OPINION21 January 2010

MR must educate the media in the use of research


Liz Nelson, executive chairman of Fly Research, believes research agencies should take more responsibility for making sure that research findings are properly reported in the media.

Just as Mark Hodson was prompted to write about the happy marriage of MR and PR after reading Tim Phillips’ December article on communicating statistics, I am prompted to write this after reading Mark’s response.

I found Tim’s description of David Spiegelhalter’s work spellbinding. I get just as furious as he does about the misunderstanding and the (I think sometimes) deliberate misuse of statistics.

My current favourite example of this can be found in a magazine sponsored by drug companies and complementary medicines found in NHS surgery and hospital waiting rooms. An entire issue of this publication is devoted to ‘Avoiding Breast Cancer’ and a whole paragraph is dedicated to comparing the risks of the contraceptive pill and HRT. It states: “But the real terror is HRT which doubles the risk of breast cancer.”

The statistic revealed is that taking HRT doubles the risks from 1% to 2%. I nearly threw the magazine into the middle of the room. Goodness knows what damage has been done by this miscommunication of statistics.

I am certain that readers have similar stories, but what are we as an industry doing about it? Like Mark and countless other companies, Fly Research has many PR agencies as clients. We take our responsibility as market researchers seriously. All our PR clients run their draft press releases past us so we are sure the story matches the statistics. We also run free training days for PR clients. At one of these, after the initial session from Fly’s CEO, the first question from the PR audience was: “What’s a percentage?”

There was a time when journalists were invited to receive training in presenting market research findings. In my experience, journalists do not deliberately misrepresent research – many of them go to great lengths to check their sources, but if they are going to PR agencies rather than to the MR agencies that ran the research, are they getting the right answers? Surely the industry should be offering training to media and PR agencies alike.

None of this is to say that a marriage of MR and PR is a one made in heaven. But I would argue that the market research industry should become the client. We can’t leave it to the MRS alone – industry players should work together to engender a greater understanding of what is good quality MR and what is not.

The Code of Conduct of the MRS demands that researchers concern themselves with the reputation of the industry. If research is increasingly being confused with other marketing activities, now is the time that we as an industry fulfil our obligation to educate the media, PR agencies and the public in using and understanding market research.



14 years ago

As the person in charge of PR for my company in South Africa, I most heartily endorse everything that Liz Nelson says. We have indeed offered such training - but getting journalists, in particular, to attend is a mission. For many media today, it seems that the quick soundbite and a quick cut and paste from a press release suffice. Of course, there are the better journalists and talk-show hosts and we make an active effort to develop relationships with those to maximise our impact.

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13 years ago

After reading this I'm twice as likely to read anything else Liz cares to write.

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