Monday, 22 October 2012

Do Your Homework!

On Target?

Research is a crucial component of any PR campaign. Research must be used to correctly identify your public or audience. There would be no worse scenario than to implement a PR campaign to address a serious issue and not even reach your target audience. For instance it would be a poor idea to confront the delayed Bomber Stadium project by addressing the people of Regina. Putting aside our rivalry with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, this would be an utter failure as a PR campaign.

Although this may seem far fetched, there are situations where a company or organization may indeed address the improper audience and not only fail to address the initial issue, but also embarrass the organization further.

Ultimately there are 2 main types of research that are conducted; qualitative and quantitative:

Qualitative research involves “soft data”, which often includes open-ended questions and is unstructured. Although the results may be valid, they are not scientifically reliable. These studies typically involve non-random samples; examples include focus groups, one-on-one interviews, role playing studies, etc.

Intercept interviews are one such example and are an inexpensive means of gathering information. You may do this by randomly interviewing shopper at a mall. Although they do not represent the entire population, this can have the effect of “having your finger on the pulse”. Picking a location where your target audience is likely to be found will provide you with better results.

Similarly, focus groups typically target a small sample size, however they provide you with an excellent means of interacting directly with your subjects. Given the duration of time spent with the test subjects, you have ample time to get a good feel about the answers you are receiving. Unlike an interview, the focus group can last for a couple of hours.

Quantitative research involves the hard data and is more scientific. The questions are closed ended, measurable and are typically directed towards a larger audience. Examples include telephone polling, mail surveys, omnibus studies, panel studies, etc.

Surveys are an example and are a common means of gathering data. Online and phone surveys can reach a large number of people and are measurable since they require multiple choice answers. Through surveys you can ascertain a person’s product preference, voting preference and even personal traits such as age, gender and income. You can also address a random sample, or a defined demographic.

Since this type of research is time consuming and expensive, some organizations opt for piggy back surveys. The organization can buy a question in a national survey conducted by Angus Reid, for example. This highly attractive option also allows PR professionals to save money while relying on the expertise of a professional polling company.

Primary and Secondary Research

Primary sources involve research that you have completed yourself. For example, the information you received is derived from the survey that you created and made conclusions based on the results.

Either qualitative or quantitative research can be categorized as primary research.

An example of primary research includes Apple setting up their own focus groups to decide how best to launch the new i5.

Secondary sources include websites, organizational materials, journals and any publication where a relevant study and its results are provided.

In this case as well, either qualitative or quantitative research can be categorized as secondary research.

Examples of secondary research include organizational data and library/online databases. Personally I find that organizational materials are an excellent means of gathering secondary research. Statistics Canada offers a wealth of information that is easily accessible at low cost. If you are looking for the demographic information on a particular area, you can find data such as the age of the residents, incomes, ethnicity, etc. Using pre-existing data assists you greatly, saves you money and prevents you from having to recreate the wheel.

Since research is ongoing in most PR campaigns, there is a continuity starting from the initial first step through to the measurement stage. Measuring success can be done in a number of ways. PR professionals may use content analysis to identify the amount of media coverage. This can be very scientific or simply achieved by counting the number of times an organization is mentioned in the media.   

Content analysis is not restricted to traditional media, since social media and the number of hits your website has received can be easily monitored by services such as Google Analytics.

Research and Strategy

In an effective PR plan, there are typically eight basic elements:

1. Situation                   3. Audience      5. Tactics         7. Budget
2. Objectives                4. Strategy        6. Calendar/timetable    8. Measurement           

These eight elements rely heavily on research! As I alluded to earlier, research is essential in addressing all elements, especially the situation. You must know what the situation was that caused the need for a PR campaign in the first place. If the problem is declining market share due to high costs to the consumer and you address how environmentally friendly your product is, you will fail.

In defining your objective, you must understand whether or not it addresses the situation, if the objective is achievable and if it’s measurable. You cannot define any of these if you have not done any research. Researching similar projects done in the past or resorting to focus groups to determine if your “publics” will respond to your message are some possible solutions.

Knowing your audience should be obvious, however some publics are harder to identify and may require research. If you are XL Foods and you need to address your public, you could rely on in-house market studies to direct the message to your most loyal customers. Likewise, it would be advisable to address legislators that you have dealt with in the past. Addressing them with an appropriate message may be crucial to ensuring that your company remain out of the cross-hairs of the government.

