Public relations campaigns do not begin with an announcement. They do not begin with a product, a candidate, a controversy, a calamity, or an event.
Public relations campaigns begin with research.
PR practitioners must understand their audiences, the PR environment, contextual issues, and the tools and resources available to them. There are a number of models for how to construct a PR campaign, but all of them begin either with research or goal-setting, immediately followed by research. Many of these models come with a fun little acronym, but which acronym a PR practitioner works with is far less important than understanding the need to be systemic and strategic in the research, planning, and implementation processes.
A good PR practitioner is organized, detailed, strategic, scheduled, and methodical. The precise systemic approach is, again, less important than embodying those traits.
These are perhaps the six most popular models:
Assessment, Communication, Evaluation
Research, Action, Communication, Evaluation
Research, Objectives, Strategy, Implementation, Evaluation
Goals, Research, Assessment, Communication, Evaluation
Planning, Action, Communication, Evaluation
Scan, Track, Analyze, Respond, Evaluate
Looking at those, this practitioner always found that something is missing from all of them: ongoing monitoring and adjustment.
All of them end with evaluation, which many would argue is also the beginning of the next campaign’s research/assessment/planning/scanning (whichever word you want to pick to start with).
A strong argument can be made for beginning with goal-setting, even before research. If one is going to embark on a PR campaign, there must be a motivation; there must be something the client/employer wants to be true at the end of the campaign that is not true now. That truth is the goal of the campaign. Goals may be adapted based on research, but they are also the reason for completing the research in the first place.
At this point, the text should also acknowledge that, by teaching that PR campaigns begin with research, the text is asserting that PR campaigns need a two-way model. In truth, most major PR campaigns follow the two-way asymmetrical model (See Chapter 3), which prizes research, much as evidenced by the models above. The text continues below with this understanding.
Public relations research allows PR practitioners to develop strategy in three significant ways:
- Conducting campaigns with specific purpose and targeted goals
- Operating as a part of the overall strategic management function in an organization
- Measuring the effectiveness of public relations efforts
By conducting research before communicating, PR practitioners revise their own thinking to include the views of audiences. PR campaigns can segment those audiences, tailor communications for unique audiences, send different messages to specifically targeted audiences, and build relationships by communicating with audiences who have an interest in the message.
This type of planning is formative; it helps practitioners understand what publics know, believe, or value and what they need or desire to know before communicating.
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 campaigns to communicate strategically and to demonstrate effectiveness.
Research makes public relations activities strategic by ensuring that communication is specifically targeted to audiences who want, need, or care about the information. Without conducting research, public relations is based on experience or instinct, which has value, but is unreliable and has a much higher rate of failure. Quality research ensures that time and money committed to communicating is well spent, as the messages reach the target audiences and achieve the desired results. Even with research, campaigns cannot be perfect, but research shows results, measures impact, and helps to refocus efforts based on those numbers, so that campaigns can be improved.
Without research, public relations would not be a true management function. It would not be strategic, but would instead regress to the days of simple press agentry, following hunches and instinct to create publicity. As a true management function, public relations uses research to fulfill several key communications tasks:
- Identify issues and engage in problem solving
- Prevent and manage crises
- Make organizations responsive and responsible to their audiences
- Create better organizational policy
- Build and maintain long-term relationships with publics
A thorough knowledge of research methods and extensive analyzes of data also allow public relations practitioners a way to illustrate the value and worth of their activities. In this manner, research is the strategic foundation of modern public relations management.
10.2. Methods and Types of Research
Formal research normally takes place in order to generate numbers and statistics that target communications and measure results. Formal research also gains a deeper, qualitative understanding of the issue(s) of concern, to ascertain the range of audience 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 trusted stakeholders 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 publications. A 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 audiences, the values and activities of activist groups, the innovations of competitors, and so on. Informal research methods are usually non-numerical 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 and finetune messages, to respond to trends in an industry, to include the values or priorities of audiences in new initiatives, and numerous other derivations. Informal research often helps to create questions and themes to be explored through formal research.
10.3. Primary and Secondary Research
Research in public relations management requires the use of specialized terminology. The term primary research is used when collecting unique data firsthand. Primary research, because it is unique to an organization and its 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 the client, organization, or industry, and can be used to round out and support the conclusions drawn from our primary research. 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.
