How To…Conduct Communications Research

Undertaking research is an increasingly important part of communications executives' jobs, whether it's to contribute to measurement efforts, facilitate integration, justify budgets or simply gather intelligence about their target stakeholders. But research is the stuff Ph.D degrees are made of--in other words, it's a science that is learned over the course of an academic lifetime and is impossible to perfect. Thanks to Don Wright, professor of public relations at Boston University's College of Communication, the following how-to guide offers a crash course in the components that combine to create the ultimate body of knowledge: Qualitative Versus Quantitative Research Qualitative: Data are primarily verbal and visual Researchers work with participants in natural setting The researcher is usually the study's measurement instrument Relies mainly on human insight Counting is acceptable but often not very useful Quantitative: Data are primarily numerical; replicable and reliable Research recruit "subjects" for controlled observation Researcher designs/creates a measurement instrument, such as a questionnaire Relies on statistical measures and tests Counting is acceptable and very useful Research Tools Focus Groups: Focused discussions that can be used as pilot studies to collect preliminary information about a topic prior to a quantitative survey or to explore post-survey information more in-depth. Advantages: Quick and relatively inexpensive Disadvantages: Limited external validity Surveys: Collection of data from multiple respondents. The two types are descriptive (describes what exists at the moment) and analytical (describes situations and explains why they exist). Advantages: Capable of investigating problems in realistic settings; reasonable cost considering the amount of information gathered; don't require cumbersome administration; can be entirely anonymous. Disadvantages: Independent variables cannot be manipulated the way they are in laboratory experiments; inappropriate wording or placement of questions within a survey can bias results. Rules For Developing Surveys/Questionnaires Keep in short. Use structured rather than open-ended questions Measure intensity of feelings. Make questions clear and unambiguous. Don't use words with more than one meaning. Don't ask loaded questions. Don't ask threatening questions. Always pre-test questionnaires. Offer some reward for participation. Strategies For Selling The Idea Of Research To Management Draw similarities between the need for research and evaluation in PR and their need in other fields, such as medicine or law. Remind management that the objective of the PR practitioner is to communicate in the arena of public opinion. Explain that the cost of not conducting research can be much greater in the long run. Ensure that management is committed to strategic, research-based PR in the first place. Continually work to increase the budget for public relations research. Budget Considerations Generally, 10-15% of any campaign budget should be allocated to measurement and evaluation. Practitioners frequently cut corners on research costs and perform output measures (which are less expensive) rather than outcome measures (which provide much better data). There are huge similarities between the costs of research and the costs of auto repairs; the person responsible for negotiating the price must have a deep understanding of true value versus costs. There are cost-effective ways to conduct research, including Web survey programs like Zoomerang and Survey Monkey. A true deep-dive into research processes may require a doctorate degree, but PR execs who are fluent in these concepts will definitely give their organizations a head-start in the race to a strong bottom-line PRN CONTACT: Don Wright,

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