22 What is Research?

Many of us do research every day, without thinking much about it. Think about the last time you made a significant purchase, or when you were deciding which university to attend. You probably used your phone or a computer to gather information about your options and to analyze which option might be best for you. Even though you may not have realized it, this is a form of research!

Research is “the systematic gathering, analyzing, and evaluating of data” (Stacks, 2017, p.3). Research involves some sort of systematic gathering of data, or information. Research involves some sort of analysis of this information: asking yourself, what does this information mean? And research involves evaluating the information. What does this mean for my research question or my goals, needs or interests?

Let’s say you want to buy a new pair of running shoes because you’ve decided to take up jogging. There are lots of options out there and running shoes can be expensive, so you may decide you want to do some research.  What would your research look like? First, you’d gather some information. You may decide to use Google to search for “best sneakers for jogging”. Because you understand that there are lots of different sources of information out there, you may decide to click on all of the links on the first page of results and write down the most common recommendations. This is a form of systematic gathering of data. Once you’ve done this, you may have a list of 3-5 sneaker options. You may search for more information on each of those options specifically. You may read reviews from other purchasers, look at the manufacturer’s information, or go to a store to compare the sneakers in person. This is a form of analysis. When you try a couple of the sneakers on, assess how they feel, compare their prices, and decide if they will work for your needs, this is a form of evaluation. You may not have known you are a researcher, but by carefully and systematically gathering, analyzing and evaluating information to help you make your sneaker purchase decision, you are engaging in the research process.

Types of Research

We often distinguish between different types of research: formal and informal. Formal research is planned and structured research that involves the systematic gathering, analyzing and evaluation of information, usually with the intent to answer specific questions of interest. Informal research is less structured and typically involves the “observing of people, events, or objects of interest as they occur” (Stacks, 2017, p.3). Both formal and informal research can provide important insights for public relations practice. For example, formal research like the survey Stacy’s conducted in the case study at the start of this chapter, helped Stacy’s understand the needs and wants of their key public by providing statistical data. As a PR professional, you may engage in informal research by keeping up with trends on TikTok or casually listening to conversations around you at a busy restaurant or café. Both types of research have their place

FIGURE 4.1 Difference between formal research and informal research

Often, we can use information noted from informal research to design formal research studies. For example, imagine you are working for a food and beverage company and have been tasked with revitalizing a cookie brand, Scrumpties. When you are shopping for your groceries, you may take note of how full or empty the Scrumpties cookie shelf is. You may notice that it always seems to be a particular demographic purchasing those cookies. However, you wouldn’t make any decisions based on this information alone, because these are just things you’ve noticed in a casual way. That said, these casual insights may help you decide to conduct a formal research study, such as a survey. For example, you may have a hunch from your informal research that only people over 50 seem to purchase Scrumpties. Formal research could help you understand if that is reliable information that can be used to make decisions about revitalizing the cookie brand.



Stacks, D. W. (2017). Primer of public relations research (3rd ed.). New York: Guilford.


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