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Research is the systematic collection, and interpretation of information to increase understanding.
The first step in public relations process is research. It is a fact-finding exercise that enables a practitioner to assess public perceptions of an organisation. Research provides us the tools to solve problems. It eliminates guess work trial and error and use of intuition in dealing with an organisation and its publics. Research is very essential at the various stages of a public relations programme.


At the end of this unit, you should be able to:

  1. Explain the procedure for carrying out public relations research. 
  2. Conduct a public relations research on any area of your choice. 


3.1 Public Relations Research principles

What is Research? We have earlier defined Public Relations as “the art and social science of analysing trends, predicting their consequences… which will serve the public interest. Public relations deals with human begins. Human beings and the society in which they live are changing and dynamic. The public relations practitioner must find ways to update his knowledge of man and his society. Research is the systematic collection and interpretation of information to increase understanding. It is therefore important to state that the first stage in the public relations process is research. For example, a company must acquire enough accurate relevant data about its products, publics to plan how to communicate effectively with all its constituent publics.

In spite of its importance, many publics relations practitioners tend to down play its significance and insist on intuition and guesswork, believing that they are dealing with intangibles which are not easily measurable. They think they already know as much as necessary on the issues and problems at hand, and should not bother themselves further. Do you see how misplaced that view can be in this scientific age? May be many people avoid research because they do not know what use research could be.
At every step of the public relations process, research is required to formulate strategy, to test messages, to influence opinion, get publicity and evaluate success or otherwise of our efforts.

Research can be done to preempt a problem or prevent crisis from developing. We need research to track issues before they develop into a full blown problem. Public relations research is conducted to do three basic things.

  1. Describe a situation, process or phenomenon 
  2. Explain why something is happening, what are its causes and what effect it  will have. 
  3. Predict what will probably happen if we do or do not take action. 

It is clear that the price of not doing research is enormous. Precious resources and finance is expended without clear cut idea of the outcomes or expected results from the endeavour. Research is the very essence of successful PR activity.

Research has a vital role to play in each stage of the public relations process.

At the planning stage, it is used to identify the problem, refine the problem, and identify the relevant publics as well as the prevailing perceptions of the organisation. Research should provide answers to such questions as: what exactly is the problem and its source? When did the problem start, who is affected or involved by the problem and how are they affected. Before the implementation of the recommended action; research is used to identify the audience trusted media channels that can be used to get them. The message must be pre-tested to determine if they will be understood by the target public. At the implementation stage research is sued to measure message distribution message exposure as well as audience acceptance. At the evaluation stage research is used to measure audience awareness, attitude and behaviour change, infact the impact the campaign has made on the target publics.

3.1.2 Public Relations Research Principles

Certain principles guide public relations research endeavours. The Institute of Public Relations Research (1997) has provided us with some principle for measuring public relations research effectiveness. They include:
Clear programme objectives and desired outcomes tied directly to business goals should be established.  Measuring of PR ‘outputs’ which are short term such as amount of press coverage received or expressive of a particular message should be differentiated from measuring ‘out comes’ such as changing awareness, attitudes and even behaviour which are long term and have far reaching impact.
Measuring media contact should be a first step in the PR evaluation process. This is because media content measures are limited as it cannot establish clearly whether a target audience actually saw a message or responded to it.

No single technique we can evaluate PR effectiveness. Evaluation requires a combination of techniques from media analysis, focus groups to poll surveys’.
Public relations effectiveness should not be compared with advertising effectiveness. This is because while advertising placement and messages can be controlled, public relations cannot.

The organisation should precisely identify its key messages, targets and desired communication channels. This is because unless an organizations is clear about its targets, its public relations measurements will not be reliable.

Self-Assessment Exercise

  1. Why it is necessary to undertake research in public relations? 

3.2 Types of Public Relations Research

Most public relations research can be classified under two broad types:
Applied research and theoretical research. Applied research is strategic or evaluative and is used to solve practical problems. On the other hand, theoretical research generates studies that aids understanding of the public relations process. 

Let us examine the two types of research further to give you deeper understanding of how the two interrelate.
Applied research in public relations as stated earlier, can be either strategic or evaluative. They are designed to provide answers to specific practical problems.

Strategic research is used in developing PR programme objectives, such as what we intent to achieve, what we need to achieve it and how we can achieve it. It can be used to develop message strategies which addresses the question of what is to be said, how it is to be said, the emphasis to be adopted and how and when to reach the audience with the message strategic research is also used to establish programme benchmarks on what can be achieved by the programme that is measurable, the goals of the programme. On the other hand, evaluative research is conducted primarily to determine whether a public relations programme has achieved its goals and objectives.

On the other hand, theoretical research is used to develop a body of knowledge which helps the work of the public relations practitioners. It helps build theories in such areas as why people communicate, formation of public opinion and how a public is created. Knowledge of theoretical research is also important as it provides a framework for persuasion and understanding why people do what they do. It can also enable practitioners understand the persuasive limits of communication.
Generally, knowledge of theoretical research can help PR practitioners to understand the basis of applied research findings as well as moderate the expectations of management on the results of public relations programmer.

3.3 Methods of Data Collection

After the public relations problems that requires attention has been identified and the specific target public clearly determined, the next important step is to select the method of data collection. Two basic methods are used: informal and formal methods.

3.3.1 Informal Methods

This is also referred to as exploratory method. This method is useful to detect and explore problem, situations, pretest research and programme strategies, etc. Some of the informal methods identified by Cutlip, Centre and Broom (1994) include:

Personal Contacts 

It is a very reliable method of reaching sources of information and the respondents is more likely to provide a candid opinion of a situation. The practitioner has the opportunity of a one-to-one situation discover people’s disposition towards an issue or policy of an organisation.

