Public relations class — It’s GOT TO BE the “R”

February 16, 2011

Which step is most important in the public relations process?

Time and time again, I’ve come to believe that good research can almost always carry the day in a difficult campaign.

Nearly 15 years ago, when I was running my own PR agency, I was hired by the beleaguered Ohio E-Check vehicle emissions inspection program.  The program had begun badly in 1995, and was under siege.  When I began helping them in late 1997, there was a lot of talk about scrapping E-Check altogether.

I recommended, and the client and Ohio EPA agreed, to conduct a series of focus group research panels about the program.  We held these over a period of a few days in the Cleveland/Akron, Dayton/Springfield, and other areas.

What we uncovered really opened our eyes to the reality of communication about the second most valuable thing a person owns (his or her car), and how it needed to be handled throughout the emissions inspection process.  It was way too late to change the horrible first impressions about the program, but this qualitative research enabled us to do a much better job of communication about the inspection process.  It took a little time, but complaints declined greatly as a result what we did with the focus group findings.

A year earlier, another client, the Cleveland Teachers Union (CTU) was under attack.  The Cleveland Schools then (as now) were in great debt, and – in 1996 – had been turned over to state management. Mayor Michael White was angling to take control of the Cleveland Schools (which he did a couple of years later).

To balance the budget, the state controllers and the Mayor of Cleveland wanted the teachers of Cleveland to agree to give back 10% of their salary. You can imagine how that went over with my client.

Upon my recommendation, the CTU conducted a public opinion poll.  We targeted the general public and parents of Cleveland Schools students in the sampling process, and then separated out the results for analysis purposes.

What we uncovered was quite revealing.  Both the general public and parents of Cleveland School students had very high opinions of teachers in the district. The general public, however, believed that the City of Cleveland was being terribly mismanaged. The parents of public school children were even more emphatic about the mismanagement, and had great resentment that about a billion dollars was being spent on Gateway and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame while schools were starved for funds.

Collaborating with my friend Meryl Johnson, and working under the energetic leadership of friend (and former teacher) Rich DeColibus, we devised a public relations plan that made maximum usage of that research.  I won’t go into the details here, but eventually the negotiators backed down from a “give back 10%” in talks and the final contract instead called for a first-year wage freeze. The public and some key constituencies (NAACP, Congressman Louis Stokes) were SOLIDLY behind Cleveland’s teachers in the dispute.

These two situations were vastly different. But the commonality that allowed Ohio E-Check and the Cleveland Teachers Union to “make lemonade from lemons” was the research – and the efficacy with which we used the research findings.

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