10.4. Quantitative Research
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. Quantitative research is based on statistical generalization. It allows organizations to make numerical observations such as “85% of frontline healthcare workers can name three or more benefits of vaccinations.” Statistical observations allow PR practitioners to know exactly where they need to improve relationships with certain audiences and measure how much those relationships have ultimately improved (or degraded) at the end of a public relations campaign.
For example, a strategic report in public relations management for a province’s public health agency might include a statement such as this:
“Three months ago, 85% of frontline healthcare workers could name three or more benefits of vaccinations. After an 80-day campaign, 94% could name three or more benefits. The campaign achieved a 9% increase in awareness of vaccination benefits.”
Other data gathered might report on the most common questions about vaccinations received by frontline healthcare workers, their ability to accurately respond to patient questions, or knowledge of where the general public could obtain different types of vaccinations. Quantitative research gives a “before and after” snapshot to compare the numbers in each group, creating evidence of a campaign’s efficacy.
Methods of Quantitative Data Collection
There are several reliable methods to collect quantitative data:
- Surveys conducted online, by phone, or in person
- Content analysis (usually of media coverage)
- Comment cards and feedback forms
- Warranty cards (usually demographic information on buyers)
- Frequent shopper program tracking (purchasing data)
- web and social media traffic (sometimes called “metrics”)
- Foot traffic (how many people go to a place, often counted using a turnstile, door counter, or information from appointments made or transactions conducted)
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, union members, purchasers of a competitor’s product, college students, or any other group that a PR practitioner would like to study.
From that population, a sample is selected to actually contact with questions. Probability samples can be randomly drawn from a list of the population, which gives the strongest statistical measures of generalizability. A random sample means that participants are drawn randomly and have an equal chance of being selected. Some variants will always exist in a population, but a random sample should account for the range of 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 non-probability 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. These methods allow less generalizability to the larger population, but they are often less expensive than random sample methods and still may generate the type of data that usefully answers a research question.
Quantitative research has the major strength of explaining who the audience is, 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 audiences. Demographics generally include gender, education, ethnicity, profession, geographic location, annual household income, political affiliation, religious affiliation, and size of family or household.
Once these data are collected, cross-tabulating the data with opinion and attitude variables allows trends to be quickly detected. Such cross-tabulations result in very specific audiences who can be targeted with future messages in the channels and the language that they prefer.
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 audience. 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.
10.5. Qualitative Research
The second major group of research methods used in the public relations industry is qualitative research. Qualitative research generates in-depth, “quality” information that allows practitioners to truly understand public opinion, but it is not statistically generalizable. Qualitative research is enormously valuable because it allows PR practitioners to truly learn the experience, values, and viewpoints of audiences. It also provides ample quotes to use as evidence or illustration in 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?” 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, 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 (and responses could vary wildly by region within China). Such complex understandings are extremely helpful in integrating the values and ideas of audiences into organizational strategy, as well as in crafting messages that resonate with those specific audiences of different nationalities. Such rich analysis is also very difficult to glean from quantitative research methods.
Methods of Qualitative Data Collection
These are some of the most common qualitative research methods:
- In-depth interviews
- Focus groups
- Case studies
- Participant observation
- Monitoring toll-free (1-800 #) call transcripts
- Monitoring incoming correspondence
Public relations managers often use qualitative research to support quantitative findings. Qualitative research can be designed to understand the views of specific audiences and to have them elaborate on beliefs or values that stood out in quantitative analyzes. For example, if quantitative research showed a strong agreement with the particular statement, that statement could be read to focus group participants to 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.
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 audiences.
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 audiences based on quantitative research alone. Using the representative language of members of a certain audience 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 the American Veterinary Medical Association.
10.6. Mixed Methods/Triangulation
Clearly, both quantitative and qualitative research have complementary and unique strengths. These two groups of research methods should be used in conjunction whenever possible in public relations so that both audiences and issues can be better understood. Using both of these research methods together is called mixed method research. Combining multiple focus groups from various cities with interviews of important leaders and a quantitative survey of audiences is an example of mixed method research because it includes both quantitative and qualitative methodologies. Using two or more methods of study is sometimes called triangulation, meaning using multiple research methods to triangulate upon the underlying truth of how audiences view an issue.
