Exploring the core elements needed and depth of analytical knowledge required to lead public relations-oriented research projects
By Natalie Bovair, APR
Recognizing that research is essential to strategic public relations planning, not to mention program evaluation, conventional wisdom would have it that public relations professionals—at least those of the strategic management variety—were taught or developed strong research skills.
Herein lies the problem: The majority of PR practitioners lack the depth of investigative experience or the knowledge of sampling and statistical theory necessary to lead advanced research projects.
Five common research inadequacies
1. A common example is the failure to use a random sampling method, which introduces errors in results. A similar thing happens when research is conducted on a sub-population and then assumed to represent the broader majority. The Twitterverse, for example, is not reliable as a litmus test for public sentiment. Why? According to the Pew Research Center, this population tends to hold more liberal views than the general population.
2. Ensuring statistically valid results is another universal concern. For example, if undertaking a national survey in Canada (population 35 million), one needs precisely 384 respondents in order to achieve a 95 per cent confidence level and confidence interval of +/- 5 per cent. (See, Determining sample size: How to ensure you get the correct sample size.) Next, if the organization or individual wants to be able to compare results within this survey—along demographic or geographic lines for example—minimum response rates are needed to make comparisons possible. In fact, a sample size of 384 respondents in all fields being compared is required to keep the confidence level consistently high.
3. Too often, an inadequacy with a major impact happens at the very beginning: Surveys need a proper hypothesis and an effective introduction. Think about the surveys you have completed in recent months or years, particularly how many questionnaires had an effective introduction to orient respondents and achieve informed consent.
Core elements needed:
- a statement of purpose
- an indication of how the results will be used
- a guarantee of anonymity; and
- an accurate estimate of the time needed to complete the questionnaire
Ambiguous, leading, loaded and double-barreled questions are among the more common shortcomings, particularly if the person writing the research questions has a limited understanding of survey design. Respondent error can also be caused by questions that make serious demands on memory. Example: Do you recall the brand of beer advertised during the Super Bowl?
5. Which leads to the final error of thought in this list: Let’s also name pseudo-research as a problem, i.e., conducting research to bolster a point of view.
Zikmund and Babin (see, Essentials of Marketing Research) warn against such pseudo-research, advising the practitioner to, “Walk away from the project if it appears that management strongly desires a predetermined opinion.”
Making the case for a helping hand for public relations research
Back in 2009 on this PR Conversations blog, Dr. David Michaelson proposed 10 best practices in public relations research (see, What are best practices in public relations research, really?); a foundation that the Institute for Public Relations has since advanced.
This is excellent information, but the question remains as to whether the average PR practitioner is any better equipped to lead research projects than before?
Following are some personal examples.
Against my better judgment (under orders from a staff member more senior to me), I once presented a poorly designed survey to a pharmaceutical company client. The client recognized the inadequacies of the research and rightly tore a strip off of me…nearly firing the agency over the incident. Happily for everyone involved, the problem was remedied when a certified research professional redid the work.
More recently, I argued for respondent anonymity in a research project undertaken by a public relations association. I lost the argument, despite providing evidence that informed consent and respondent anonymity are accepted norms in ethical research practice:
“If the Respondent…has given permission for data to be passed on in a form which allows that Respondent to be identified personally: The Respondent must first have been told to whom the information would be supplied and the purposes for which it will be used”
Obviously it’s unethical for an organization to conduct research under the guise of confidentiality, if the intent is to identify who said what; however, I’m sorry to tell readers of PR Conversations that it can, and does, happen, when a bunch of people who consider themselves sufficiently experienced, but don’t have actual research backgrounds, design the survey.
If not you, then who is qualified?
If your research project is centred on public relations practice, you might consider approaching an academic within our discipline.
Look for an academic (or hybrid academic/practitioner) who is conducting research (and publishing it) on a regular and ongoing basis. Individuals who have achieved a master’s degree level of education will have had a proper introduction to research, but it’s unlikely they live and breathe research design and statistical analysis.
The suggestion is to engage a practice-area expert at the PhD graduate level, preferably someone who has demonstrated a varied range of research experience.
Research companies also can be consulted, but play close attention to the credentials of your research counsel. For example, in Canada individuals who hold the Certified Marketing Research Professional designation are a reliable choice.
Statistically speaking, has the time come to embrace math?
Public relations research isn’t all dreadful, everywhere, of course; worthy efforts are being made to elevate the role and practice of research across the communication discipline.
According to the USC Annenberg GAP VIII results (USA), 71.4 per cent of the PR professionals surveyed “strongly agree that there is a need for communication/public relations professionals who can interpret data and use it to plan and evaluate programs. Coupled with the increases in percentage of total budget allocated to evaluation seen over multiple GAP studies, these data reflect the growing importance of analytics and accountability in the practice.”
All of which leaves us facing the reality that, statistically speaking, PR professionals can no longer avoid math.
Either that or they need to seek professional research help.
Over the course of her 25-year career, she has developed specialized skills in healthcare communications and association management. More recently she branched out to teaching public relations to post-graduate students. Her interest in professional issues and the advancement of public relations practice in Canada dates back to her involvement on the student steering committee of the Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS) in Toronto (1987). She is currently a member of the CPRS National membership committee, and chair of accreditation with her home society, CPRS Ottawa-Gatineau. Natalie has earned four national awards for public relations work. She is accredited in public relations (APR), holds a BBA degree, and earned an advanced diploma in public relations, prior to first entering practice.
Her first contribution to PR Conversations was Two glaring gaps in an otherwise glowing review of senior PR practice in Canada.
Images supplied by Natalie Bovair (two purchased from Dollar Photo Club and the third copyright-free one from Pew Research).