Statistics are worthless if the research behind them is poor quality says ICM Research director James Turner

A glance through any news medium proves that, for the PR business, research findings often provide the hook on which to push a good message and hang a good story. Indeed, many of the most memorable PR campaigns have been based on such statistics. We’re all familiar with this sort of news story ... eight out of ten prefer this, 80 per cent of businesses trust that ... it’s highly compelling stuff. The trouble is, we are now so used to seeing these amazing statistics, it’s easy to see how PR outfits are tempted to push out ever more outrageous ‘research’.

The statistics behind the headlines were once owned by the market research industry. Its long-established principles ensured that clients got accurate and meaningful data on which to base their messages. Until the 1990s, the only way to get these PR nuggets was through a research company. Using their pool of interviewers, either on the phone or on the street, they would construct a questionnaire and choose how to survey the respondents. The industry’s principles were established to ensure an accurate, unbiased representation of consumer views.

Wind forward a few years and it’s a different world. Online panels and self-serve survey software have helped clients and PR firms go direct and ask questions any way they like and “for a fraction of the price”. And the result? Well you don’t need to be a statistician to work out that although the research industry still delivers high-quality research, the all-too-available self-serve technology has created the infamous quick-and-dirty offering that so frequently graces the nation’s front pages.

In ever more transparent times, we need enhanced accuracy in all that a message conveys. Yet it seems we are all too often getting the opposite. The resulting criticism of statistics used in the media is reputation damaging and time consuming. And a quick search of the Advertising Standards Authority website shows that complaints against research-based messages are being upheld.

I can see why PR companies are tempted by these quick and cheap ways to get something that looks like ‘proper’ research. But I can’t see why they don’t realise the risk they bring to clients by not understanding the importance of the right research supplier, the right respondents – and, crucially, the right wording of questions.

Of course, research companies like ours understand these issues acutely. Our businesses, and our reputations, are built on that understanding. We know that it is essential that research-based PR is based on an appropriate methodology which doesn’t distort results, and on questions that don’t ‘lead’ the responses. The selection of respondents can greatly impact the results – as can considering the correct question scales, as well as the sampling and weighting.

The major research companies work with PR firms every day that value the integrity and accuracy of research. They work with their clients from the initial brief to ensure they know what the research will be used for. They know they can trust the result and reduce the risk of criticism.

But I’m beginning to see clients who are more concerned about cost than the integrity of the data. Has the PR industry evolved a quick-and-dirty offering too?


When can we be creatively brave again?