Use Research to Meet PR Goals and Energize Stakeholders
By David Kassel
To ensure that your public relations messages are new and helpful to the media and your stakeholders, and that they energize your membership and increase financial donations, consider performing research on relevant topics and incorporating it into your messaging.
To undertake research effectively, first consider:
Determining the Information Needed
- What type of information, to be obtained through research, is needed to make your organizations messages informative and complete?
- What are the potential sources of that information?
- How can the information uncovered by research be best incorporated into your messages?
As a communications professional with a nonprofit, you must carefully consider how your messages fit with your organizations mission a process that will affect the choices you make in the research you undertake.
For instance, if your organization provides publicly funded services, and those services are facing budget cuts, you will probably want to research the extent and history of those cuts as thoroughly as possible. This will enhance your credibility as a source of information to the media, your membership, and the public.
Similarly, cuts and other changes to your services would be critical research to include in grant applications for private funders.
Often, an organizations p.r. will focus not just on your organization, but on advocating around a government policy affecting your mission. If you believe that a government agency is considering a policy course that runs contrary to your mission or could adversely affect your stakeholders, you will need to undertake thorough research on the policy course in question.
Potential Sources of Information
- Your members: While the Internet has opened many new sources of information to nonprofits, one of the best sources is decidedly low tech namely, the experience and knowledge of your organizations members and constituents. Many of them will have done research on their own on issues of relevance to your organization and its mission, and most will have relevant knowledge they can share with you. They will only be too glad to provide their input since they are likely to be just as interested as you in promoting your organizations mission.
Not only do most organizations members have rich and varied knowledge and experiences that they can impart, but their personal stories also put a human face on the organizations messages to the media.
- The Internet: The Internet has become an indispensable source of research and information on issues of relevance to nonprofit organizations, but information resulting from the use of search engines such as Google obviously must be carefully screened for veracity. Local library memberships provide free access to online databases such as the Gale Health and Wellness Resource Center and Infotrac, which can allow you to do searches for peer reviewed articles, for instance.
Internet searches can add up financially, too: a growing number of media outlets and most academic journals charge for access to full-length articles. You can order these articles through libraries if you dont want to pay each time.
- Public records requests: Freedom of information or Public Records Law requests are a potentially important and powerful tool for nonprofits looking for information relevant to their missions and messages. Many organizations fail to make use of this vast resource. A simple lettermailed, faxed, or emailed to the public agency possessing the desired recordsis all that is needed.
You may encounter some obstacles and pitfalls when seeking public records through information requests. First, many agencies are reluctant to part with sensitive information, even if they must do so by law, and will often resort to delay tactics or will seek legal loopholes to discourage information requests.
It is also important to remember that public agencies are obligated only to provide documents that they possess at the time of your request. They are generally not obligated to respond to information requests, for instance.
In Massachusetts, the Public Records Law [M.G.L. Chap. 66, Section 10 (b)] states that custodians of public records must comply with public records requests within 10 days. The regulations accompanying the law [950 CMR 32.05(2)] further state that requested public records should be provided without unreasonable delay.
If you believe an agency has violated the Public Records Law or regulations, you can send a letter of appeal to the state Supervisor of Records, who can ultimately refer these matters to the attorney general or a district attorney (although such referrals rarely occur, in our experience).
We have found the Massachusetts Supervisor of Records office to be staffed by helpful people who will attempt to go to bat for you if agencies arent responding to information requests. At the same time, however, the Supervisor of Records office does not appear to have a sufficient number of attorneys available to thoroughly investigate complex appeals.
The research you undertake and your reporting of the results should be thorough and presented with an eye toward its potential emotional impact. At the same time, your language should be measured; avoid hyperbole and personal attacks.
But do put a human face on your message, if at all possible. Personal success stories or stories that point to societal or governmental failures help paint visual pictures, and, as such, can be powerful additions to your message.
Finally, be as professional as you are personal by making sure that your message is written clearly and is free of typos, misspellings, and grammatical errors. Research is incorporated into your message most successfully when it is presented honestly, fairly, and accurately.
David S. Kassel, principal of Accountable Strategies Consulting, LLC, provides research and public relations services to nonprofits. He can be reached 978-456-3230 or at