10.7. Goals and Objectives
Although goals may be set before, during, or after the research process, objectives are definitely set later in the process.
The two words are often conflated, but the difference is important.
A goal is something that is not true before a PR campaign, but must be true after to judge the campaign a success. If the goal is achieved, the campaign is a success.
On the other hand, objectives can be missed, while still having a successful campaign and a campaign can achieve all of its objectives without succeeding in their goal.
Election campaigns are a good way of explaining the difference. (An election campaign is a very specialized type of PR campaign and a good one to be involved in to witness some highly skilled PR and communications practitioners at work.)
During an election, there will be politicians campaigning to win in each district, municipality, riding, constituency, ward, or other geographic area (these words are sometimes informally interchangeable). The goal for most campaigns is simple: to win.
In crafting their campaign plan, several key objectives will be met. For example, the campaign may attempt to raise a certain amount of money, to place a certain number of lawn signs, to identify a certain number of people who have pledged their support, and then to motivate a high percentage of those voters to remember to vote on election day.
So, let’s say the campaign for a local electoral district sets a goal of raising $100,000, placing 2,000 lawn signs, identifying 10,000 supporters, and motivating 90% of them to vote on election day. And, let’s say that the campaign achieves every one of those objectives. However, if they lose the election, the campaign is not a success, even though they reach all of their objectives.
On the other hand, if they fail to reach all of those objectives, no matter how badly, the campaign is a success if the election is won.
This is the key difference between goals and objectives. Goals are often measured by a simple yes/no question, while objectives should be “SMART” (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-specific).
Objectives are often linked to specific campaign tactics (see Chapter 11), as well. Using the above example, for an election campaign to identify 10,000 supporters, they probably plan to identify those voters through a few different tactics: phone calls, knocking on doors, social media engagement, fundraising, and possibly a few other means, such as signing petitions that would be compatible with the campaign’s positions on issues. Equally, the campaign would probably target fundraising a certain amount from a variety of different stakeholder groups or through different media, such as mail, phone calls, and campaign events.
Goals, on the other hand, are very simple and define the campaign.
The background/overview section of a public relations campaign plan briefly tells the story of how the campaign came into existence. What happened that instigated the campaign planning process to be initiated? What would be helpful for somebody being hired to implement the campaign to know before reading the rest of the plan? This is not usually a long section, unless the environmental scan, problem statement, and/or situational analysis (see below) are blended into the background/overview section, which is sometimes done.
Previously, this textbook looked at audience analysis and stakeholder analysis. This is a similar type of analysis that is designed to explain the current communications environment for the campaign. The environmental scan answers a variety of key questions, in more or less detail, depending on what is being observed:
- What is currently going on in the industry?
- What recent events may shape audience perception of campaign messages?
- What have news media been reporting recently that could be swaying opinion and interpretation?
- Perhaps most importantly, what are competitors contributing to the communications environment?
This section is as simple as it sounds; explain the problem that needs to be solved through a public relations campaign. The problem should be sated clearly and concisely in a single sentence, probably in the middle of two or three short paragraphs that introduce the problem and point towards the rest of the analysis.
There are several formats for a situational analysis, all of which have their time and place.
SWOT: Strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats
The SWOT analysis is more introspective, looking first at the organization itself and then at the environment.
PESTEL: Political, economic, social, technological, environmental, legal
The PESTEL model arranges analysis by key areas of organizational and environmental interest (with “environmental” meaning the natural environment here, not the communications environment).
These are probably the two most popular, though PEST (political, economic, social, technological), PERSIA (political, economic, religious, social, intellectual, artistic), and other similar analytical models are also out there.
Whichever model is selected, the goal is to provide an honest and thorough inventory of all considerations that may feed into decision making about the campaign plan. The analysis needs to be both inward and outward looking.
10.9. Strategy and Tactics
These will be explained in far greater depth in Chapter 11; however, a brief description here may be helpful.
Once the campaign’s goals have been set and the research has been gathered, the campaign should have some ideas about what might motivate the audience.
Every campaign needs to change or sustain some type of audience behaviour, which includes changing audience opinions. In broad strokes, the idea behind how to achieve this is the campaign’s strategy. An outsider cannot see the strategy; it can only be interpreted.
