Arun Sudhaman 07 Sep 2012 // 4:21PM GMT
Edelman’s ability to make a high-profile hire has rarely been in question, but its goal of turning research into an $80m business (in line with its digital income) appears far more difficult to predict. The arrival of Michael Berland will undoubtedly help - not least because PSB, the firm he helped build, is widely considered the largest communications research business, with incomes pegged at approximately $70m. Berland’s profile and pedigree cannot hurt, but neither should it be forgotten that much of PSB’s revenue still comes from political polling (UPDATE: A PSB spokesperson informs me that "95%" of the firm's income is from corporates). The challenge, as ever, is for PR firms to convince corporate clients to fund their research efforts, whether pre-campaign planning, post-campaign evaluation, or realtime optimisation. It is a conundrum that many have been trying to crack for several years now, in tandem with their efforts to build planning and insight practices that are similarly funded by clients. Budget is undoubtedly a key factor. If a client is spending $1m on its public relations programme, persuading it to part with a further $200k to pay for research is a difficult sell. Instead, suggests Richard Edelman, the PR industry must make the case that its research efforts should be measured against the entirety of a client’s marketing and communications budget, including its much bigger advertising spend. Approaching a different set of clients, however, whether that is the marketing or market research department, is not necessarily a simple solution. Nine times out of ten, companies have approved vendor lists in place, and the research arms of PR firms rarely make the cut. These factors have contributed to a situation where research, in the PR industry, is often viewed as a tactic that can be used to “hang” a story on, an approach that devalues the importance of genuine insight and planning in the communications process. Yet there is a clear opportunity. Companies, more than ever, want to know how they are perceived, how well they are trusted, and which issues they need to be managing. In the social media era, these requirements are magnified and accelerated. Apco Insight is one example of this trend. The firm has invested considerable resources behind its research capability and now handles global reputation tracking for some key clients including, it is thought, Rio Tinto and HP. Advances in technology also suggest that research need not account for as much of the communications budget as it once did. David Rockland, who runs Ketchum Research, one of the largest PR firm research units, believes that most studies can be funded at around three to seven percent of PR budget. The rise of digital analytics, furthermore, means that communications research has become a much more intrinsic part of the campaign planning process, in a world where data has become a core currency. There are some potential pitfalls, particularly when you consider the spurious social media metrics that, increasingly, can be used to “prove” just about anything. "By and large," one global PR agency head tells me, "professionals in the PR business don’t know how to use research." A senior comms client, meanwhile, notes that "most comms people don't understand how to use research strategically." Therein lies the quandary. The PR industry must demonstrate that it can deploy sophisticated insights on a large-scale, strategic, basis, to a client base that appreciates, even demands, such valuable information. Only then can research become the robust business area that Edelman, and many others, are aiming for.