I have to be honest, my family and friends have no idea what I actually do at work. When I mention public relations, they tend to imagine that I spend my days dreaming up stunts or activities to create attention-grabbing newspaper headlines. They are genuinely surprised when I explain that far from creating mere ‘fluff,’ there is a strict methodology behind the communication programmes I build, with research an integral part of the strategy.
Research is vital for any communication planning and should be its very cornerstone. Without research, public relations – and indeed any communication activities – will only ever be ‘press agentry’ designed as publicity to generate headlines and nothing more. A communications strategy should address the elements of objectives, stakeholders, messaging, activities, resources and evaluation, with research at the heart of each component. Let’s look at each of these elements in turn:
Research helps you set realistic objectives and goals for your communication programmes. The information learned will focus your objective-setting efforts and increase your chances for success in making an impact on your stakeholders, thereby ultimately influencing the outcome. Companies waste millions of dollars each year on communication campaigns that are not aligned with research-based objectives.
Up-front research helps you gain an in-depth understanding of the individuals you are trying to reach and influence – your stakeholders. With good-quality research, you are able to identify your important audience and can find out where these people interact, where they buy, who they listen to, what their opinions are and what they want. Your stakeholder research must be much more than simple demographic research because you need to get inside the heads of those you are trying to influence. You need to fully understand them in order to build communication strategies to properly connect with and influence them. You don’t want to waste time, effort or money communicating with the wrong people.
Choice of media
Research helps you determine the type of media you’ll need to target in order to reach your stakeholders, allowing you to prioritise your media choice efforts. You’ll need to know what magazines, newspapers, blogs, websites, events and TV stations to use and which reporters, bloggers and editors you should be building relationships with. Research also helps you build your communication calendar around the annual activities of various media outlets.
Research ensures that the messages you use resonate with your target stakeholders and will work to influence their attitudes and behaviours. It will highlight the messages that are appropriate for and matter most to your stakeholders and allow you to test these messages and gain feedback in order to refine them. Without research-based messages, the content you develop to reach investors, customers, future donors, employees and government ministers will only ever be random and will never work towards your strategic communication objectives.
Demonstration of results
A research-based communication strategy will enable you to build a robust measurement and evaluation programme. By using research to develop your objectives, understand stakeholders, identify how you’ll reach them and with which messages, you’ll be easily able to demonstrate the results of your activity. Before you begin your communication efforts, you will already know their awareness, understanding or opinions. Post-communication research can assess the effectiveness of your efforts. Ultimately, you want to demonstrate the connection between communication activity and outcome – the behaviour of your audience
There are many ways to approach your research, using primary, secondary, informative, evaluative, formal, informal, qualitative and quantitative methods. Generally for communication, I use quantitative research (such as surveys) for before and after snapshots to assess understanding and relationships with stakeholders. I utilise qualitative (such as interviews and focus-groups) for an in-depth understanding of stakeholders’ viewpoints, values, behaviours and to test messages.
A Final Word
It is important to point out that research is a continuous process and not something that occurs only before you build and deliver communication programmes. It must be a constant activity in order to test and refine your approaches. Ultimately, research must be an integral part of any communication planning in order to make informed decisions on the best way forward.