Never Try to Stack the Deck When You Conduct Corporate Research

Amid the plethora of PR tools available to communicators, underwriting academic research to help get the message out presents both great opportunity and an equal measure of risk.

The ASAE Foundation, which is part of the ASAE (American Society of Association Executives), awards grants of up to $75,000 to outside organizations, universities and companies to help the foundation conduct a variety of research projects. Starting in 2011 a two-year grant was awarded to the Cornell Center for Hospitality Research to look into the various trends affecting association-based tradeshows. One result of the grant was a report titled, “Current and Emerging Trends of Tradeshows: An Assessment of Stake,” which is free to members and sold to non-members.

“We are committed to reporting factual data and following established ethical practices in the conduct of our research,” said Sabrina Kidwai, senior PR manager for ASAE. “Even if there are negative findings, or if the research is saying something about how our industry needs to improve, it’s still helpful to us if it’s based on sound, credible science.” She added: “It’s about how our organization and members can better understand the market and move forward as an industry.”

That’s the right approach. PR pros need to assess who is doing the research; how the research is developed and validated and how the results may impact brand reputation and consumer sentiment. There is also the delicate task of disclosure.

According to a recent article in The New York Times, the corn refinery and sugar industries spent millions covertly funding dueling nonprofit groups in a multiyear effort to grab market share, which sparked a federal lawsuit between the two parties. The article, “Sweet-Talking The Public,” paints an unflattering portrait of both industries regarding the disclosure of their various research efforts.


For PR pros who may be tasked with promoting any findings from research their company has funded, they need to act as the “company’s conscience,” said Mark Tullio, VP of worldwide marketing for computer manufacturer Lantronix.

“Any short-lived gains from sponsoring research that ‘stacks the deck’ in one’s favor should be avoided because, ultimately, the end user or consumer of your information will discover the truth,” he said

Tullio said there are two questions for communicators who are involved with underwriting corporate research.

1. How do you “scope” the project to begin with? “If you’ve funded a massive research project and none of the resulting data supports your brand or brand reputation, you likely have scoped the project incorrectly,” he said. “If you understand your market needs and the pain point you’re solving, and map the research to that, you should never be surprised by the results” of a study or academic research.

2. Does the project pass the “sniff test?” Are the research organizations you’re working with above board? Will they reflect well on your brand?

Indeed, PR managers need to effectively manage relationships with researchers who they are funding and who may speak or write about issues germane to the organization.

“I know my research partners have expertise that I don’t, and vice versa, but taking the time to understand how each of us works goes a long way toward achieving a successful outcome,” said Matt Hurwitz, senior VP, wealth, brokerage and retirement communications at Wells Fargo.

Hurwitz said that in the last year Wells Fargo has surveyed LGBT, Hispanic, African-American, and Chinese investors to gauge how those groups think about saving and investing.

“All this is done with the aim of producing relevant content for our key internal audiences as well as national and local media,” he said. “Research should be insights-driven, and if it’s designed to be more self-serving, it usually reads that way. PRN


Sabrina Kidwai,; Matt Hurwitz,; Mark Tullio,

Funding Brand-Based Research

Funding research or scientific studies to help support the marketing of your company or client’s products or services is a time-tested tactic, but not one without risk. Due to the high costs of funding such research—and the growing public perception of corporate dollars too often manipulating scientific results—executing this complex strategy isn’t as easy as “taking candy from a baby.” Let’s learn from the mistakes made by the corn refinery and sugar industries (see above) to create best practices for the promotion of corporate underwriting.

Honor full disclosure. Funding a study to support your claims can be essential, but actively covering up your involvement will risk the very credibility you are trying to create. Instead, clearly disclose your involvement, but highlight the independence of the researchers and their findings.

Let the work speak for itself. Making overzealous claims undermines consumer trust. Studies are intended to be academic and informative, not overly promotional. If you overreach, consumers will ignore your claims like TiVo customers skip TV ads. Instead, release your research sans the spin and invite public debate, even encouraging industry influencers to join the conversation. Encouraging third-party experts to comment—instead of making your own claims —will be far more valuable to those journalists you pitch.

Get your money’s worth. Funding research can be cost prohibitive, so unless you have an endless budget you need to find ways to generate correlated value when you release your findings. Luckily, today’s media landscape is built for making your study go viral. Make sure to elevate the share- and searchability of your research summary using strong SEO keywords. Recruit industry influencers to share through their networks, cross-promote online using relevant non-profits, professional associations and industry groups’ approval.

Zakes_Albe copyThis article was written by Albe Zakes, global VP of communications for TerraCycle Inc. He can be reached at



This story originally ran in the Feb. 24, 2014 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.