This post is part of Investigating Companies: A Do-It-Yourself Handbook. Read, download or purchase the whole book here.
There’s no single, ‘right’ way to investigate a company, so don’t feel like you have to be an expert to do it well. In general, the more you persist and persevere, the more you’ll find. Below are some basic pointers to help you get started.
KNOW WHAT YOU WANT
There’s a huge amount of information that you could find out about a company but not all of it will be useful. Chances are you’ll only have a limited amount of time, so make sure you’re sticking to the stuff you need by targeting your research as much as possible.
Are you interested in a company’s operations or history? Its finances? What it’s doing in other parts of the world? Who owns it? What its legal responsibilities are? Who else is having problems with it? How it justifies its operations? Or something else?
And what are you planning to do with the information you find? Do you need to find information to support claims or demands you are making, or to negotiate with one of the company’s representatives? Are you looking to make a short leaflet to hand round your local area, a more comprehensive report on the company, or are you trying to put together a legal case against it? What you are looking for will determine who you speak to, and which part of the company and which sources you look at.
Keep in mind your end goal and make sure you’re looking for something because it’s what you need, not just because it’s interesting. Don’t waste time digging up facts that you know you’re not going to use.
Use the quick links page at the front of the handbook to help you find what you need.
STRUCTURE YOUR RESEARCH
It’s impossible to perfectly plan everything in advance, but making a plan and structuring your research at the beginning will save you time in the long run, even if it is a bit boring to do first up.
After you’ve worked out what you want to know, make a list of all the possible sources you could go to. Prioritise those you think are most likely to lead to the most useful information and try to plan how long you’re going to spend on each of them.
As a general rule of thumb, for example, it’ll probably make sense to get as far as you can with your research before letting the company know that you’re looking into it. That way, you’ll be well-prepared for its spin and you can choose the most effective questions to get the most revealing answers.
FIND OUT WHAT ELSE HAS BEEN DONE
Especially if you’re looking at a big company, the information you’re looking for may have been found already. Put aside some time at the beginning of your investigation to find out what has already been done. You may save yourself a lot of time.
RECORD YOUR REFERENCES
This is another boring one but it’s important. If you log things like names, phone numbers, details of where and when you found a piece of information and when you accessed a website, you can save yourself time in the long run. If later in your investigations you come to doubt some of your information, you can easily go back and check your sources if you have a clear record. And being able to go back to them may give you new leads.
Photograph or video evidence where necessary and keep photocopies of all useful paper sources. Take printouts of web pages, or save them onto your hard drive.
FOLLOW SOURCES AND LEADS
Always keep an eye out for potential sources of information. Ask anyone you talk to if they know anyone else you should try.
Where possible, look at the sources used in an article or report yourself and see if they contain any extra information. If it’s not clear, call up whoever wrote the article or did the research and ask them where they got their information from.
Follow the links from useful websites and always look through bibliographies and reference lists in publications.
Don’t get side-tracked, but stay on the lookout for – and be keen to investigate – possible new sources of information.
BE AWARE OF THE BIASES AND LIMITATIONS OF SOURCES
Can you trust your source? Be sceptical. Be alert to the bias of the article, website or person giving you information.
A company and its senior staff are bound to stress the positive.
Media, business information sources, trade unions, people affected by the company, campaigns and ‘official’ government sources may all have their biases too.
Always cross-check information: even the most decent and honourable people can get their facts wrong.