OPINION22 December 2009

MR and PR – a marriage made in heaven?

Opinium’s Mark Hodson contends that the use of market research in PR is a very good thing – even if it isn’t always as rigorous as we might hope.

I was prompted to write this after reading Tim Phillips’ article on communicating statistics in the December issue of Research and Robert Bain’s blog post about a PR survey which concluded that “school children believe” Hitler was the German football coach (apparently 6.88% of children chose this answer in a multiple choice questionnaire).

I should admit a personal bias here: some of my best clients work in public relations and when I was setting up Opinium it was 25% funded by a leading PR agency. So I am a market research professional with a very warm feeling towards PR. This may make me rare, but I rather hope not, because I believe PR’s use of MR is a Very Good Thing for our industry.

Phillips’ article mentions “the 25,000 news stories that quoted surveys in the UK in the last 12 months”. I lack the breakdown, but I would bet that the vast majority of those surveys were specifically conducted for PR purposes.

“Because most MR is born to languish unseen, public understanding of how it is done and what it can achieve is low and, if anything, dwindling”

Most market research confers on the client a competitive advantage. It is valuable proprietary data and, once it has been presented, the results are doomed to lie untouched in a locked filing cupboard, in an unlit room with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the leopard’. Few clients publish their market research, because they’d be giving away their advantages.

Because most MR is born to languish unseen, public understanding of how it is done and what it can achieve is low and, if anything, dwindling. The image of the nice middle-class lady with the clipboard still appears to dominate many people’s image of market research.

In that word ‘public’ I would include many potential MR clients. The days of structured management training appear to have passed away unnoticed. All too often I meet managers, potential buyers of research, with decent budgets, who have never been taught about its use or value.

I contend that the public image of research is very important for our market. What the public thinks of MR, so will many of our potential clients.

MR in the public eye

Offhand, I can think of four types of MR which are in the public eye.

1. Voting intent
Research on voting intent is typically published and seen as worthy. Sadly, it can also be seen as boring (especially any time more than six months away from an election) and it is true to say that, parliamentary scandals aside, it rarely has a radical tale to tell.

2. Customer satisfaction with customer-led industries
CSI research is often published. Here too, there are issues: it is rarely exciting (you pretty much never jump from ‘poor’ to ‘good’ without cheating somehow), and it is of low personal relevance. If your tube train was cancelled, you don’t care that 92% of customers on that line were satisfied in the last month.

3. Public ‘votes’
“Calls will cost 25p on a BT landline. Calls on mobiles and other lines may cost considerably more. Please ask the bill payer’s permission before calling. Simon Cowell’s preferred artist will win, no matter how you vote.”

OK, I’m joking, but this is a form of MR – very well publicised, but probably not a good thing for the industry.

4. Research for PR and the media
When media firms run market research, whether to establish their audience size or to create a story; that research will make it into the public’s consciousness. When a PR firm or client runs MR, they hope and pray that the resultant story will be of sufficient interest that the media will pick it up and run with it – which is what happened to the Erskine story on Hitler the football coach.

A good thing

Despite the slightly incredible lead headline, I would contend that the Hitler research was, overall, a good thing for MR. The publication of that story made people exposed to it more receptive to and perceptive of MR results and among those people were some who may one day purchase MR.

I would suggest that the Hitler story did more good for MR, as an industry, than any number of (excellent) NPD reports locked in a cupboard somewhere. Simply because it was published. It made people think about ‘the state of the mass mind’. Whether they agreed or disagreed, they thought about how the answer had been achieved, which is good for us in MR.

Tim Phillips’ article mentions the “often-repeated insult” that people use statistics like a drunk uses a lamppost, “more for support than illumination”. If I may counter with another aphorism: never attribute to malice that which is more easily explained by ignorance.

When I started out in research some 30 years ago, it was pretty much a conspiracy of the empowered. It was bought by trained marketers or clientside researchers and carried out by execs in large firms with a large support team. MR was ‘done right’ and understood by all who had an involvement in the process.

“A lot of MR is consumed by or delivered to managers and decision makers who do not specialise in the interpretation of MR findings”

Nowadays, let me suggest, a large proportion of MR is bought by someone whose training is neither in marketing nor research. Certainly, a lot of MR is consumed by or delivered to managers and decision makers who do not specialise in the interpretation of MR findings. The problems which come from a sometimes less than expert client base are exacerbated by the twin scourges of all modern business: insufficient budget and never enough time.

