Public Relations Tactics

Learning made easy: Find the right research

December 28, 2010

Some of the most important research to guide your PR programs may be available at a small cost. 

Secondary research gets its name not because it’s inferior, but because it’s a secondary use of knowledge developed for other reasons. By finding appropriate existing information, you can reduce the expense and duplication of creating original (or primary) research.

As my PR master’s students learn, research in our profession comes in four domains:

  • Foundational or basic research (the social science underpinnings of what we do)
  • Best practices and benchmarking studies (what we do and how we do it).
  • Initial or formative research (to guide your PR program — objectives, strategies, messages)
  • Measurement/evaluation (to assess the results and continuously improve outcomes)

You can apply secondary research techniques to any of these. The idea that research-based knowledge is available from many sources and in many forms is hardly news to working professionals. But dealing confidently with secondary research is another matter.  Your expectations must be clear to your staff or research provider.

There are several ways to conduct an effective secondary research project, particularly in a business situation.  What follows is a simple structure for organizing the search and reporting on secondary research. 

What motivates your research? Describe the business issue or objective that motivates this work.  Call it “situation analysis,”  “statement of purpose” or anything else. But for the sake of credibility, secondary research should start by making clear:

  • Why you’re seeking knowledge on this topic
  • How the results of this investigation will guide communications programming
  • How it will inform other research that follows (as you can’t know what additional knowledge needs to be developed until you know what’s already available)

The strategic research question. This is a difficult step, but it’s crucial or else you will waste time and money.  Articulating a core research question is always a strategic thought process — never tactical.  What’s the high-value piece of knowledge needed to drive decisions regarding your relationship-building and communications programming? It could involve defining and clarifying facts, exploring attitudes and opinions, or developing recommendations.

The amount of existing knowledge that’s available (and the resources that you could consume with unfocused effort) can be overwhelming. But a well-considered core question cuts the project down to size and ensures that the potential impact is worth the effort. 

Get with the plan
In this case, research design means a step-by-step plan for data collection and analysis. Possible sources include:

Organization-specific sources:  Proprietary internal data exists in employee records, shareowner and customer databases, sales reports, marketing studies, stakeholder inquiries, the corporate library and archives. 

Industry/market-specific sources: These might include trade associations and media, vendor studies and white papers, securities exchanges, published case studies (ideally examining your competitors) and conference proceedings.

Function-specific sources: You probably know about public relations and public affairs organizations and the studies they publish.  What about societies dedicated to other professional fields — such as human resources, health care, marketing, manufacturing, engineering, accounting, and finance and law?

National and international sources: Government agencies, international agencies, private research foundations, university research centers and NGOs are rich sources of data for an astonishing array of subjects. 
Connect the dots
A research findings section is where you summarize what you have learned from existing sources to inform your organization’s policies and PR decisions. Connecting the dots from disparate sources of research-based knowledge creates new learning.

Carefully consider the sources of your findings, along with evidence of reliability and validity.  Take the original purpose and target of the studies into account as well as the age of the data and the credentials of the organizations or individuals that conducted the work.

If it’s survey research, then you need to understand whether the results are statistically valid. Consider random sample selection, the number of respondents, margin of error and confidence levels. If the original research was never designed to be statistically valid, then how were the respondents recruited and what’s the profile of the participants?

Don’t forget the most basic reality check:  Do the findings make sense?

If a report comes from a vendor, then watch for self-serving information. If it comes from a collaborative source such as Wikipedia, then think about whether edit wars makes the information more reliable — or less.  Be prepared to defend such data. 

Take the next step
Never miss the opportunity for a strong, conclusive recommendation based on research findings.  After you gather your information, consider the following questions:

  • If you’re not ready for action after the secondary research project, then what do you still need to know to answer the strategic research question?
  • Why is it worth the cost of original research to produce a complete answer?
  • How does the secondary research help provide a base for measurement and evaluation of your proposed program?
Frank Ovaitt, APR
Frank Ovaitt, APR, is EVP of Makovsky & Company and adjunct professor of applied PR research at The George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management.
Email: fovaitt at


No comments have been submitted yet.

Post a Comment

Editor’s Note: Please limit your comments to the specific post. We reserve the right to omit any response that is not related to the article or that may be considered objectionable.


To help us ensure that you are a real human, please type the total number of circles that appear in the following images in the box below.

(image of nine circles) + (image of three circles) =