I’ve always held an admiration for people who have mastered the art of speaking knowingly, convincingly, and eloquently on any subject at the drop of a hat. I used to wonder, what is this magic skill that allows some people to have super-secret direct line to words and ideas, neatly lined up in a row? And so I watched and listened, and I observed that those who speak well also listen well. They also read a lot, and they converse – they don’t talk “at” others, they talk “with” others. And when it seems that they’re talking “at” a group, they are also keenly aware of the group they are talking to. They are aware of the group’s values, level of comprehension, prior knowledge, and the ways that what they are saying will resonate with - or enrage - those being spoken to. In a nutshell, perhaps it’s part magic, but it’s also part PR.
With these thoughts of words and magic floating around, it may seem like PR is all fun and games – but then I hear that the first step to a good PR plan is research. My initial reaction to this was, unsurprisingly, a big yawn. But then research was reframed in our textbook as listening, and it started to make sense. All of the attributes I observed among my pool of revered, eloquent, public speakers, involved research - or in other words, listening before speaking. And though one element of research is the act of being aware, being acutely curious, and taking in reams of information from multiple sources, it seems that there is also quite a bit of more focused research that goes into building a successful PR plan.
Seeing as research, in itself, is a methodical approach, it doesn’t surprise me that it can be grouped into categories. Primary research defines types of inquiries that generate new information, while secondary research reviews information that already exists. Secondary research can include Internet and database searches, poring over your organization’s archives, and reviewing previous PR and marketing plans. You may also look at customers or clients of your organization, to determine which demographics are most likely to be your target audience. Secondary research is kind of like an environmental scan – it involves looking at what is already out there, and what the context that we’re working in while developing this PR plan. Primary research is less directed at pulling context from information that already exists, rather, it seeks to reveal the unknowns, and gather specific information about the environment. For example, primary research would include asking questions of the public, or other stakeholders, in a formalized conversation, such as an interview, a focus group or a phone survey.
The information collected through research can also be categorized either as qualitative (“hard” data) or quantitative (“soft” data). I found the best way to remember the difference between the two is to think that hard data leaves a clear mark, while soft data leaves an impression. For example, perhaps you are considering using Instagram as part of your campaign, but you’re not sure if it will really take off. You could collect some soft data through a focus group, and invite some of your customers in to talk about how they use social media. This would give you a general idea of the behaviors of your target audience, and you could learn some interesting things. However, these facts might not hold true across a larger audience. So then you might look at some hard data, and conduct a survey where you learn that – in hard numbers – Instagram has far fewer users than Facebook, however, those users interact with it more often. If you’re looking to reach a broad audience, research might lead you to decide to forego using Instagram. But perhaps those few who are on Instagram are the key influencers that you’re trying to reach, and besides, your secondary research found many tech blogs that championed it as an up-and-coming platform that’s enjoyable, and easy to adopt. If you didn’t do the research, then you’re making decisions on a hunch and a gamble. And if you were still unsure, then you would do more research!
In short, good research is about knowing your environment, defining your audience, and determining the best way to communicate with them. Without this foundational knowledge, your PR plan would be all talk and no listening.