By Deborah Hauss
The latest technological advances, computer software, and other state-of-the-art applications in public relations research and evaluation have added a vital twist to the age-old media clip book. Because research information has never been so accessible to public relations firms and corporate clients alike, venerable techniques such as article content analysis, phone and mail surveys, focus groups, and before-and-after attitude studies are being looked at in a new light. The days of mainly clipping articles for the decision maker to review are gone.
Purveyors of research services have taken public relations campaign results to the “nth” degree by introducing on-line, personalized information systems, issues management to take the pulse of the public, and charting tools to help calculate the most cost-effective marketing mix. Inquiry management services can even account for the number of leads that come in via a public relations campaign, including how much is spent on each inquiry and how many leads turn into actual sales.
A growing climate of accountability has emphasized the need to use these and other research evaluation techniques. Most of the experts stress that defining strategic objectives and supporting them with research from the onset can help clients determine whether they actually achieved their return on investment (ROI).
To set measurable objectives, many practitioners are now strongly suggesting the inclusion of research as part of a campaign’s overall strategy from the outset. This is good news for suppliers of research and evaluation counsel and services. In the past, they have often been overlooked until the last minute, when research would be incorporated into a campaign if there was enough time, money, and management interest.
Public relations researchers provide quantitative and qualitative measures of what the media is saying about a client’s products or issues. One of the key measurement buzzwords among these researchers is “content analysis.”
In the past, practitioners could arrange for clipping services but had to do much of the content analysis via qualitative rather than quantitative methods, researchers noted. Now Dialog, and Mead Data Central’s Nexis and Lexis automatically download the articles into a database.
After different criteria are input, most databases can be customized according to clients’ variables. Research firms have readers either on tap – freelance or on staff – to record the tone and messages. Many match readers to the most pertinent audience, such as 25 to 40 year-old women or buyers of PC software. Most database reports will include the date, the publication, the reporter, article identifiers, and the circulation of the publication.
At the end of the evaluation process, clients are usually provided with actionable information, in an executive summary or full report. The information outlines the challenges clients face and recommendations.
Another self-contained software program can help clients decide the cost effectiveness of various media. An inexpensive Windows-based program, called “Sales Projector,” lets users estimate the amount of actual closed business a company’s sales leads are likely to produce. Available from Inquiry Handling Services (HIS) in San Fernando, California, the program works well for product-oriented public relations campaigns.
To use the program, the user enters three figures: the average cost per product, the estimated market share, and the number of leads a particular medium is likely to produce. Then the program computes the estimated sales in dollars and units. It allows the user to enter the sales target figure and determines how many leads are needed to make quote or targeted objectives.
For those who don’t have traceable direct sales, HIS has other methods available to help achieve the same “proof of sales” from public relations inquiries. For example, warranty cards mailed in by purchasers of products can be used to pull data. HIS will enter the data on the warranty card (company name, address, and product) and compares this to a client’s inquiry database. The company will seek matches, flag and print a list of all matches between inquiries and sales.
Researchers are testing other new ways to link consumer’s attitudes with their behaviors. And just as computerization is allowing researchers to do in-depth media searches, it will lend itself to identifying customer responses.
Using research, practitioners can meet the growing need to justify the cost of public relations and prove results. Groundbreaking techniques to manage issues and analyze attitudes are being developed. The key is to make research part of planning a campaign strategy.
Copyright February 1993. Excerpted by permission of Public Relations Journal, published by the Public Relations Society of America, New York, NY.