The Importance of Research Methodology in Public Relations

As a discipline of scholarly inquiry, public relations remains a newcomer. As recently as the late 1960s, the public relations academic community was struggling. The lack of academic research conducted by public relations practitioners at the time was hindering the growth and reputation of public relations as a discipline.[1] In an attempt to rectify the situation, Edward Robinson, who considered scientifically-based practice to be superior to intuition and acquired experience, promoted a directive that he hoped would legitimize public relations as a scholarly practice.[2]  By breaking away from existing informal research habits and instead incorporating social science research methods, he sought to foster and develop a more research-based public relations practice. [3] Despite his attempts, research remained until recently, something that practitioners seemingly feared;[4] rendering it less important than acquired experience and often deferring it if it looked too scientific in nature.[5]  In recent years however, the perceptions of research methods have changed. Commonly held opinion now recognizes that the structure of inquiry is “an integral part of research.”[6]As such, the use of a multitude of research methods to build a theory is now considered tantamount to the ongoing success of modern public relations as a discipline. The purpose of this essay is therefore to analyse and justify existing research methods, considering in the meantime, their ethical implications and impact on public relations as a modern discipline.

For demonstrable efficacy in understanding a problem, proposing a solution and forecasting the outcome, research is required. It is the key element to public relations success;[7] the foundation of every effective campaign for public relations communication,[8] wherein research may be described as the systematic and on-going collection and interpretation of information for the purpose of bringing about a specific objective.[9]  It is used in a number of disciplines to establish key messages, provide insight and improve the communications between an organization and its target public(s).[10] Different types of research are tailored in accordance with circumstance and budget and are used in almost every phase of a communications program and campaign; to monitor and track, measure, assess and evaluate.[11] In keeping with this, James E. Grunig[12] states that research

“…includes formative research to learn how publics are affected by organisations, to find out how publics view organisational actions and to plan communication programs to build relationships with the publics. It also includes evaluative research to measure the effectiveness of communication programs and to determine what contribution the public relations function makes to organisational success.”[13]

Given this statement, it is perhaps pertinent to discuss at this juncture, the types of research public relations practitioners are required to be familiar with, for optimal campaign and program efficacy:

The two central methodological approaches to research in contemporary public relations practice are formal and informal.[14]  Stacks describes formal research as being the

“systematic gathering, analyzing and evaluating of data via some form of methodology, be it quantitative or qualitative”[15]

And informal research as being

“the observing of people, events or objects of interest as they occur, typically through qualitative methods.”[16]

With regard to the strategic planning process, formal and informal research is considered the foundation for achieving objective success, particularly in the two-way asymmetric and two-way symmetric models.[17] It not only allows for the development of strategic and tactical approaches but delineates the operating environment and helps determine the value and degree of campaign success. In this way, both formal and informal research contribute to the structuring of formative (strategic) research, which is used to piece together the communication program; tactical research, which  aids in the production and dissemination of messages;[18] and evaluative research, which allows for campaign tracking and an evaluation of the campaign or program’s conclusion.[19]   In the majority of cases, a formal methodology is the preferred method of the social scientist and requires an objective, quantitative approach.[20]

Beyond formal and informal research methodology categorisations however, an additional form of research categorisation exists in the form of quantitative and qualitative research methods.[21] Quantitative research is “the objective, systematic and controlled gathering of data”[22] which uses scientific surveys and complex statistical tabulation to form conclusions.[23] It is objective, empirical and controlled in nature and a strict set of rules are followed in order to retrieve and assess the data collected.[24]  It is the research method adopted when large populations of people need to be generalised and or analysed.[25] Examples of quantitative research are

  • Sampling (wherein sampling refers to “the science of systematically drawing a valid group of objects [people] from a population reliability[26])
  • Surveys and polls[27]
  • Pilot experimentation[28]

Generally speaking, qualitative methods on the other hand, allow the researcher rich insight into and understanding of a situation or target public.[29]  It is a methodology that is “less controlled and subjective,”[30] relies heavily on interpretation[31] and -is furthermore systematic in the way in which data is collected and interpreted.[32] A researcher’s approach requires detailed observation.[33] Examples of qualitative research are[34]

