Advancing communications measurement and evaluation

Do I Need to Use Primary Research in my PR Campaign?

For certain types of PR and marketing campaigns, conducting primary research is standard. For decades, communicators and marketers have used focus groups to uncover information from target audiences that are either unrealized or difficult to surface through quantitative data alone. Public affairs PR programs, for example, have used focus groups to narrow in on effective messaging for programs that seek to change constituencies’ positions on issues, and they further rely on survey data to track changes in opinions.

As the measurement of public relations work is becoming more widespread, communicators from a wide range of PR practices are starting to see the value in primary research programs. They are discovering that qualitative data can provide additional context to the quantitative data gathered, which helps to answer the “why” questions that can sometimes be difficult to pin down.

The use of in-depth interviews (IDIs) can help a wide range of programs by gathering feedback from opinion leaders, influencers, and other high-profile individuals who are typically on the inside of an organization or field and yet carry significant influence with target audiences.

Gathering data through surveys is another way to collect primary research information, particularly surveys with the opportunity to provide qualitative responses from survey participants.

When is primary research necessary?

The point of using things like focus groups and IDIs—or any type of primary research—in a PR or communications campaign is to add a layer of insight.

This is important for a variety of reasons and can be relevant to some programs more than others. For example:

  • In cases where earned media coverage doesn’t mention or lead to a specific type of action, post-campaign primary research can determine what impact the program had on the target audience.
  • In programs where the goal is a change in opinion of the target audience, whether that means a change in how the public views reputation or how a specific audience views a policy position, primary research conducted before and after a campaign can show how opinion has shifted.
  • For programs that are gathering audience opinion information prior to a campaign that for certain reasons cannot solely depend on survey results, primary research can provide solid insight into what messaging might be most effective. Instances where this might be applicable include very small audiences (which would present accuracy problems in survey data), or audiences that are very hard to reach using standard survey mechanisms.
  • In campaigns where there will be emphasis placed on the opinions of thought leaders, it is very important to conduct IDIs before a program is launched. Discovering midway through that an incorrect assumption was made about how a key stakeholder group views an issue could undermine the entire effort.
  • After a major company or organizational crisis, primary research can provide a useful baseline to determine how badly a reputation has been damaged, and what steps are necessary to begin rebuilding trust among the public, opinion leaders, and other key stakeholders.


How do you determine if a primary research program is necessary and worth the additional expense? There are some guidelines that can help.

  • Does your campaign or program have goals that are difficult to track? Changes in attitudes and opinions fall into this category, particularly if there are no tangible metrics such as sales figures to monitor. A lot of public affairs programs fall into this category, which is one reason why surveys, focus groups, and polling play such an outsized role in PA programs. This would also be applicable post-crisis for any organization.
  • Are there conflicting opinions on what goals and program objectives should be? Internal and external communications programs rely on buy-in at all levels to be truly successful. If an organization’s leadership seem to have different or conflicting opinions as to what the program goals are, IDIs can help. Conducting candid, one-on-one interviews with guided but open-ended questions with individuals from all levels of an organization can uncover missing pieces of the puzzle.
  • Does the messaging of the campaign place an emphasis on the opinions of stakeholders to validate claims? If so, it is important to conduct primary research before launching. As anyone who has ever heard the phrase “four out of five doctors approve of [product]” know, opinions among professionals can vary—sometimes dramatically. This is particularly true for programs that are using research findings to bolster messaging. You want to know ahead of time if key voices in the field find fault with the research. Knowing what the objections are ahead of launch can help to shape messaging that can address these concerns—without undermining your program.

Incorporating primary research into planning

Once you’ve determined that a primary research component is necessary for a successful communications program, you need to decide where in the program it would make the most sense. For some programs, that might mean using primary research in more than one stage in the campaign.

Taking a close look at the goals you’ve established for the communications program will provide the best direction on selecting the right type of primary research tactic to use, and when to use it.

Because of the level of insight and context primary research provides, deploying it in the research and information collection phase is common. In some cases, it may even precede strategic plan development, because information gleaned from surveys and interviews might be best used to guide overall strategy.

However, depending on the program, it can also make sense to conduct focus groups, surveys, and IDIs mid-campaign, either as a gauge of message effectiveness or for course correction. Post-campaign primary research can prove that goals were achieved—or provide context as to why they were not.

Communications efforts are as highly individualized as a company’s or organization’s goals. When, where, and how to use primary research will be too, so careful planning is important.

Jennifer Zingsheim Phillips

Jennifer Zingsheim Phillips

Jennifer Zingsheim Phillips is the Director of Marketing Communications for CARMA. She is also the founder of 4L Strategies, and has worked in communications and public affairs for more than 20 years. Her background includes work in politics, government, lobbying, public affairs PR, content creation, digital and social communications, and media analysis.
Jennifer Zingsheim Phillips
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