“Dark arts.” “Peddling.” “Salacious.” These are just a handful of terms the media has used to describe campaign and corporate research. Even the lighter description “opposition” doesn’t capture what firms like Definers Public Affairs do.
These terms aren’t applied to any other type of information-gathering, and the charged reputation they’ve created has kept too many businesses—and candidates for public office—from embracing this important tool.
The novelist Zora Neale Hurston said research is “poking and prying with a purpose.”
Research is foundational. It’s obviously necessary to define an opponent (if there is one), but it’s also essential for positive advocacy campaigns, marketing rebrands, and product launches. Think of it this way: no one writes a grad school dissertation—or novel, political strategy, or business plan—without first becoming intimately acquainted with their subject matter. Research is discovering your landscape, and it enables you to write a map.
For a marketing rebrand, research will help a company understand why its image is frayed, fraught, or just isn’t working in the modern marketplace. Public polling is part of this exercise, but so is an historical survey of headlines, social media, business news shows, court records, and even congressional hearings. To redefine your reputation, you first need to fully understand the reasons for your existing one. Comprehensive research also will help define other brands so your company can differentiate itself.
This landscape survey will begin in a war room. As I write that term, it’s clear it needs it’s own rebranding. “Eyes and ears” is more appropriate, and that’s certainly the role our war room operations play as the critical first piece of infrastructure in our clients’ communications systems. Dozens of flickering screens with expert analysts in front of them quickly digesting information, deciding what’s actionable, and pushing it up the ranks for review.
On political campaigns, war room media monitoring analysts are some of the youngest members of the communications staff. Their youth masks their judgment. These individuals are highly trained. Analysts at Definers don’t get training only when they start on the job. They get it throughout the year, and every year they are at Definers. They’re able to recognize how an anecdote might evolve into a story … or a threat.
War rooms are often an organization’s first defense against a crisis. Continuous monitoring enables communicators to address problems as they arise. Hacker got your Twitter feed? Inebriated employee posting on the company’s page instead of their personal one? Disgruntled former employee launching litigation online? Trained analysts will spot these sparks before they become fires, saving your brand millions in damage.
Research prevents crises, and it makes managing one easier. Successful individuals and organizations use historical knowledge to pivot off an attack to display their own strengths. One of the most memorable uses of this tactic came in the 1984 debate between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale. The Reagan campaign understood, based on past media commentary, that the candidate’s age would be a question. So when asked by the moderator about this issue, Reagan was prepared. Quietly he said, “I’m not going to exploit … my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
Preparation, with a touch humor, dismantled a landmine—for that campaign, but for dozens of future ones as well.
For those worried about research’s “salacious” reputation, President Reagan’s line also demonstrates it’s not always necessary—or wise—to respond to an attack with negativity. Individuals who understand their reputation (Reagan: humility, humor, likability) and have it documented can quickly and positively respond when crisis strikes.
Establishing a research foundation requires a monetary investment, of course, but partnering with an organization like Definers can reduce the size of that outlay. Even if you decide not to outsource (another term that needs rebranding) this activity, at the beginning it’s wise to bring on an expert organization that can establish tools and best practices and train war room analysts.
Without research, Zora Neale Hurston never would have gone beyond the title page. Research is an art, but it’s a deliberate, purposeful, and positive one that all organizations need in order to thrive in today’s media-saturated world.