  • Focus groups
  • Content analysis – used to measure the amount of media coverage and media content [35]
  • Interviews

The success of public relations as a discipline is dependent on how the field responds to and incorporates issues of ethical conduct. Often, practitioners are not only responsible for corporate communications, but corporate conduct also.[36] In contemporary society, target audiences and publics within the marketplace represent public opinion and regulate behavioural trends.[37] As a consequence, with reference to the practice of research in public relations, the method of collection, management and reporting of research findings must be done so ethically and honestly in order to accurately represent and manage the target audience’s best interests, feelings and behaviours.[38] All public relations research methods therefore, whether qualitative and quantitative and conducted by way of survey, polls, observation, focus groups and or interviews, require the participation of people in order to generate results. In order for such methods to be deemed ethical, a series of principles apply.[39] In essence, all research participants must offer informed consent; have the ability and opportunity to withdraw without penalty from on-going participations at any time; be guaranteed complete anonymity and confidentiality and at no stage be subject to harm.[40]

In an attempt to illustrate contemporary utilisation of the aforementioned research methods and ethical standards, the following case studies have been analysed.

Case Study # 1[41]

As part of the “Cleaner and Greener” educational campaign conducted by the Royal Automobile Association (RAA) of SA in 2008, a selection of both formal quantitative and qualitative research methods were utilised in order to reach objective success. Boasting a membership of over 570,000 South Australian motorists, the RAA needed to implement a quantitative research method in the formative phase of the campaign, in an attempt to analyse and collate accurate statistical data from such a large population. Evidence to suggest this occurred is in the execution of the Australian National Opinion Poll (ANOP) survey of motorists. The survey found that 79% of motorists were concerned and 31%extremely concerned about the effect motoring had on the environment. Evidently, the data received was statistical in nature[42]and facilitated the consequent establishment and development of a successful multi-tiered persuasive strategy, both cognitive and motivational in nature. Additional quantitative research methods used were in the evaluative stage of the campaign. Not only were the number of hits on the RAA website after the launch of the campaign collated, but fuel usage statistics were gathered and carbon testing results analysed. Additionally, formal qualitative research methods were adopted during the formative phase, with a series of focus groups held prior to the campaign launch. Data received offered the RAA insight into the mindset, detailing sentiment and concern, of their target audience.   During the evaluative phase of the campaign, further qualitative methods were implemented. Identification of campaign mentions in the media as well as the recoding of the number of contacts with the media about the campaign suggests a content analysis approach was implemented. What appears to be the only informal research method utilised during this campaign, also took place in the evaluative phase; with RAA noting anecdotal evidence from members as a means of gauging campaign success. An enhanced understanding of environmental issues and driver awareness qualified campaign success.

Case Study #2[43]

Similarly and as part of Connecting Images’ (CI) campaign plan, “Selling the Sizzle, not the Sausage” for Australian Char in 2009, a mixture of qualitative and quantitative  research methods were applied by CI in order to achieve objective success.  Whilst CI favoured a more qualitative research approach overall,   a quantitative research method approach was first required to establish the target public’s wants and needs. The client’s online subscriber network that totals 3000 in number was thus targeted by way of an anonymous online survey during the formative 0oahse of the campaign. Results acquired as a result, offered statistical data that helped delineate the public’s opinion upon which, further research methods were shaped. A series of experiments (blind taste tests) and interviews on members of the client’s target audience and publics (retailers and consumers) were also conducted during the formative phase. Methods such as a reliance on word-of-mouth, relationship building with key influencers and communications by way of a number of media outlets were thereafter implemented to monitor and evaluate any positive changes in public opinion and thus, objective success.

