photo of J. Ann Selzer
J. Ann Selzer

Selzer draws from research and polling expertise to teach Drake students

When Drake University’s Associate Professor of Journalism Ronda Menke sought out Des Moines businesswoman J. Ann Selzer to teach at Drake, she knew she was picking a winner.

“I believe it was the Washington Post that referred to her poll as the ‘gold standard’ in research and polling,” Menke said. “She’s had a lot of national media coverage, especially in the past couple of months on ‘Talk of the Nation’ on NPR, CNN, CSPAN, MSNBC and the Washington Post — you name it!”

Selzer’s success is hard to ignore. She directed the Iowa Poll while on staff for The Des Moines Register from 1987-92. As president of the research company Selzer & Co., Selzer has continued to direct the Iowa Poll since the firm won the Register as a client through a competitive bid in 1997.

Her consistent record for accuracy continued with the 2004 Democratic Iowa caucuses and more recently with the 2008 Iowa caucuses. Selzer’s predictions reported Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee winning the 2008 caucuses, although widely criticized by national commentators and pollsters, who chose Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney as leaders in Iowa.

Selzer & Co. followed the success of the 2008 Iowa caucuses with a correct prediction in the Jan. 15 Michigan primary.

“I believe the best news research can deliver the truth,” Selzer said. “So, I think about that in designing a method and in interpreting results. And, I try not to put my fingers on the data too much. I think pollsters who missed Iowa were thinking 2008 would be much like 2006 and they made it come out that way.”

Selzer was ranked in the top poll professionals by Pollster.com in December even before her 2008 Iowa caucus success, with 86 percent of people surveyed who said Selzer’s work on the Iowa caucuses was “‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ reliable.”

This fall, she brought her expertise and success to Drake teaching the Public Relations Research course for undergraduate students. The research serves as the foundation for this spring’s public relations capstone course, which consists of a developing campaign for Merrill, Iowa. The goal of the campaign is to entice people to move to the small town 18 miles northeast of Sioux City.

“Our Public Relations capstone class has worked with other communities such as Beaverdale and Centerville, but this year the community of Merrill wanted a public relations campaign to make the town grow,” Menke added. “Because it’s such an intensely competitive subject and so broadly applicable across the country, I thought the primary research we needed for the client had never been more important.”

Selzer said the biggest challenge was finding research that could help figure out whether their goal was viable and how to go about achieving the goal.

“We made the decision to focus on people who live in Sioux City, in that they could move to Merrill without disrupting their work lives,” Selzer added. “We designed a survey instrument that would help us understand whether people were interested in moving to Merrill and if so how many and more importantly, what would be the main reasons to make such a move.”  

With the results, she said the students now know they can achieve the goal thanks to the research, which proved Merrill’s potential. “Students also have tools for helping their client get the biggest bang for their public relations buck,” Selzer added.

“Working with Merrill has given us real, professional experience in public relations research,” said Charley Magrew, a senior public relations major from St. Louis Park, Minn. “Walking away from the course not only with the ability to read cross tabs of data, but also knowing how to interpret our findings for our client, is incredibly valuable information.”

“The presentations were exceptional,” Selzer said. “I’ve been in the room with any number of professional researchers who do not know how to adapt their findings to their audience. We had three people from Merrill in the room and they were mightily impressed, with good reason.”

Selzer is also teaching a graduate-level course this spring semester for students in the Master in Communication Leadership program. The course focuses on research done by companies and look into how the research is working for those companies, as well as work with research vendors, writing requests for proposals and presenting research findings to top management.