Getting ourselves noticed

These problems are especially obvious (though maybe no more common than elsewhere) in PR research. The media like ‘fresh’ results, so PR research is often timed to run immediately prior the planned release date. Budgets are tight, so a pre-coded question is preferred to the costs (and time penalties) of post-coding an open-ended question.

And, to be candid, there’s also the respondent posturing effect to consider. If you put a ‘wacky’ response in a multiple choice list (e.g. Katie Price in a list of most feared Halloween monsters), you will achieve a level of endorsement for that response (usually something around 5% to 10%). Which just shows that respondents can be every bit as zany as researchers or PR clients.

To an extent, the fact that PR research is often imperfect is a side issue. It keeps MR in the public gaze; it engages the public with the concepts of market research and opinion polling whether it is right or wrong. It reminds the public that we market researchers still exist.

However, I do think it is possible for market research carried out for media or PR purposes to aim for the highest standards, without costing more or adding too much to the timescale. As long as there is a media hunger for new research results, PR agencies and practitioners will continue to use MR as one of their campaign tools. This is good for the MR industry; even for those among us who have no direct PR clients, because it keeps MR in the public’s mind. For those of us fortunate enough to be involved with media and PR research, we need to keep pushing to keep the standards as high as we can, for these published surveys inform the public’s and clients’ views of market research in general.

Using MR for PR – some hints and tips

Why use market research findings in a press release or media story?

  • To associate the client with a topic or area of expertise, particularly when a client has limited track record in that field.
  • To prove a contentious point. (How many people oppose the war in Afghanistan?)
  • To draw in the reader. Whether they agree or disagree, it’s interesting.
  • To add weight or ‘currency’ to the press release.
  • To make the media more likely to run that press release.
  • To reveal new or interesting facts about the way people think and act.
  • To allow a client to comment on a topic without commenting (“The public says that the Government should not regulate…”).

How should you not use market research?

  • To try to support an assertion which is not the case.
  • In a way that misrepresents the statistics.
  • When Mandy Rice-Davies applies. The Mandy Rice-Davies rule is named after her comment during the Profumo affair – “Well he would say that, wouldn’t he?” – and applies to any self-serving statement, e.g. “Sugar is good for children” in a sugar industry release.

How should you design research for PR?

  • Don’t try to second-guess the public – the results may not be what you hoped for.
  • Always try to plan ahead – the views of the ‘mass mind’ are fairly stable, so get research results a week or two before the PR is due out (not just a day or two), giving you time to interpret them and do something about it if they fail to support your proposed story.
  • Don’t confuse the output with the tools. If you want to publish a “Top ten items of party wear” list, you do not ask each respondent “What are your top ten items of party wear?”
  • Spot the important findings – the statistics or facts that are not only correct but that do not cause people to ask, “So what?”


15 years ago

This is an excellent article and should be required reading for anyone in MR who has responsibility for PR. I would just add one point to the hints and tips section. PR can do more than "associate the client with a topic or area of expertise". Done well, MR-inspired PR can help elevate a client to the status of "expert". To the press/media these people are worth their weight in gold. MR facts and an "expert" profile is a powerful combination.

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15 years ago

Hi Mark, sorry for not replying earlier. I completely agree with most of what you say, especially the idea that the Hitler research did more for MR than any number of reports locked in a cupboard. BUT, as any working journalist will tell you, the tidal wave of horrible, badly-done, self-serving PR research is depressing. The problem is that the public will come to perceive all research as cynical and fixed. Rather like (he says defensively) they might assume that all journalists exist to twist facts and make your life a misery, when only 60 per cent of us are like that. My fear is that the cheap tools for DIY research will create a "race to the bottom" for amateurish researchers who know just enough to fix the numbers for maximum exposure. At that point serious, comparatively expensive and more nuanced research will rarely get a look-in. I too like (most) PR companies. I couldn't do my job without them. But I am surprised that the MR industry is not more robust in criticising cynical interlopers, and in making journalists and the public aware of when the figures have been manipulated for the sake of publicity.

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