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Research important in small-to-medium Public Relations Firms

Conducting research on a day-to-day basis is a new trend underway at small-to-medium public relations agencies, according to a survey conducted by a New Mexico State University journalism professor.

J. Sean McCleneghan, a 20-year New Mexico State faculty member in journalism and mass communications, says research is important to small-to-medium public relations firms in western states. (New Mexico State courtesy photo.)

In a recent Public Relations Quarterly article J. Sean McCleneghan, a journalism professor at New Mexico State, suggests that despite staff size more research is taking place in smaller agencies.

"Undergraduates think only the large PR firms do any research. The importance of research is absolutely critical to keeping and securing new client business," McCleneghan said.

In an effort to motivate his students, McCleneghan queried 121 executives at small-to-medium public relations firms in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and Utah to describe how much they use research. He selected those states because his students most often seek employment in Phoenix, Denver, Albuquerque, Dallas, Houston and Salt Lake City.

Sixty-two executives replied to his survey and ranked the five research techniques they use most in assisting their clients -- publicity tracking, literature review searches, secondary analysis studies, focus groups and consumer inquiry analysis.

He said his results are proof enough that research techniques should be a part of everyday public relations undergraduate education.

Joanne Ralston, president of Ralston Showalter and Assoc. of Scottsdale, Ariz., said that public relations managers, practitioners, educators and undergraduates "can't ever underestimate the value of research even in the writing of a feature story."

"Students should be able to write a three-page corporate executive summary in solving a case-study problem based on literature review research within a 24-hour classroom deadline," McCleneghan said. "The more versatile our PR undergraduates are in their writing and research skills, the better chance they will have at finding employment with smaller firms."

He said that certain research techniques have only become more accessible and abundant at small PR agencies because of new computer software and the Internet.

"It's changing the public relations research landscape at small agencies," he said.

Lee Hirst, a PR counselor and founder of the Hirst Co. in Albuquerque, said, "If a public relations firm does not take time to research everything from target audiences to the correct spellings of editors' names, starting a campaign can essentially be a waste of time."

McCleneghan said that PR practitioners who have done good research could rely less on newspaper space and television time, and instead place their clients' stories with other "strategic publics."

McCleneghan has been a professor with New Mexico State's journalism and mass communications program for 20 years, and from 1982 to 1994 he served as department head. He is author of more than 80 scholarly publications in media studies.