16 Stage 1: Research

The first step to constructing a solid public relations plan is to gather information to inform the communication goals and objectives to follow.  Researching the communication environment and the challenges and opportunities it presents to your organization can make all the difference to the effectiveness of your public relations plan.

Public relations professionals often find themselves in the position of having to convince management to fund research, or to describe the importance of research as a crucial part of a departmental or project budget. Formative and evaluative research are important steps in this process.  Formative research is planning research that is conducted about what the target publics know, believe, or value so that what they need or desire to know can be understood before communication is begun.  Evaluative research is used to pre-test and post-test public relations initiatives, organizational processes, and communication effectiveness.

These approaches are both vital in public relations planning because:

  • Research makes communication two-way
  • Research makes public relations activities strategic
  • Research allows us to show results, to measure impact, and to refocus efforts

The purpose of all public relations research is to allow us to develop strategy in order to:

  • Conduct our campaigns with specific purpose and targeted goals
  • Operate as a part of the overall strategic management function in an organization
  • Measure the effectiveness of public relations efforts

Before tackling the research processes involved in communication planning, break down the specific areas of information gathering required.  Typically, a public relations plan requires practitioners to:

  • Analyze the situation
  • Analyze the organization
  • Analyze the publics

In each of these three areas,  practitioners will need to conduct both primary and secondary research in order to get a clear picture of the communication landscape.  Primary research refers to the collection of unique data, normally proprietary, that is firsthand and relevant to a specific client or campaign.  This type of information is often the most expensive type of data to collect but can be the most helpful as it can provide the most relevant insights. Secondary research refers to the collection of data that is typically part of the public domain but is available and relevant to a client, organization, or industry. This type of information can be most useful in supporting the conclusions drawn from primary research.

The type of data that is required in public relations research can come in two forms, Quantitative and Qualitative.  Quantitative research allows for numerical observations, or counting, of data in order for organizations to improve relationships with certain publics and then measure how much those relationships have improved or degraded – based on statistical generalizations.  Qualitative research allows researchers to produce in-depth information in order to understand public opinionThis type of research is not generalizable, which means it cannot be applied to other situations or organizations,  but it often provides quotes and insights into feelings and interpretations that can be used to develop strategy.

Environmental scanning

The data gathered in all of the approaches identified above contribute to the construction of an environmental scan. An environmental scan refers to an in-depth description of the complex environment in which organizations function.  The communications environment will include forces from within and outside the organization, the impact of competitors on the environment, the role of specific target publics on organizational decisions, government regulations, economic conditions, and many other factors.  The complexity of the environment itself can make scanning a challenging process.  To help with that, the PEST(LE) model provides a structure to organize key information.

The P.E.S.T. (L.E.) acronym stands for:

  • Political environment: legislation and regulation like labour standards, environmental restrictions, taxes, trade restrictions, and effects of changes in government.
  • Economic environment: currency rates, interest rates, inflation, employment rates, and economic growth stats.
  • Social environment: demographics, educational level of pubic, health, culture and values.
  • Technical environment: R &D, new media etc.
  • Legal
  • Environmental considerations: climate, natural environment, etc.

Using this organizing framework, develop your environmental scan by highlighting the key insights identified in the research phase under each category.  This will allow your reader to gain an in-depth understanding of the communication landscape very quickly.  It will also identify the focus areas that are priorities for the organization.



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