Research in public relations management requires the use of specialized terminology. The term primary research is used to designate when we collect unique data in normally proprietary information, firsthand and specifically relevant to a certain client or campaign.Stacks (2002). Primary research, because it is unique to your organization and research questions, is often the most expensive type of data to collect. Secondary research refers to research that is normally a part of public domain but is applicable to our client, organization, or industry, and can be used to round out and support the conclusions drawn from our primary research.Stacks (2002); Stacks and Michaelson (in press). Secondary research is normally accessed through the Internet or available at libraries or from industry and trade associations. Reference books, encyclopedias, and trade press publications provide a wealth of free or inexpensive secondary research. Managers often use secondary research as an exploratory base from which to decide what type of primary research needs to be conducted.
When we speak of research in public relations, we are normally referring to primary research, such as public opinion studies based on surveys and polling. (The following lists quantitative research methods commonly employed in public relations.) Surveys are synonymous with public opinion polls, and are one example of quantitative research. Quantitative research is based on statistical generalization. It allows us to make numerical observations such as “85% of Infiniti owners say that they would purchase an Infiniti again.” Statistical observations allow us to know exactly where we need to improve relationships with certain publics, and we can then measure how much those relationships have ultimately improved (or degraded) at the end of a public relations initiative. For example, a strategic report in public relations management for the automobile maker Infiniti might include a statement such as “11% of new car buyers were familiar with the G35 all-wheel-drive option 3 months ago, and after our campaign 28% of new car buyers were familiar with this option, meaning that we created a 17% increase in awareness among the new car buyer public.” Other data gathered might report on purchasing intentions, important features of a new vehicle to that public, brand reputation variables, and so on. Quantitative research allows us to have a before and after snapshot to compare the numbers in each group, therefore allowing us to say how much change was evidenced as a result of public relations’ efforts.
Methods of Quantitative Data Collection
- Internet-based surveys
- Telephone surveys
- Mail surveys
- Content analysis (usually of media coverage)
- Comment cards and feedback forms
- Warranty cards (usually demographic information on buyers)
- Frequent shopper program tracking (purchasing data)
In quantitative research, the entire public you wish to understand or make statements about is called the population. The population might be women over 40, Democrats, Republicans, purchasers of a competitor’s product, or any other group that you would like to study. From that population, you would select a sample to actually contact with questions. Probability samples can be randomly drawn from a list of the population, which gives you the strongest statistical measures of generalizability. A random sample means that participants are drawn randomly and have an equal chance of being selected. You know some variants in your population exists, but a random sample should account for all opinions in that population. The larger the sample size (number of respondents), the smaller the margin of error and the more confident the researcher can be that the sample is an accurate reflection of the entire population.
There are also other sampling methods, known as nonprobability samples, that do not allow for generalization but meet the requirement of the problem or project. A convenience sample, for instance, is drawn from those who are convenient to study, such as having visitors to a shopping mall fill out a survey. Another approach is a snowball sample in which the researcher asks someone completing a survey to recommend the next potential respondent to complete the survey. A purposive sample is when you seek out a certain group of people. These methods allow no generalizability to the larger population, but they are often less expensive than random sample methods and still may generate the type of data that answers your research question.
Quantitative research has the major strength of allowing you to understand who your publics are, where they get their information, how many believe certain viewpoints, and which communications create the strongest resonance with their beliefs. Demographic variables are used to very specifically segment publics. Demographics are generally gender, education, race, profession, geographic location, annual household income, political affiliation, religious affiliation, and size of family or household. Once these data are collected, it is easy to spot trends by cross-tabulating the data with opinion and attitude variables. Such cross-tabulations result in very specific publics who can be targeted with future messages in the channels and the language that they prefer. For example, in conducting public relations research for a health insurance company, cross-tabulating data with survey demographics might yield a public who are White males, are highly educated and professional, live in the southeastern United States, have an annual household income above $125,000, usually vote conservatively and have some religious beliefs, have an average household size of 3.8 people, and strongly agree with the following message: “Health insurance should be an individual choice, not the responsibility of government.” In that example, you would have identified a voting public to whom you could reach out for support of individualized health insurance.
