Wiki defines opposition research as follows:
The term used to classify and describe efforts of supporters or paid consultants of a political candidate to legally investigate the biographical, legal or criminal, medical, educational, financial, public and private administrative and or voting records of the opposing candidate, as well as prior media coverage. The research is usually conducted in the time period between announcement of intent to run and the actual election.... (Stephanie Mencimer, "Dirty Politics," Center for Public Integrity, May 30, 2008.) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opposition_research#cite_note-0)
Opposition Research and Competitive Research
When I was at Applied Communications, one of my colleagues, who had been in political opposition research, applied this approach to work for Applied's high-tech business-to-business clients. Each client would select some number of competitors whose activities they wanted monitored. Using the Internet almost exclusively, my colleague would review news and analyst reports pertaining to the competitors the client wanted to monitor. Then he would make judgments regarding what activity he believed the competitors were pursuing and when they were likely to make some kind of competitive move based on that action. He would assign "certainty" ratings based on how good the information was: if he heard about something for the first time, it might receive a "1" (hearsay) rating. If a competitor had finally scheduled a press conference to announce a product my colleague had been monitoring for some time, he might give it a "9" or "10" for near certainty.
To give you an example, let's say our client W wanted my colleague to monitor and report on X, Y and Z's activities. Every day, he would review internet news, company websites, analyst reports, and other public and subscription sources for bits of information pertaining to X, Y and Z. If the information suggested strategic or communications initiatives in the long- or short-term, he’d list these in his weekly report as potentially being on the horizon. Then, if he saw another reference to an event or activity mentioned in an executive speech, he’d note that as well and increase the "certainty" rating of this coming to pass. Then he might see a scheduled product announcement from the division that would be responsible for such an initiative. Putting two and two together he’d then note that the product announcement probably would have to do with this initiative. W, if it had its own communications functioning correctly, could get this information to its product people at the first announcement and keep it coming so the product folks could either start their own initiative or tweak something they were working on. Then W might have something to announce at the same time and be able to ride X, Y or Z’s coat-tails. If the product folks didn’t do anything, W could at least develop messaging and have a spokesperson ready to comment on X, Y or Z’s announcement, etc.
Is It Illegal?
Opposition research has a reputation for being something akin to illegal industrial espionage. However, my colleague collected his information almost exclusively from the Internet. He was able to find plenty of material without resorting to anything illegal.
What's Important About All This
My colleague did do one thing that set his work apart from that of most competitive researchers. He took the all-important plunge from information to insight. Instead of simply reporting what he saw in the news and analyst reports, he stopped to think about and integrate the information. He kept himself informed about the business goals and objectives of his clients and their competitors. So, when he saw information pointing toward some action that was consistent with a competitor's goals, he was able to project with extraordinary accuracy what that competitor was actually planning to do and when the competitor would announce it. Assuming the client was nimble enough to act on this information, it was extraordinarily valuable for both product strategy and communications strategy.
More on Opposition Research
I've been gathering more information about opposition research from some of my Linked-In and other acquainances, and I will write more about it in the future.
New Blog/e-Zine Plans
As many of you know, I write a blog and an e-Zine. They are one and the same. I created the blog so you, my friends and colleagues who read the e-Zine, could make comments and discuss the ideas and issues I raise in the e-Zine. I'm going to try a different approach for a while. I will still send the e-Zine out about once a month, but I will start publishing blog entries more often. The e-Zine probably will summarize some of the blog material, but not all.
Thanks very much for reading. If you have questions you'd like me to address, or other topics you'd like me to write about, please let me know. And if you know anyone who might be interested, please pass this e-Letter along.
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If you would like to make any comments regarding this e-Letter, please visit my blog at http://forrestwanderson.blogspot.com/ and comment there. I'd love to hear from you.
I work with organizations going through a change in strategic direction (merger, acquisition, building program, new product launch, change program, etc.) and that are concerned about what will happen with their relationships with key stakeholders (customers, employees, investors) if they send out the wrong, or confusing, messages. After working with me, my clients have a clear understanding of what their messages should be. I also provide them recommendations on other actions they can take to enhance their relationships with stakeholders.
The Institute for Public Relations, (IPR) is dedicated to the "science beneath the art" of PR. It focuses on PR research and education. If you are interested in the topics I write about, you will almost certainly be interested in IPR. You can find it at http://www.instituteforpr.org/. While you're there, check out the Essential Knowledge Project at http://www.instituteforpr.org/essential_knowledge/.
Forrest W. Anderson
Institute for Public Relations
Commission on PR Measurement and Evaluation