The purpose of research is to allow us to develop strategy in public relations in order to (a) conduct our campaigns with specific purpose and targeted goals, (b) operate as a part of the overall strategic management function in an organization, and (c) measure the effectiveness of public relations efforts. By conducting research before we communicate, we revise our own thinking to include the views of publics. We can segment those publics, tailor communications for unique publics, send different messages to specifically targeted publics, and build relationships by communicating with publics who have an interest in our message. This type of planning research is called formative research because it helps us form our public relations campaign.Stacks (2002). Formative research is conducted so that we can understand what publics know, believe, or value and what they need or desire to know before we began communicating. Thereby, public relations does not waste effort or money communicating with those that have no interest in our message.
Research also allows public relations professionals to show the impact made through their communication efforts after a public relations campaign. This type of research is called evaluation research. Using both forms of research in public relations allows us to communicate strategically and to demonstrate our effectiveness. For example, formative research can be used to determine the percentage of publics who are aware of the organization’s policy on an issue of concern. Through the use of a survey, we might find that 17% of the target public is aware of the policy. Strategically, the organization would like more members of that public to be aware of the organization’s policy, so the public relations department communicates through various channels sending targeted messages.
After a predetermined amount of time, a survey practically identical to the first one is conducted. If public relations efforts were successful, the percentage of members of a public aware of the organization’s policy should increase. That increase is directly attributable to the efforts of the public relations campaign. We could report, “Members of the community public aware of our new toxic waste disposal initiative increased from 17% to 33% in the last 2 months.” Measures such as these are extremely common in public relations management. They may be referred to as benchmarking because they establish a benchmark and then measure the amount of change, similar to a before-and-after comparison.Stacks (2002); Broom and Dozier (1990). The use of statistically generalizable research methods allows such comparisons to be made with a reasonable degree of confidence across various publics, geographic regions, issues, psychographics, and demographic groups.
In this section, we will provide a brief overview of the most common forms of research in public relations management and providing examples of their uses and applications and professional public relations. Building upon that basic understanding of research methods, we then return to the theme of the purpose of research and the importance of research in the public relations function.
Research in public relations can be formal or informal. Formal research normally takes place in order to generate numbers and statistics that we can use to both target communications and measure results. Formal research also is used to gain a deeper, qualitative understanding of the issue of concern, to ascertain the range of consumer responses, and to elicit in-depth opinion data. Formal research is planned research of a quantitative or qualitative nature, normally asking specific questions about topics of concern for the organization. Formal research is both formative, at the outset of a public relations initiative, and evaluative, to determine the degree of change attributable to public relations activities.
Informal research is collected on an ongoing basis by most public relations managers, from sources both inside and outside of their organizations. Informal research usually gathers information and opinions through conversations. It consists of asking questions, talking to members of publics or employees in the organization to find out their concerns, reading e-mails from customers or comment cards, and other informal methods, such as scanning the news and trade press. Informal research comes from the boundary spanning role of the public relations professional, meaning that he or she maintains contacts with publics external to the organization, and with internal publics. The public relations professional spends a great deal of time communicating informally with these contacts, in an open exchange of ideas and concerns. This is one way that public relations can keep abreast of changes in an industry, trends affecting the competitive marketplace, issues of discontent among the publics, the values and activities of activist groups, the innovations of competitors, and so on. Informal research methods are usually nonnumerical and are not generalizable to a larger population, but they yield a great deal of useful information. The data yielded from informal research can be used to examine or revise organizational policy, to craft messages in the phraseology of publics, to respond to trends in an industry, to include the values or priorities of publics in new initiatives, and numerous other derivations.