This paper has attempted to analyse the importance of research methods as a function of public relations practice. Whether formal or informal, qualitative or quantitative, research is required throughout each phase of a campaign or plan’s process. In the formative phase, research is essential  in establishing not only a clear understanding of a situation upon which key objectives and strategies are then based, but in strengthening and enhancing communications between an organisation and its public. It is also an integral element of the evaluative phase, as it allows the practitioner to accurately monitor and evaluate a campaign or plan’s success. Furthermore, all applied research methods previously outlined and discussed in this paper, must be conducted in accordance with a series of ethical principles and guidelines to ensure that the target publics’ best interests, social and behavioural trends are being represented fairly and honestly at all times.  All research activities conducted by both CI and the RAA in the aforementioned case studies were conducted in accordance with the ethical standards and principles public relations practitioners must adhere to.  Quantitative results were acquired from anonymous surveys, conducted upon aware and consenting members of the target audience. Similarly, qualitative methods, which in these two instances took the form of focus groups, interviews and media monitoring, were conducted upon consenting and aware volunteers, unto whom no harm came as a result of participatory efforts. Having endured an extreme change over time in perceived relevance and importance amongst practitioners of the discipline, research as an effective tool of public relations is now considered tantamount to the discipline’s success; with ethical practice in laying the foundations of a positive and agreeable reputation of  an organisation in the eyes of its target audience.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Atieno, O 2009, ‘An Analysis Of The Strengths And Limitation Of Qualitative And Quantitative Research Paradigms,’ Problems Of Education In The 21St Century, 13, pp. 13-18, Education Research Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 16 August 2012

Babbie, ER. (1998). The practice of social research (8th ed.). Boston: Wadsworth

Publishing Company.

Babbie, ER, 2011, ‘The ethics and politics of social research,’ The basics of social research, (5th ed.) Wadsworth Cengage Learning Australia, pp64-91

Newsome, Doug & Haynes, Jim., 2011, Public Relations Writing: Form & Style. (9th ed.) Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, pp60-79.

Pompper, D 2007, ’30 Years of Public Relations Scholarship: A Census of Our Research Methods’, Conference Papers — International Communication Association, p. 1, Communication & Mass Media Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 16 August 2012.

Stacks, Don W. 2011, Primer of Public Relations Research,(2nd ed). New York: The Guilford Press

Smith, Ronald D., 2009, Strategic Planning for Public Relations (3rd ed), New York: Routledge

The University of Technology Sydney, 2012, ‘The Golden Target Awards,’http://www.lib.uts.edu.au/gta/13882/selling-sizzle-not-sausage, accessed 15thAugust 2012.

The University of Technology Sydney, 2012, ‘The Golden Target Awards,’ http://www.lib.uts.edu.au/gta/14295/cleaner-and-greener-campaign, aaccessed 15thAugust 2012.

Tusinski, K 2004, ‘Vernacular Ethics: Revitalizing the Discussion of Public Relations Ethics’, Conference Papers — International Communication Association, p. 1, Communication & Mass Media Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 16 August 2012.

Wehmeier, S 2009, ‘Out of the Fog and into the Future: Directions of Public Relations, Theory Building, Research, and Practice’, Canadian Journal Of Communication, 34, 2, pp. 265-282, Communication & Mass Media Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 16 August 2012.

Wilcox, DL & Cameron, GT, 2012, ‘Research’, Public relations: strategies and tactics, (10th ed.), Boston: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon, pp. 119-43.


[1] Pompper, D 2007, ’30 Years of Public Relations Scholarship: A Census of Our Research Methods’, Conference Papers — International Communication Association, p. 1, Communication & Mass Media Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 16 August 2012. pg3

[2] Wehmeier, S 2009, ‘Out of the Fog and into the Future: Directions of Public Relations, Theory Building, Research, and Practice’, Canadian Journal Of Communication, 34, 2, pp. 265-282, Communication & Mass Media Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 16 August 2012. pg270

[3] The practitioners of which, he viewed as being “applied social and behavioral scientists.” PR ppractitioners as “applied social and behavioral scientists” was the notion upon which Robinson developed his investigative continuum, which ranged from intuition to scientific research methods and applications.Ibid.

