An equivocating Canadian politician, Prime Minister William Lyon MacKenzie King, was asked about the divisive issue of conscription. French and English Canadians didn’t see eye to eye on the issue, leading up to World War II.
Kind famously said “Conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription” or words to that effect to reassure French Canadians that even a “Yes” vote in a plebiscite during the war might not necessarily mean actual conscription.
This is how I feel about the activities of communications departments—communication if necessary, but not necessarily communication. But I mean something much more specific than Prime Minister King did.
What are the goals of the communications department? Surely we are trying to sell goods and services? We might also want to enhance reputation or engage in a great corporate social responsibility campaign. But everything is secondary to the health of the enterprise.
With that, here are some principles:
- Do we really need original research? Are there no peer-reviewed journal articles on the topic we seek to understand? Has no one else faced our market challenges before? If so, let’s conduct research, but let’s also be sure we are building on the thousands of journal articles that already exist.
- Focus groups are unscientific gab-festivals and a good way to have a snack behind a two-way mirror. They can be a good way to have a deep and long conversation, but this might be with people who are telling you what you want to hear.
- Polling is really expensive – tens of thousands of dollars for reliable, national polls. It’s even a thousand dollars or so to put your question on research company’s regular poll.
So what do we do? I would be in a preposterous position if I were arguing against research. I’m not. I’m just arguing for a certain type, at the right time.
The first thing I want to do is deconstruct the buying decision. Why do people buy? When do they buy? Is that a different time than when they order or decide to buy? Are other people involved in the decision? Here’s what may be the case with a winter vacation in Florida. The item goes on the credit card in November for a December trip. This might spark advertising in October. The advertising might be to credit card holders. But it just might be the teenagers in the family who caused the decision to be made, and they may have been agitating in September when they went back to school. Or they may have been bored during summer holidays in July and started thinking about going to Florida. Or it may have been a family decision the previous cold February when everyone decided they were sick of winters.
Who decides, and helps decide what and when is key.
It’s only after I really understood my customers’ and clients’ decision making process that I’d think about further research on my reputation. Even then, I’d want to know if there’s already a strong impression about my sector of the economy. If everybody hates a certain sector, it’s going to be hard for me to buck strong impressions. So, back to first principles—sell the goods and services.