No Time to Take a Poll? Here’s the Next Best Thing.

There’s no doubt that when you’re about to launch an initiative to influence public opinion, the ideal is to have statistically valid polling results in hand at the outset. Being guided by accurate quantitative research is inarguably the most effective way to devise a winning strategy.

But sometimes, a time-compressed situation like a public affairs battle, consumer controversy or crisis event develops so rapidly there’s simply no time to design and conduct a full-blown poll or survey.

So how can you determine public opinion or perceptions when there’s no time — or no budget — for comprehensive formal research?

A communications audit could very well be the answer.

A communications audit (comm audit in PR shorthand) is an opinion sampling method that borrows some techniques from investigative news reporters. Public relations pros design a question set capable of getting right to the heart of a specific topic, situation or issue. Using it, they interview a selected set of allies and opponents, friends and enemies, supporters and detractors, or just “pros” and “cons,” typically via telephone.

This can be done in a matter of days, not weeks or months, which explains why a comm audit is often the only realistic option in a crisis or other rapidly developing situation.

The other half of the formula for a successful comm audit is the call list. Just as reporters manage their sources, PR pros query the right number and mix of insiders, outsiders, opinion leaders, bystanders and other interested parties who are close to the issue being investigated.

Devising an effective audit interview is an art form, not a scientific discipline. And make no mistake: the results of a comm audit are neither quantifiable nor statistically sound. But they have an uncanny ability to uncover and reveal the true drivers of public opinion related to the issue being investigated.

When would you use a comm audit? They saved the day for us in these actual situations, when:

  • A major institution planned to shutter one of its components.
  • A professional services firm realized its clients were awarding a distressing amount of work to its competitors.
  • A not-for-profit organization was unable to arrest or reverse a long, slow decline in participation and support.
  • A new CEO arrived at a major medical center to find internal malaise, its marketing and fundraising operations ineffective in spite of a bloated budget.
  • A company contemplated a large potentially controversial development project in a small community.

Other institutions have used communications audits simply to find out where they stood with selected groups important to them. Audits can help any organization know if they are doing the right things and communicating to the right people — and change course when it’s called for.

In addition to suggesting ways to resolve problems or shortcomings, audits frequently identify unexpected opportunities, and capitalizing on them can deliver a welcome bonus.