Stacks on Research

Don Stacks 2009 smallThis is my second installment on research.  I just spent a wonderful three days directing the 16th Annual International Public Relations Research Conference and chairing my first meeting of the IPR Measurement Commission.  Although I am not going to report here on either, on reflection I find that a focus on basic research is needed at all levels of academia and the profession. 

From a public relations perspective basic research is planned in what is known as the “developmental stage” of the research process.  At this stage we should be looking at secondary and historical data, looking for what we already know and conducting a “gap” analysis. Unlike Generalized Accepted Practice (GAP) research, traditional gap analysis seeks out the absence of information as much as what has been reported in the past.  To be honest, while advertising spends much time on secondary research public relations does not.  In this stage, 4 things should occur. 

First, strategic communication planning begins with a goal statement and objectives stated in measureable terms.  The goal should be related to the business problem and devised to demonstrate public relations effectiveness.  The objectives, on which I will spend more time in another blog, relate to the three phases that research will be used to establish if we are on phase and on target at specific benchmarks throughout the campaign or program.  If research shows that we are on target and phase, then we move to the next objective and measure against the next planned benchmark.  If not, then we use the research obtained to refine or retune our plan. 

Second, research should be looking for the initial baseline that will be compared to at planned benchmarks during the campaign program and used to establish if the final planned campaign or program has actually “moved the needle” on the problem it is addressing.

Third, the relationship between outputs, outtakes, and outcomes must be addressed.  Outputs are the tactical messages to be used (i.e., media releases, blogs, speeches, brochures).  Outtakes are the results of these messages either taken from samples of target audience perceptions or the reporting of influencers—third-party endorsers (analysts, reporters, bloggers).  Outcomes are then the results of the outputs and outtakes and should be evaluated against the larger client or business goals.

Fourth, we measure across time and against baseline data.  At least three measurements should be undertaken, resulting in three public relations objectives being evaluated.  If the outputs are not getting out, not being recalled, or are getting out and recalled but recalled in error, then the plan needs to be revised.  Evaluating outputs is the function of the informational objective.  If the messages are being received and understood, then the outtake phase examines whether they are changing or reinforcing attitudes of the target audience and the third-party endorser.  Evaluating outtakes is a function of the motivational objective.  Finally, once we are convinced that the informational and motivational objectives have been met, we look for behavioral intent—are people indicating that they will do what we desire first and in the end are they actually doing it.  This is the function of the behavioral objective.

So basic research begins before a public relations campaign or program begins.  It establishes what has been done in the past that might impact on the future, it establishes a baseline against which to evaluate success, and it has planned benchmarks against which to evaluate objectives.  Data gathered across the campaign or program should be measured so that it can be inputted into whatever decision-making process is being employed by the client or business.  Finally, the data gathered must be used to demonstrate an impact on or correlation with other business units to demonstrate a return of investment in the public relations function.

In future blogs I will address each of these elements in greater detail, but for now I hope to have provided insight into how the researcher must think and plan ahead—with an eye towards proving impact and influence on the problem addressed in that research.

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