ITL #499 The power of research in PR: a vital instrument in your toolkit6 months, 3 weeks ago
Conducting regular waves of research and making the findings freely available can boost corporate reputation and open the door to commercial opportunities. By Anton Nebbe.
As human beings, we’re naturally curious and want to know more about the world and the things around us, how they work – and why they don’t. It’s an evolutionary urge that’s hard-wired into us and it’s helped us become the masters of our own universe. Early explorers documented the natural world on their long voyages, bringing back tales of fantastical lands, with exotic fauna and flora; now we’re looking to the stars, searching for other habitable planets.
In the corporate context, you can substitute ‘curiosity’ with ‘research’ – it sits at the very heart of many of our day-to-day activities. We’re constantly tracking what our customers think of us and our products; compiling competitor analysis; probing new sectors we could enter; writing countless white papers; evolving our offering based on feedback. The list is almost endless.
But what’s research got to do with PR?
The world of PR is changing because societally we’re in a constant state of flux. Social media, for example, has opened up new opportunities while simultaneously presenting huge challenges, particularly in the reputation management space.
Journalists are also less inclined to listen to pitches because they can get their stories and information from other sources in our increasingly digitised world. As PR professionals, we are no longer the gatekeepers we once were.
There are also, frankly, fewer publications with fewer readers. The trade publication landscape, to name just one example, has been devastated as revenue models have been challenged; those failing to adapt have fallen to the wayside. It’s now often the case that if you don’t advertise with a publication, they’ll be less likely to publish your release.
But, present a journalist, your customers or social media audience with a piece of well presented, objective research, and their ears perk up.
Having tried this approach, I know it works. For near enough the last decade I’ve surveyed around 1,000 owners of small to medium sized businesses every three to four months using an external 3rd party specialist research firm. I ask a number of set questions each ‘wave’ that allows me to compare results and determine how attitudes and views change over time. These are supplemented with topical questions that have included attitudes to diversity and inclusion, Brexit, global warming, the cost-of-living crisis, and so on.
What I get in return is a dataset that has required me to, in effect, become an amateur data scientist, taking the numbers and percentages and turning them into a narrative. Fortunately, maths and understanding statistics comes naturally to me and, allied with my journalism training, makes it a relatively straightforward task to write content and make sense of the data for readers.
That being said, I know this isn’t the case for everyone. My advice would be to spend time with a statistician to learn how to interpret statistics data, or, failing that, speaking to the research firm you use or get mentored by someone in your business who might be more comfortable with figures.
The research data I receive has multiple uses and is used in a wide variety of channels:
- Our Business Sentiment Index tracks confidence among business owners – it was the first tracker of its kind to signal a surprising uptick in positivity after the first lockdown; equally, it’s also documenting increased doubt in business’s prospects as firms face multiple economic headwinds
- ‘Business Barometer’ press releases issued to trade and national press based on the topical questions
- Thought leadership articles for our News and Insights pages on our website
- Articles in our customer newsletters
- Video slideshows for social media
I also make the data available, for free and with no need to register or leave any details, on our award-winning SME Data Hub. I took the decision to make our data freely accessible because it would otherwise be sat languishing on our servers, gathering virtual dust and not being of any use to anyone.
We deliberately don’t ask for people’s details when they access the data on the site or download any of the graphs because we felt it would undermine the legitimacy of the research and perhaps make people feel it’s skewed in some way.
In truth, we have other ways to gather prospect data. We wouldn’t want to approach a journalist, student or researcher after they’ve visited the SME Data Hub – it would make them less likely to return, and it would impact our reputation in ways we don’t need.
Using the data so extensively means I can control the message with little chance of it getting manipulated. It takes a lot of effort to deliberately misinterpret objective data and then attempt to present an alternative narrative. Its irrefutability is research’s biggest asset and has gained even more importance in this era of fake news and ‘alternative facts’.
There is also a commercial benefit for the business. Our research output has led to increased visits to our website, and organic traffic is typically the highest converting channel, more so than pay per click, etc. Giving people another reason to visit our site – apart from finding out about our products and the sectors we serve – has grown our brand reputation because it demonstrates in a very visible way that we ‘walk the talk’. By that I mean not only do we talk about understanding in detail the sectors we serve, we have a large body of research to evidence that we really do.
I have also actively encouraged our sales teams to use the data (including on social media) to inform prospects and customers about trends in their sectors, which works as a conversation starter and a key differentiator from our competitors, who don’t have a similar research-led approach.
Who’s doing it well?
A few firms are successfully taking a similar approach. We are by no means the only ones, which speaks to its effectiveness. Each business is adapting how it uses research to its own context, which is important – what works for you won’t necessarily work for me.
I’m very conscious using research to the extent I do – there are other examples I’ve not included – might not be for everyone, but from personal experience and as someone who’s worked in PR for a long time, the power of research has enriched my role in a way I didn’t think possible.
Anton Nebbe, Head of PR and Communications, Close Brothers Asset Finance and Leasing.mail the author
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