Do your research. Make headlines
20 November 2013
There have been times when I’ve sensed an air of derision from journalists at the thought of a ‘PR survey’ which they perhaps regard as an insubstantial news hook for a serious publication. Yet venerated outlets, from the Today programme to the Wall Street Journal, report daily on stories that are centred on statistics and insights that have been commissioned or disseminated with publicity in mind.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with boosting the relevance and appeal of a news story an opinion poll or other insight into the way people think and behave. From a client’s perspective, market research can allow them to comment on a topic with the weight of public opinion behind them (or to veil an organisational opinion through the guise of public comment) and to strengthen its association with an area of expertise.
If done properly, I see no problem with this. The Market Research Society recognises that many of its members are engaged in activity that is ‘not designed exclusively to enhance understanding’. The MRS has regulations in place to ensure that valid results are produced when applying research techniques to areas of policy development, marketing and other commercial disciplines.
One study suggested that in the UK, 25000 news stories a year quoted surveys. I bet a large proportion will have been distributed by communications professionals, but I’d also like to broaden your thinking towards other forms of research that could unleash new communications opportunities.
Using research and data to make news
1. Harnessing external, independent research such as academic papers and Government statistics.
When I worked for the DWP, I created a series of feature pitches based around Labour Market Statistics with supporting information from Sector Skills bodies and others. Features appeared widely and frequently in the national careers pages over the course of a year. The stats were publicly available but not so easy to locate and analyse.
2. Devising and running an Index or Tracker.
Nationwide has the longest unbroken run of house price data stretching back to 1952 and they are now synonymous with the Nationwide House Price Index.
3. Co-creating quasi-independent research with academics, think tanks and similar.
On behalf of BT Business, I commissioned futurologist Professor Frank Shaw to do an in-depth examination into the impact of mobile working on management style. The resultant White Paper which was launched with a media roundtable event was covered and even uploaded by a variety of online tech and business sites.
4. Making the most of internal analysts, research teams and archives.
You may be sitting on some of your best stories. Can you get access to recent internal reports or company archives? There are loads of examples where this has been done well. Working for a division of the former London Development Agency, whilst at Fishburn Hedges, we were able to access internal reports analysing growth of employment within an underestimated sector of the economy and turn the key facts into mini-guides which were distributed to journalists alongside an introduction to the Director of the division. Results were gradual but, over time, a number of the media approached him for comment.
Working for Jobcentre Plus, I was blessed with access to official archives documenting the locations of the first Jobcentres; sample job listings; details of employee pay and conditions etc. It lead to nostalgic and favourable feature articles on the BBC website and national media to mark the service’s 100th anniversary. It also provided a springboard to highlight the vast improvements made within Jobcentres in recent years.
5. Using elements of product development market research.
If sharing such insights outweighs the risk of ceding proprietary information to competitors then go ahead. You’ll always have first mover association with your innovation. A classic example of this was the Coke Zero product launch which was overtly based on their own insight that showed that men think Diet Coke is too girly. It seemed to work.
6. Made for PR surveys
When working forRecycle for London some years ago, a moderate investment in borough level research with primary school children resulted in neatly localised stories about the role of pester power in getting parents to recycle. The local and London media lapped it up. This kind of research can also lead to interesting comparison or league table stories, if that’s not too contoversial.
7. Focus groups
It can be hard to generate definitive news angles from qualitative research but it can be done. Focus groups on political issues are particularly well reported.
Behind the scenes
8. Using market research to determine PR strategy and messaging
This seems to be done most effectively by Government campaigns where a sizeable budget is invested in market research to understand customer behaviour. Although this is often commissioned to inform policy development or to allocate advertising budgets, it provides a treasure trove of information to steer PR activity. At the DWP, I was able to know with certainty the behaviours of the most successful job seekers and directly feed this in to messaging. At Recycle Now, a national campaign run by WRAP (Waste & Resources Action Programme), detailed market research into barriers to recycling, with demographic analysis, provided fertile territory for myth busting campaigns.
9. Running focus group or one-on-one depth interviews to evaluate the impact of marketing and communications activity.
Sometimes the size, composition or seniority of a stakeholder audience makes quantitative surveys into recall and perceptions impossible. Shell ran a stakeholder engagement programme targeting global decision makers and commissioned a specialist research agency to conduct in-depth interviews with selected decision makers across several markets to capture their views on the company and its response to the energy challenge, as well as their exposure to stakeholder and media outreach.
10. Social media is the world’s largest focus group.
Social media is sometimes regarded primarily as a communications channel. However, the best brands use it to listen and track comments; to gauge reputation and to welcome direct input into product or service development. Another advantage of social media is the ability to use readily available metrics to understand an amazing amount about your followers. Several new social media analytics firms are rapidly pushing out the boundaries of what can be extracted from this immense data pool. This isn’t a substitute for market research as social media posts tend to reflect the views of extreme advocates or rejectors rather than the silent majority.