Tactics are the hands-on tools the campaign uses to communicate with audiences, such as placing billboards, airing radio commercials, organizing a protest, or encouraging people to write letters to politicians. Outsiders can see the tactics being used.
Tactics are always consistent with the strategy and are measurable, so objectives are often attached to tactics to measure their efficacy in the campaign.
What does success look like in a campaign?
For overarching goals, such as mentioned with an election campaign, the answer is obvious. However, with objectives, the answer is not always so clear. What target should a campaign set for the number of views on the launch of the first video on its new Youtube channel? How much money does a good blog post raise for a charity? When recalling a tainted food product, what percent of returns is a win?
These are tricky to answer, but research can give helpful clues.
Using the election campaign example above, publicly accessible records of how much previous campaigns have spent can be accessed from election authorities. Knowing how much previous winning campaigns spent in a given district or in similar districts can provide insight about what targets should be attached to which fundraising methods.
Equally, a review of the social media accounts of other politicians can be helpful in setting targets. In the larger picture, winning the election will be the most obvious evaluation point, but leading up to the election, campaigns need to analyze where they should target their limited resources. If a candidate is meeting or exceeding their social media targets, maybe money should be spent on hiring canvassers to go knocking on doors in areas with a large number of senior citizens, who are less likely to be social media users. (Information about who lives in which neighbourhoods can be found in publicly available census data; people who know an area may also have strong anecdotal knowledge of the demographics of a given neighbourhood.)
What about a different type of PR campaign, such as a public health vaccination campaign? The most obvious evaluation point will be counting the number of people who get vaccinated during and immediately after the campaign, comparing that to the numbers before the campaign. The campaign will need to work with public health authorities to collect such data, but that’s the obvious evaluation point. What else could be measured? The number of phone calls to public health agencies or clinics to inquire about vaccination would be revealing, but may be hard to use if there was no tracking being done before the campaign begins. In such cases, the unofficial launch of the campaign may be to arrange data collection prior to communicating with the target audience(s).
In discussing evaluation here, two points are clear:
- Measuring whether a campaign reached its overarching goal is often easy to measure
- Measuring the efficacy of the campaign’s tactics is more difficult and requires research, planning, and thoughtful analysis
So, what are the step-by-step points in evaluating a campaign, then?
- The campaign needs to know what the benchmark for success will be
- The campaign needs a way to measure whether it has met that benchmark and by what margin of success or failure
- The campaign needs to be able to analyze the data collected to understand its results
- The campaign needs to take that data and turn it into actionable suggestions to improve the remainder of the campaign or future campaigns
Evaluation is about learning and improving. Technically, a campaign could be a success without evaluation, but how would the campaign know they were successful and by what margin? How would this failure to learn affect future campaigns? Evaluation is a critical component of any campaign.
10.11. Sample Campaign Plans
Examples of completed public relations campaign plans are notoriously hard to come by, as they aren’t intended to be public documents. Blank templates are widely available, but rarely with authentic content filled in to show somebody’s campaign plan from goals through the research process, strategy and tactics, all the way through to evaluation.
Craig Miyamoto, who is connected to the Public Relations Society of America, produced this template for public relations practitioners to use as a starting point: http://aboutpublicrelations.net/PRPlan.pdf.
This sample template is from Harley House, a group of consultants who have prepared a communications plan template specifically for agencies working with Canada’s federal government. The template is clearly tailored as such, but still shows a useful framework for building a public relations campaign plan.
The University of Georgia’s Hugh Hodgson School of Music produced a comprehensive public relations campaign—complete with examples of campaign collateral (such as letters and budgets)—that is publicly available here: https://musi.franklin.uga.edu/sites/default/files/PR%20Campaign%20Book-Goals.pdf. Campaign plans do not usually include sample collateral documents, such as news releases, so the University may have gone overboard here, but it’s very helpful for PR students to look at as an example of how one organization built a campaign plan to be ready-made for deployment.
Not a campaign plan, per se, Health PEI, the principal public health agency for Prince Edward Island, has published its communications plan here. It follows many of the same basic structures as a PR campaign plan.
Parts of this chapter were adapted from Public Relations, published by Andy Schmitz in the 2012 Book Archive, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 International License.