Once you are ready to define your strategy, you will be providing a guideline as to how you will meet the objective. You will never know how an objective can be met if you do not do the necessary research. For instance, XL food’s strategy could be to increase the level of the public’s trust of meat products by 25% by November of 2013. The current level of trust must be quantified initially so that a baseline is established. Likewise ongoing research would be necessary to judge the campaign’s effectiveness.
To implement the strategy, the PR professional must put in place a relevant check-list. Also known as tactics, a listing of what activities will be used to carry out the strategy must be in place. These activities cost money and consume time. In order to properly plan and allocate resources, your research must be impeccable. Not only to ensure that you addressed the problem effectively, but to know what tactic will cost how much and when and how it should be done. For example, it would make no sense to survey people’s support of the NFL by phone on Super Bowl Sunday.

Although 90% of what I said is common sense, it is easy to make a grievous error and cause your organization serious trouble. Although you may not be an expert in research, there are many ways of outsourcing this type of work. As a PR professional, you’re not expected to be an expert in research, but you must have an understanding of this process.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Interview With a PR Professiona

When contemplating the PR professional I wanted to speak with, I had a few ideas. Having considered the pros and cons of each, I decided that contacting a graduate of the PR program here at the U of W would be most beneficial and practical. Michael Kulasza, the Regional Public Affairs Officer for CN and former student of the PR Program at the University of Winnipeg provided some excellent insights. I spoke to him over the phone.

I had spoken to Mike once before regarding the University of Winnipeg PR program. After hearing a good review from Mike, I decided that it would be a great opportunity for professional development. Not having known much about Mike’s current position, this interview was helpful in understanding the field and the different types of work you may be doing.

Although I have some experience in the field, Mike identified several excellent points regarding this career. For instance, PR does not offer a lot of job security and it is very competitive. Having been in a PR role in politics, I saw the instability of the career but assumed that this was the nature of politics and not PR in general. Mike’s account of on and off employment led me to understand that this phenomenon is universal in the PR field. With the possibility of frequent job changes, Mike pointed out that the PR field is highly competitive, especially in small job markets such as Winnipeg.

To overcome this challenge, I asked Mike what would make a candidate stand out in an interview at CN. First, he recommended that you provide a potential employer with a portfolio with a sample of your work at the interview. His second piece of advice was to focus on industry experience. Not PR experience, which is essential, but experience in that company’s industry. In this case CN. Mike had worked for CP Rail in a non-PR role prior to applying for his current position. The mix of his industry knowledge and his education in PR made him a valuable asset for the company. He was a natural fit for the position.

This made me think about the skills and experiences that I have obtained through my past employment and education. Combining my professional skills that I have gained in politics with those that I am currently obtaining as a novice PR agent will allow me to carve out a unique and competitive niche.

Although experience is vital in this industry, Mike recommended that every PR professional keep current on issues and trends. As a regular part of his regime, he would review Ragan Communications, PR daily, read online news articles, attend PR industry events and read PR related books. As an additional step, Mike believes that besides being a member of IABC and CPRS, volunteer work is an excellent means of networking. He is planning on volunteering with IABC in the near future.

To maintain an edge in the industry while he’s between jobs, Mike will read PR novels and review them on his blog. This keeps his writing skills sharp and his name top of mind with industry professionals. Since writing is essential in the PR field, Mike believes that his education has greatly assisted him throughout his career. The ability to be succinct and clear is the single most important skill that Mike derived from the Public Relations Diploma at the University of Winnipeg.

Despite the importance of possessing strong writing skills, Mike recommended that strong oral communications is equally important. There were times when he would be expected, on short notice, to give a presentation to the executive team or speak to a group of angry residents. The ability to speak clearly and audibly is invaluable in these situations.

An additional communication skill set that has become more important is the proper use of social media. Mike noted that social media has become increasingly important over the past few years. Although almost anyone can blog or tweet, it requires a PR/Communications expert to do it properly. You need to find an interesting topic and know how to help it get the attention it deserves. Nobody wants to read a boring blog, nor do they want to read a blog riddled with spelling and grammatical errors.

No matter what question I asked Mike, he always came back to the importance of social media. Like many people, Mike believed that social media was unimportant or a fad and he did not hold it in high regard. Now he believes using it properly is a top priority in this field. The ability to reach almost anyone globally presents both opportunities and challenges. Making an error can cause embarrassment world wide, whereas a good news story can be circulated around the world instantly at the click of a mouse.

Along with the issue of social media, Mike pointed out that the PR field is a 24 hour job. Issues and events happen at any time of the day, so you need to be prepared to respond to them. Mike wishes that he had known this when he was starting out in this field.

Having listened to Mike throughout the interview I drew several conclusions, some of which I have already discussed. The most important conclusion however is that I am still interested in the field! Although there are certain aspects that are more appealing than others, I am drawn by the dynamic nature of this career.