page of Internet
research -- or links to the pages. Incoporate the finished work on
your Message Planner.
You will find much more information than you can
use -- you need to be discriminating as you browse, and not
include everything you find. The more you research the
subejct, the more you'll understand the boundaries of the subject.
I will often get lost in the details just because it's so
interesting, and I will learn much more than I need to know about,
say, the politics of natural gas in Texas. But I'm "on my own
time" when I do that, because much of the information -- though
interesting and loosely relevant -- is not really important to the
task at hand.
The name of the game is Key Ideas -- this is
the whole point of doing research. Your Message Planner should be
filled with Key Ideas that you have developed during your
browsing and downloading and evaluation. If you have sent me a
Message Planner with only a few Key Ideas, you haven't yet
completed your assignment.
Key ideas are more than facts -- your own
observations and insights are also important. As
you're browsing for information, let your own natural curiosity
figure in... you are a reader, as well as a PR writer...
if you opened the newspaper or clicked on the TV and were
finding out about this subject, what would you want to
know? What questions would be raised by the information you're
reading? How can you answer them?
Be sure to source everything you capture ...
that means that statements of "fact" as well as important opinions
are all accompanied by the source of that information. Especially
with Internet research, nothing can be assumed to be
perfectly factual -- everything must be questioned as to
the accuracy, reliability, and objectivity of its source.
... and knowing the source is not enough The
source might be Citizens for Pure Air -- but who or what is
"Citizens for Pure Air"? Is that a genuine environmental group,
like the Sierra Club? Or is it a pretend consumer advocate
organization, among the many so-called "grassroots" organizations
that have been set up by corporations and interest groups to
endorse their business practices, while pretending to be a
citizen-watchdog group? If so, is it in the employ of the
natural gas industry, or perhaps of the competing petroleum
industry? It's important to know.
Why is this so important? Because
all it takes is for one goof to ruin the reliability of your
entire PR campaign and make you a laughingstock. If your best case
is premised on the "facts" obtained from a known biased interest
-- because you failed to check out the source -- reporters who
cover this field will catch it right away, and will question not
only your facts but your very professionalism.
Obviously, your job is to achieve the client's
objectives, and that includes making the best case for the
client's point of view. You are not expected to provide full
coverage of opposing points of view. But this does not mean that
you should rely only on research resources promoting your cause.
You need to use neutral sources (like an encylopedia) and
unfriendly sources (like the competition's Web page) to reinforce
So, once again, you should ask yourself
all the questions that a reporter might ask ...if you
anticipate all the tough ones you will not only dispose of them in
advance, you will also change the attitude of the editor and
reporter in your favor. This will not only give you more Key
Ideas, it will also help shape your Angle and,
therefore, your Message.
Good research is especially important in today's
media environment. There is more and more information out
there, and more and more advocates spinning the news. That can be
confusing. When you establish trust with editors and reporters,
you will rise above your competitors in stature and respect. When
editors and reporters learn that your information is always
adequately sourced, so that its bias can be fairly judged and if
necessary, balanced, they will come to treat you as a resource of
first resort -- for example, you will be the one they call for an
intelligent response whenever any news is breaking in
that issue area.