Three guiding principles for coveted communication research

About the author

Ann is a co-founder of PR Academy. Her special areas of interest are internal communication, change management and project communication. MSc, Dip CAM, MCIPR

Communications research companies are being asked more and more to prove their value to clients. Alex Gyde  argues this question shouldn’t come as a surprise, and that to turn this into a positive discussion analysts and consultants need to focus on helping organisations tell good stories better, from within:

Over the past few years, the number of times I’ve heard clients and colleagues mention the word “value” has increased exponentially, to the point where I think it’s official: we have a new contender for buzzword of 2016. While that’s thankfully meant some shudder-inducing phrases like “moving forward” and “corporate synergy” have shuffled into (semi-) retirement, everyone is now in a race to prove their individual or combined work output is worth “x”, and that the business wouldn’t survive without them.

The communications research and analysis sector has definitely not been immune to this. Budgets are under pressure, and as businesses strive to be lean and efficient we’re now constantly asked by our clients to safeguard their investment in research by proving it’s critical to their success. All too often, it’s a question that can be taken too personally; especially by analysts or consultants. We stake our reputation on understanding what is happening better than anyone else – having someone query whether this is truly useful can be a deeply uncomfortable experience.

However, I’ve come to believe that there are three key things that need to be addressed in order to turn these types of questions into a great discussion. Also, if these points are made the priority and are used to frame how we position ourselves, clients won’t just see analysis as something they should be doing, it will be something they really want.

We are embedded independents

The first point is to shift our thinking away from the idea of analysis as a product or report and towards something much more representative of the people behind it. The work we actually produce and send to our clients now is just one function of a relationship that is built around us embedding in their organisations. We understand their operations back-to-front, and while we are firmly independent, we also want to see them achieve their goals and outcomes. By helping clients to demonstrate the effectiveness of their engagement and equipping them with a nuanced understanding of the media landscape, we can be their trusted advisors and valued members of their team.

We celebrate our clients’ success

Terms such as “measurement” and “evaluation” often imply we’re searching for weakness or failure of some kind, and to be fair in our office we often find ourselves discussing the latest communications crisis, and how the organisation in question should know or could do a lot better. However, if we’re only viewed purely as an insurance policy, the extent of the value of our research may never be realised. Furthermore, the potential of how we can help clients demonstrate their success is never seen, and the potential benefits of telling that story to a client’s organisation is lost. While we will never shy away from telling difficult truths, it’s all about doing so with context, and balancing this with insight into what is working well.

We tell compelling stories

Finally, as the barriers between paid, earned and owned media increasingly blur, communications research is being put directly alongside other work with a reputation for good looks and flashy content. To keep our seat at the table, we need to lift our game in terms of how we present and communicate our findings. I believe our work should always tell a compelling story, one that helps our stakeholders build trust and dialogue internally. We need to push for access to and ownership of additional datasets that might further enrich our analysis, and position ourselves as the go-to experts at presenting complex data back to the business. Meeting this challenge will require an understanding of what good information-led design looks like, and recognition that as communicators we should be doing more to hold our audience’s attention.

By allowing these principals to guide our approach, communications researchers have a much better chance at building deep and enduring relationships with clients – relationships that are about much more than a dollar figure or ROI, and which will outlast more than a few years’ worth of buzzwords.

Alex was Student of the Year on the International Certificate in Measurement and Evaluation run by PR Academy on behalf of AMEC – the International Association of Measurement and Evaluation of Communication.