Focus on the Focus Group as a PR Tool

| Written by: Lauren Antista

For the May Membership Luncheon FPRA members were fortunate to hear longtime FPRA member and Florida State University Associate Professor, Dr. Jay D. Rayburn, discuss the usage of focus groups as a public relations tool.  Dr. Rayburn stressed that to use focus groups effectively meant reading on them extensively, taking seminars and watching experienced professionals carry out focus groups.

Simply defined, focus groups are small groups of people discussing issues.  Dr. Rayburn indicated that people within focus groups tend to have certain defining characteristics.  For example, people in focus groups tend to be homogeneous, alike in some way, although they are usually unknown to one another.  He noted that focus groups are good for assessing the range of depth and of feelings and emotions people have on respective issues. But, he also warned FPRA members against mistakenly attributing statistical generalizations to a small population, like a focus group.

“They won’t prove what will work, but they tell us what won’t work,” he said.

Several ways focus groups can be useful include:
– Gathering information for a formal survey;
– Testing new ideas and programs;
– Identifying needs;
– Identifying decision making processes;
– Testing messages and channels; and,
– Following-up on surveys.

In particular, Dr. Rayburn pointed out that the strength of focus groups lie in that they are socially-oriented, allow probing, have high face validity, are relatively cheap and provide speedy results.  However, he pointed out that focus groups also have weaknesses.  Focus group weaknesses include: limited generalizability, sensitivity to only certain types of information, have the possibility for high emotions or conflict (and if they are intense, you may not get much) and that they cannot account for changes in the environment across time.

“Focus groups are a great methodology,” Dr. Rayburn said, “if you ask the right questions.”