Opinion: A dangerous reliance on flaky surveys

In between the deaths of 150 Iraqi worshippers and the sexual assault allegations against three Premiership footballers last week, a small story about marmalade almost sunk without trace. In fact, the only reason I noticed it was because it obviously irritated the hell out of Times journalist Alan Hamilton.

The story related to research by scientist Dr Simon Chu of the University of Liverpool into the perfect formula for marmalade on toast. After months of work he made the discovery that toast should be served at 85deg C when the marmalade is spread. This type of sponsored survey has become something of a stock in trade for PROs. Occasionally, they grab the imagination of a news editor; more often they are filed in the bin.

The marmalade survey prompted a couple of stories, but on this occasion, rather than simply regurgitating the press release, The Times framed its story as a question about the ethics of this PR practice. Hamilton was highly critical of 'scientists who clearly have little better to do' being lured into an 'apparently pointless piece of research when we should be looking for cures for cancer' by a commission from survey sponsor Robertson's.

In some respects Hamilton hardly seems to have played fair. Let's face it, there have been plenty of equally frivolous surveys that have garnered acres of media coverage. A PRWeek award-winning Cadbury-commissioned survey into the mood-enhancing properties of chocolate undertaken by evolutionary psychologist Dr Dylan Evans was lapped up by journalists. Dr Evans could have been better employed looking at, for example, the effects of the net on paedophiles - but where was the outrage then?

Or who can forget Bristol professor Dr Len Fisher's research into the 'Science of Dunking' on behalf of McVities, which caught the imagination of most news channels. Society has not really benefited from the knowledge that biscuits taste better if you dunk them, but being a slow news week, this didn't seem to matter too much on this occasion.

I have some sympathy with the producers of such surveys, but Hamilton's comments should be read as a shot across the bow. The very best surveys remain genuinely enlightening and often amusing, but there is a real danger in the use of formulaic PR stunts. The world has changed since the triumph of Dunking Day. The news agenda is more fraught, the public can now recognise PR tactics and there is a general fatigue about apparently self-serving statistics among both readers and journalists, whether they are generated by politicians or PROs.

In this context the apparent creative safety net of the PR survey could repeatedly deliver own goals if not managed with considerable sophistication.

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