[4] Stacks, Don W. 2011, Primer of Public Relations Research,(2nd ed). New York: The Guilford Press, pg5

[5] Pompper, D 2007, ’30 Years of Public Relations Scholarship: A Census of Our Research Methods’, Conference Papers — International Communication Association, pg6

[6] Babbie, ER. (1998). The practice of social research (8th ed.). Boston: Wadsworth Publishing Company. pg230

[7] Newsome, Doug & Haynes, Jim., 2011, Public Relations Writing: Form & Style. (9th ed.) Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, pp60-79. pg62

[8] Smith, Ronald D., 2009, Strategic Planning for Public Relations (3rd ed), New York: Routledge, pg17

[9] Pompper, D 2007, ’30 Years of Public Relations Scholarship: A Census of Our Research Methods’, Conference Papers — International Communication Association, pg5

[10] Wilcox, DL & Cameron, GT, 2012, ‘Research’, Public relations: strategies and tactics, (10th ed.), Boston: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon, pp. 119-43. pg120

[11] Stacks, Don W. 2011, Primer of Public Relations Research pg7

[12] Professor Emeritus at the University of Maryland. Newsome, Doug & Haynes, Jim., 2011, Public Relations Writing: Form & Style. pg60

[13] Ibid.

[14] Pompper, D 2007, ’30 Years of Public Relations Scholarship: A Census of Our Research Methods’, Conference Papers — International Communication Association, pg5

[15] Stacks, Don W. 2011, Primer of Public Relations Research pg5

[16] Ibid.

[17] Smith, Ronald D., 2009, Strategic Planning for Public Relations, pg17

[18] Ibid.

[19] Stacks, Don W. 2011, Primer of Public Relations Research  pg27

[20] Ibid, pg 9

[21] Wilcox, DL & Cameron, GT, 2012, ‘Research’, Public relations: strategies and tactics  pg124

[22] Stacks, Don W. 2011, Primer of Public Relations Research pg 8

[23] Wilcox, DL & Cameron, GT, 2012, ‘Research’, Public relations: strategies and tactics  pg123

[24] Atieno, O 2009, ‘An Analysis Of The Strengths And Limitation Of Qualitative And Quantitative Research Paradigms,’ Problems Of Education In The 21St Century, 13, pp. 13-18, Education Research Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 16 August 2012, pg13

[25] Stacks, Don W. 2011, Primer of Public Relations Research  pg196

[26] Ibid.

[27] Wilcox, DL & Cameron, GT, 2012, ‘Research’, Public relations: strategies and tactics  pg133

[28] Atieno, O 2009, ‘An Analysis Of The Strengths And Limitation Of Qualitative And Quantitative Research Paradigms,’ Problems Of Education In The 21St Century, pg18

[29] Wilcox, DL & Cameron, GT, 2012, ‘Research’, Public relations: strategies and tactics  pg124

[30] Stacks, Don W. 2011, Primer of Public Relations Research  pg9

[31] Atieno, O 2009, ‘An Analysis Of The Strengths And Limitation Of Qualitative And Quantitative Research Paradigms,’ Problems Of Education In The 21St Century, pg15

[32] Stacks, Don W. 2011, Primer of Public Relations Research  pg9

[33] Atieno, O 2009, ‘An Analysis Of The Strengths And Limitation Of Qualitative And Quantitative Research Paradigms,’ Problems Of Education In The 21St Century, pg14

[34] Wilcox, DL & Cameron, GT, 2012, ‘Research’, Public relations: strategies and tactics  pg128-132

[35] Wilcox, DL & Cameron, GT, 2012, ‘Research’, Public relations: strategies and tactics  pg128

[36] Tusinski, K 2004, ‘Vernacular Ethics: Revitalizing the Discussion of Public Relations Ethics’, Conference Papers — International Communication Association, p. 1, Communication & Mass Media Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 16 August 2012. pg3

[37] Ibid, pg

[38] Stacks, Don W. 2011, Primer of Public Relations Research pg 103

[39] Babbie, ER, 2011, ‘The ethics and politics of social research,’ The basics of social research, (5th ed.) Wadsworth Cengage Learning Australia, pp64-91

[40] Stacks, Don W. 2011, Primer of Public Relations Research  pg105-106

[41] All information pertaining to this case study has been taken from The University of Technology Sydney, 2012, ‘The Golden Target Awards,’ http://www.lib.uts.edu.au/gta/14295/cleaner-and-greener-campaign, aaccessed 15thAugust 2012.

[43] All information pertaining to this case study has been taken from The University of Technology Sydney, 2012, ‘The Golden Target Awards,’http://www.lib.uts.edu.au/gta/13882/selling-sizzle-not-sausage, accessed 15thAugust 2012.

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