I’ll let you in on a little secret: My family and friends have no idea what I actually do at work.
When I mention that “I work in communications” or “public relations” they normally imagine that I spend my days coming up with stunts or events to result in attention-grabbing newspaper headlines. Generally, they think that communication practitioners focus only on trying to generate publicity at any cost to get people to follow a specific course of action.
These people are genuinely surprised when I try to explain that there is a strict methodology behind the communication programs that I build; instead of following hunches and instincts to create publicity, I make sure a considerable amount of time and effort is spent on up-front research in order to build a detailed communication strategy.
So why do I insist on using research to develop a communication strategy? Research is vital for any communication planning effort and should be its very foundation. Without research, public relations – and indeed any communication activities – will only ever be ‘press agentry’ designed as publicity to generate headlines and nothing more.
As a reminder of the components of a communication strategy, it must roughly address areas of objectives, stakeholders (audiences), messaging, activities (tactics), resources and evaluation. Research is an integral part of each component of the strategy in that it focuses attention on developing programs that are built on sound foundations that have a focus. Research ensures that PR programs follow a methodology and can demonstrate effectiveness.
Perhaps most-importantly, research helps you gather information in order to make informed decisions regarding the recommended strategic communication approach. It helps you to focus on why you are recommending what you are. It supports the decisions you make and enables you to look confident when you explain these decisions to senior management. Research also provides unbiased information. When conducted properly, it presents a realistic picture on which to base decisions, thereby removing the risk of making the wrong choices regarding the communication approach.
Specifically, research helps you:
Research helps you set realistic objectives and goals for your communication programs. The information learned from research will focus your objective-setting efforts and increase your chances for success in making an impact on your stakeholders, ultimately influencing the outcome. Companies waste millions every 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, what media they consume, where they buy, eat and go, who they listen to and follow, their opinions and values, what they believe and what they need or 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.
Research helps you determine the type of media you’ll need to target in order to reach your stakeholders and prioritize your media choice efforts. You’ll need to know what magazines, newspapers, blogs, websites, events and TV stations to use. You will also need to determine which reporters, bloggers and editors with whom you should be building relationships. Research also helps you build your communication calendar around the activities of the various media outlets.
Research ensures that the messages you use resonate with your target stakeholders and will work to influence their attitudes and behaviors. Your research around messaging should reveal other messages your communications might compete with and the environment in which they will appear. Research will highlight the messages that are appropriate for, and matter most to your stakeholders. It will 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.
A research-based communication strategy will enable you to build a robust ‘measurement & evaluation’ program. By using research to develop your objectives, understand stakeholders you are trying to reach and influence, identify how you’ll reach them and with which messages, you’ll be easily able to demonstrate results of your activity. Before you begin your communication efforts, you will already know the awareness, understanding or opinions of your stakeholders. 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 – which is the most-difficult to measure.
The best approach?
Of course, there are many ways to approach your research, using primary, secondary, informative, evaluative, formal, informal, qualitative and quantitative methods. Different types of research are appropriate for different needs and a discussion on the details of types of research are beyond this post. Generally for communication, I use quantitative research (such as surveys) for before and after snapshots to assess understanding and relationships with stakeholders. I utilize qualitative (such as interviews, focus groups) for in-depth understanding of stakeholders’ viewpoints, values, and behaviors and to test messages.
It is important to point out that research is a continuous process and not something that occurs only before you build and deliver communication programs. 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.
Undertaking research makes communication activities strategic, ensuring that communication targets the right individuals via the right methods and works towards appropriate objectives. Without research your communication planning is just based on gut feeling or instinct, neither of which should be the basis for any strategic management activity
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