Once the public relations landscape is understood and your communications objectives are specified, the strategy development process begins. Of fundamental importance, stakeholder segmentation and media prioritization set the stage for strategy development (for both internal and external audiences). Once one understands the audience and the media to which they read, watch, and listen, the next step is to determine the messages to deliver.
Message engineering research helps pinpoint which messages perform best in terms of being compelling to the audience and credible coming from your organization. The result is stakeholder-centric communication that lays the groundwork for purposeful strategy and the tactics that bring the strategy to life. Unlike tactics, strategies remain in place over time and must support a variety of tactical bursts of activity to drive results. As such, research helps to inform the messaging and targeting approaches that are most likely to survive short-term market shifts to deliver positive and sustainable results.
Prioritizing Stakeholders and Targeting Media
Assumptions, intuition, and experience are not enough to make strategic decisions. Research, analysis, and evaluation must be conducted about stakeholders, including the media, to truly understand who they are and what messages will resonate.
It is vital to place significant focus on foundational research to discover which media perform best in terms of target stakeholder reach and penetration. To clarify, “reach” equals “circulation and audience.” “Penetration” means the “percentage of target stakeholders reached through an individual media outlet.” The media targeting process should involve some form of foundational research, which may include the following:
- Demographic/firmographic data available directly through attribution technology or indirectly through third-party data providers of media demographics.
- A survey to uncover the stakeholder’s awareness, attitudes, and behavior toward an individual medium as well as their media consumption preferences. These stakeholder attributes are further validated through a content analysis of news and social media.
- Social media analysis to profile stakeholders by their comments, how they self-identify, and the content they hyperlink through social sharing.
In addition to identifying the media with the highest potential, strategy research also reveals the relative authority and receptivity of journalists and influencers whose content appears in the media (traditional and social).
Using Media Analysis to Inform Your Communications Strategy
Professional communicators must find a balance among the media to identify just those which are:
- Important and engaging to the target stakeholder
- Most likely to cover news about your organization
- Least likely to cover competitors’ news
While an analysis of demographics and firmographics will tell which sources deliver the highest penetration among actual and potential customers, it will not indicate which media are more likely or less likely to cover a particular theme. However, a media analysis will tell which media are more receptive to the themes that matter most to you and your stakeholders. With this, content analysts can quantify the presence of intended and unintended messages, capture any reporting tendencies, and reveal a roadmap toward better results. This combination (the demographic audit and the media analysis) will reveal which media are considered the most credible, which match the often-subtle interests of the stakeholder, and which compel the highest levels of engagement among the targeted stakeholders. Combining media demographics and surveys with media analysis creates a basis for action and a foundation for success.
Positioning or messaging is not a purely creative endeavor; research-based “message engineering” is an example of how science and creativity come together to result in more effective public relations. The science behind public relations enhances the creative process and helps illuminate the most compelling and credible messages. Message engineering is a data-informed stakeholder-driven process of developing a brand, an issue, or corporate positioning. When developing an optimal messaging strategy, research helps the communicator to:
- Understand what motivates the target to act
- Determine the degree to which the proposition can be made credibly by the organization and match the target stakeholder’s priorities and reality
- Evaluate how the competition or opposition performs against the same criteria
- Consider aspects of the messaging that hold the potential to be misinterpreted, hijacked, or somehow otherwise detrimental from certain perspectives
When one combines message engineering with media optimization, one reaches the intended audience in the best possible way.
Why Develop a Data-Driven Communications Strategy?
There are six reasons for establishing data-driven strategies:
- The data-based strategy development process enables more efficient tactical planning and execution.
- By putting stakeholders first, the strategy focuses resources on the objective rather than conventional wisdom, pure creativity, or vanity.
- It mitigates risk by pre-testing strategy before execution.
- It allows for a sustainable strategy.
- It provides a common language to gain alignment in advance among executives who sponsor or evaluate corporate communications performance.
- It creates alignment with peers across the enterprise and within the function, enabling the communications department to prosper.
Communications Strategy Development Methods
Methods of developing data-driven communications strategies include:
- Quantitative research (surveys) and qualitative research (focus groups) to uncover insights about the media consumption preferences of stakeholders and the messages most likely to resonate.
- Analysis of news outlets’ published articles and social media channels to determine what topics they cover and how they cover them.
- Media demographic audit to determine which media deliver the highest penetration among actual and potential customers, employees, and other targets.
- Social listening – in the form of a digital focus group or media analysis — to uncover insight into stakeholder interests, preferences, and behavior.
- Analysis of journalists and influencers to identify target intermediaries to deliver key messages to key audiences.
- Competitor analysis to gauge which strategies appear to be most effective among shared stakeholders.
- PR attribution analysis to identify which digital media and messages are most likely to drive click-through to the website and to track how people engage with the site (e.g., the pages they visit and the information they download).
Example: How a Data-Driven Communications Strategy Leads to the Right Messaging
A company is set to launch a new product to drive revenue for the company’s second-half financials. Thanks to the communications team’s social listening tools and traditional media analysis, the team can see security concerns are being raised around topics related to their new product. These insights are considered and alter how the product is communicated before launch, and a security focus is dialed up as part of the product benefits. Ahead-of-launch messaging is updated, and product benefits are re-ranked to highlight security. The communications team can report its role as part of the business outcome through predictive listening.
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Mark Weiner is the Chief Insights Officer for PublicRelay and the author of “PR Technology, Data and Insights: Igniting a Positive Return on Your Communications Investment.”
Excerpt from “The Communicator’s Guide to Research, Analysis, and Evaluation,” originally published by the Institute for Public Relations in March 2021.
Editor’s Note: Interested in learning how you can demonstrate the value of your work? Read our guide to PR attribution!