PR research and evaluation should be done by independent agencies

The last few years in India have been very encouraging for the communication research industry. Increasingly, corporate communicators are seeking to incorporate research and measurement to reflect the value of their communication programmes and create informed communication strategies.

Several professionals have often asked of me, what are some golden standards that they must bear in mind when incorporating measurement & research? My strong recommendation is that while a choice of research tools, outputs, outcomes are all secondary, the starting question is who is providing you the research and analysis ?

A lead consideration is the independence of the research. This in turn determines the quality and reliability of the data and findings. The higher the empirical validity of the data, the more it is likely to indicate ‘real’ trends and enable marketing and communication professionals make informed decisions.

Historically, independence of research has been raised across several disciplines including medicine, marketing, business consulting, finance and media. The need to remove conflict of interest has led to wide sweeping changes in regulation. It is now clearly established who can engage in research and the ethics with which research is conducted in each of these disciplines.

Gone are the times when investment banking firms could offer equity research that favoured their clients. Medical research financed by the pharmaceutical industry has to carry stringent disclaimers and disclosures to offset sponsor – induced biases. It is a rare instance when a brand is mapped based on in-house market research or business consulting advisory offered without reference to independent business research. News media outlets are increasingly being required to provide more information to their readers not only about the authors of op-ed articles, but also whether the articles were submitted by a public relations agency or a corporate.

So if the larger wisdom is to create and conduct research without bias, how is the communications, especially the public relations industry, conducting itself?

A trend particularly in India is that most public relations firms have their own approach to measure results. While it is encouraging to note that measurement is a priority, and a large percentage of communication professionals are tracking results, I wonder how many clients and organisations really know how effective their communication programmes are! If agency teams are in control of how results would be measured, it is too easy to cast results in the most favourable light.

Another trend is for media monitoring agencies to seek easy migration to the powerful role of being communication research partners. The mere investment is in basic analytics software on their news monitoring systems rather than evolving research methodologies that are validated by in-depth readership surveys. These solutions can best offer summaries of the media coverage but do not offer deep insights about the key issues reported, the impact of messages communicated and brand values that resonated to determine the favourability of the news reports amongst many other such parameters of analysis.

Several companies have in fact now opted to develop in-house communication research solutions. This is to define the mass of news reports, give focus to their messaging and most importantly get direction about how best to react to emerging issues and crisis. Over a period of time, research gains dimensions to predict audience behaviour and understand reputation risks.

With those as objectives, companies should seek strategic partners who offer research that has actionable intelligence and has been independently conducted. Today, measurement and analysis has become critical to the success of any communication programme and therefore it leaves no room for any error.

What do you say? The comments are yours.

Neelima Khanna is Chief Executive, CARMA International India. Carma India is a member of The Association for the Measurement and Evaluation of Communication AMEC.

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