Key Informants

Knowledgeable opinion leaders influential and experts can be consulted. Such influential could include authors, editors, reporters, ministers or commissioners,  labour leaders professors, civic leaders, bakers, taxi drivers. They can be selected based on their perceived knowledge of an issue and their ability to represent others. 

Focus Groups and Community Forums

Focus groups and community forums are used to explore how people will react to proposals and to gather information useful for developing questionnaires to be used informal research methods. The use of focus groups and community forum can be seen as an extension of the personal contact method. A typical example of community forums is the town meeting. In the relaxed atmosphere of a focus group, people are often more willing to express their feelings and discuss ideas. A focus group can cost of about six to 12 carefully selected representatives from a target public.

Advisory Committees and Boards

A standing committee or panel can help win understanding. Advisory committees and boards provide information and guidance. They are useful particularly, for long-running programmes and issues. if their advice is honestly considered, they provide effective forums for increasing interaction, participation and in-depth probing of issues.


The ombudsman collects complaints and provide feedback mechanisms. The existence of an ombudsman serves to reduce tensions that could otherwise result in crisis and litigations if there were not handled, in many non-government organizations the ombudsman has proved useful in providing feedback and ideas for solving problems while they are still manageable.

Call-in-Telephone Lines

They are used by radio and television stations, during programmes to enable callers who hold strong views or are affected by the problem being discussed. A practitioner working for a specific organisation can use it to gather useful information. Toll-free lines installed by organisations for use by customers are a good examples

Mail Analysis

Letters serve as early warnings. They can serve as good information sources and is another economical way of colleting information is periodic analysis of incoming mails they reveal areas of criticisms or ill-will or problem relationships. They could point to a clear direction in their disposition towards an organisation or client.

Field Reports

Many organizations have district agents, sales representatives who live in and travel the territories they cover. If these agents are trained to listen and observe and given regular means of reporting their observations, they can serve as the “eyes and ears” of an organizations. Their “intelligence” reports, so to say can be a useful source of information to a public relations practitioner.

3.3.2 Formal Research Methods

Formal methods are designed to gather data from scientifically representative samples. Formal methods help provide answer to questions about situations that cannot simply be adequately answered using informal approaches. For formal methods to yield useful results, the research questions and objectives should be clearly determined before the research design is selected.

Formal research methods are used when objective, systematic and scientific data gathering devices are crucial for decision making. They are preferred even though they cost a lot of money and time. Formal research methods commonly used in public relations include:
Surveys – Survey research is one of the most commonly used research methods in public relations. This is because surveys gives first-hand information and it is relatively inexpensive. Surveys are very useful method of generating information on the opinions and attitudes of people and patterns of past behaviour. Surveys use two major approaches questionnaires and in-person interview. Questionnaire can be mailed or self-administered. Respondents are requested to fill in the responses. Questionnaires may be structured (closed ended) or unstructured, (open-ended) to allow the respondents offer more explanations on their views.  Interviews can be person-to-person or via telephone.

Communication audits

Communication audits are used to analyse the standing of a company with its target publics like employees on community neighbours’ and to re-examine an organisations performance as a corporate citizen it is also used to assess the reading and understanding of an organisation’s communication vehicles such as news releases, annual reports, etc. The findings of a communication audit is used provide benchmarks against which future communication programmes can be applied and measured. It is useful in telling the organisation where they sand in the perception of its relevant publics, and whether its communication activities has fulfilled the organisation goals.

Content Analysis

Content, analysis is another method used to make an objective examination of what is reported in the media. These contents include editorials, letters to the editor and the issues the press are harping on. Press clippings and monitor reports are used as the basis for content analysis. One drawback of content analysis however, is that it only indicates what has been printed or broadcast; it does not give indication as to what is read or heard, nor does it measure whether or not the audiences learned or believed the message content.

Secondary (Library) Research

Secondary research uses materials generated by others. These include library references and sources, newspapers and magazine articles, internet data, public records by government agencies like the Bureau of Statistics, the Census Office. In the electronic age, some of these information can be sourced on the web. Universities also maintain survey research centers which provide published materials at a very minimum change and this is available to public relations practitioners for research purposes.

PR Research

Writing in “International Public Relations Review”. James Anderson notes that ‘PR can no longer rely on more instinct, intuition and learning through failure… A more scientific approach is essential to gain top management trust and commitment. Cited by Larry Agoseh – Public Relations Digest Vol 5.

Wilcox, Ault and Agee have listed six reasons why research will be necessary in tomorrow’s complex world.

  1. The increasing fragmentation of audiences into groups that have specific interests and concerns. 
  2.  Increasing isolation of top management from personal contact with the public. 
  3.  Research will prevent organizations from wasting time, effort and money in attacking perceived image problems that are not readily solved by extensive public relations programmes. 
  4. Research will provide the fact on which a PR programme is based. 
  5.  Surveys can generate publicity through the dissemination of the research results 
  6. Research can establish a base line for determining the success of a programme. 


Research for public relations ensures that there is a good basis for professional jobs in public relations, instead of relying solely on guesswork and hunches. Any effort and money expended on research is a worthwhile one as it provides the basis for sound public relation decisions.


In this unit, we have examined the need for research in public relations. We saw the role of research in all the aspects of the public relations process. We also noted that the various methods of conducting research which consist of formal and informal approaches and the type chosen for a study is dependent on the specific situation on hand.


List and discuss the informal methods of data collection used in public relations research.


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