Segmenting publics in this manner is an everyday occurrence in public relations management. Through their segmentation, public relations managers have an idea of who will support their organization, who will oppose the organization, and what communications—messages and values—resonate with each public. After using research to identify these groups, public relations professionals can then build relationships with them in order to conduct informal research, better understand their positions, and help to represent the values and desires of those publics in organizational decision making and policy formation.
The second major kind of research method normally used in the public relations industry is qualitative research. Qualitative research generates in-depth, “quality” information that allows us to truly understand public opinion, but it is not statistically generalizable. (The following lists qualitative research methods commonly employed in public relations.) Qualitative research is enormously valuable because it allows us to truly learn the experience, values, and viewpoints of our publics. It also provides ample quotes to use as evidence or illustration in our strategy documents, and sometimes even results in slogans or fodder for use in public relations’ messages.
Qualitative research is particularly adept at answering questions from public relations practitioners that began “How?” or “Why?”Yin (1994). This form of research allows the researcher to ask the participants to explain their rationale for decision making, belief systems, values, thought processes, and so on. It allows researchers to explore complicated topics to understand the meaning behind them and the meanings that participants ascribe to certain concepts. For example, a researcher might ask a participant, “What does the concept of liberty mean to you?” and get a detailed explanation. However, we would expect that explanation to vary among participants, and different concepts might be associated with liberty when asking an American versus a citizen of Iran or China. Such complex understandings are extremely helpful in integrating the values and ideas of publics into organizational strategy, as well as in crafting messages that resonate with those specific publics of different nationalities.
Methods of Qualitative Data Collection
- In-depth interviews
- Focus groups
- Case studies
- Participant observation
- Monitoring toll-free (1-800 #) call transcripts
- Monitoring complaints by e-mail and letter
Public relations managers often use qualitative research to support quantitative findings. Qualitative research can be designed to understand the views of specific publics and to have them elaborate on beliefs or values that stood out in quantitative analyses. For example, if quantitative research showed a strong agreement with the particular statement, that statement could be read to focus group participants and ask them to agree or disagree with this statement and explain their rationale and thought process behind that choice. In this manner, qualitative researchers can understand complex reasoning and dilemmas in much greater detail than only through results yielded by a survey.Miles and Huberman (1994).
Another reason to use qualitative research is that it can provide data that researchers did not know they needed. For instance, a focus group may take an unexpected turn and the discussion may yield statements that the researcher had not thought to include on a survey questionnaire. Sometimes unknown information or unfamiliar perspectives arise through qualitative studies that are ultimately extremely valuable to public relations’ understanding of the issues impacting publics.
Qualitative research also allows for participants to speak for themselves rather than to use the terminology provided by researchers. This benefit can often yield a greater understanding that results in far more effective messages than when public relations practitioners attempt to construct views of publics based on quantitative research alone. Using the representative language of members of a certain public often allows public relations to build a more respectful relationship with that public. For instance, animal rights activists often use the term “companion animal” instead of the term “pet”—that information could be extremely important to organizations such as Purina or to the American Veterinary Medical Association.
Clearly, both quantitative and qualitative research have complementary and unique strengths. These two research methodologies should be used in conjunction whenever possible in public relations management so that both publics and issues can be fully understood. Using both of these research methods together is called mixed method research, and scholars generally agree that mixing methods yields the most reliable research results.Tashakkori and Teddlie (1998). It is best to combine as many methods as is feasible to understand important issues. Combining multiple focus groups from various cities with interviews of important leaders and a quantitative survey of publics is an example of mixed method research because it includes both quantitative and qualitative methodology. Using two or more methods of study is sometimes called triangulation, meaning using multiple research methods to triangulate upon the underlying truth of how publics view an issue.See Stacks (2002); Hickson (2003).