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Prof. James E. Grunig: Formative Research at the Program Level

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Conceptualizing Quantitative Research in Public Relations. Part 5

In its initial stages, formative research at the program level cannot be separated easily from environmental scanning research at the organizational level. If a public relations department is to be effective, it must engage in continuous scanning of stakeholders and potential stakeholders so that the department builds up a base of knowledge about stakeholders that makes it possible to provide valuable information to strategic decision-makers about the consequences of organizational decisions and the consequences sought by stakeholders. Continuous formative research makes it possible for the public relations department to understand and predict the likely emergence of publics and issues.

Public relations programs should begin when formative research identifies a new or existing strategic public with which the organization needs a relationship. When a strategic public relations manager scans the environment, therefore, his or her first step should be to think broadly in terms of stakeholder categories, such as employees or community residents. Then he or she should use a theory of publics to identify and segment active, passive, and latent publics from the non-publics that might also be present in the stakeholder category. It is important to segment active publics because active publics typically make issues out of the consequences of organizational decisions. This behavior may be individual or it may be collective—when members of publics organize into activist groups. Sometimes publics react negatively to harmful consequences of an organization’s behaviors—such as pollution or discrimination. At other times, they act positively to try to secure a behavior from an organization that has useful consequences for them—such as a community public that wants cleaner air or water. At still other times, publics collaborate with organizations to secure consequences of benefit to both.

After identifying publics, the strategic communicator should do additional formative research to identify problems that publics want solved or that the organization creates for publics, issues that might result from these problems, and strategies that will help to build a successful relationship with these publics. Strategic public relations programs follow these four steps:

  1. Develop short-term objectives specified as communication effects and long- term objectives specified as relationship indicators.
  2. Plan a communication program to accomplish these objectives.
  3. Implement the program.
  4. Evaluate the program by measuring the extent to which the objectives have been accomplished.

In a scientifically managed public relations program, formative research should be an integral part of the first two steps, as well as serving the function of identifying publics, problems, and issues.

In two-way communication programs, many strategies designed to listen to publics or to seek information from publics can be described as informal research. That informal research can be made more scientific by using qualitaive methods to structure these information-seeking activities and by using qualitative methods to analyze and interpret the information. Public relations professionals have used several kinds of formative research for these purposes. Some of these methods are based on qualitative research. The other methods use quantitative research methods.

Observations. Public relations personnel can attend meetings of community groups or other bodies in which publics might be represented to observe what they are saying and doing about the organization or their discussion of problems that might affect the organization even though the members of the groups do not specifically connect these problems to the organization.  

Advisory groups. Many organizations have developed community advisory panels both as a means of seeking information from individual members of publics in the community or the organizations that represent them and for engaging publics in the solving of community problems and issues.  

Interviews. Public relations professionals often interview community leaders, activists, and other key stakeholders formally or interact with them informally. Principles of rigorous qualitative interviewing can be used to plan and analyze these interviews.  

Focus groups. Public relations professionals use focus groups to gain insights from publics and serve as a basis for program planning and policymaking. Focus groups are perhaps the most useful kind of formative research because they help public relations professionals grasp what motivates people and explain what people think and do in their own terms.  

Questionnaires and survey research. Quantitative surveys of a population have been used for many years in public relations to segment publics and for measuring attitudes and opinions. Surveys, however, are expensive and intrusive when administered to a large number of people. Quantitative questionnaires generally are more useful for evaluative research than formative research because they generally ask people to respond to previously identified problems, issues, or programs.  

Content analysis of media. The content of media coverage of an organization can be analyzed systematically to detect themes, problems, issues, and publics. Content analysis can be conducted quantitatively by developing categories and placing stories into those categories. It can also be conducted qualitatively by looking for patterns and impressions within the clippings.  

Cyber analysis. A public relations staff can follow and analyze (qualitatively or quantitatively) the content of chat rooms, discussion groups, blogs, and listservs related to the interests of an organization and problems and issues that might be mentioned on these sites.  

Naturally occurring information. Members of publics often provide information to an organization without any effort by public relations professionals or researchers. They make telephone calls, write letters, send e-mail messages, and talk to employees. A public relations department can develop a system to capture and analyze this information to identify problems, consequences, publics, and issues.

Databases. Databases are tools for analyzing, collecting, and using information gathered through the formal and informal research methods we have described in this section. Information should be classified by problems, publics, and issues, and then used for input into strategic decision processes.

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In the next chapter: Evaluative Research at the Program Level: Developing Objectives and Measuring Them

Read Part I, Part II and Part III, Part IV

Grunig, J. E.: Conceptualizing quantitative research in public relations. In B. Van Ruler, A. Tkalac Verčič, & D. Verčič, (Eds.). Public relations metrics (pp. 88-119). New York and London: Routledge, 2008. Republish with the permission of author.

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