Voluntary Sector: 'Opinion former' polls lack rigour

Every spring, along with the daffodils, come the calls from polling agencies employed by companies to sound out 'opinion formers'.

The format is almost always the same. The person being interviewed is asked on a scale of one to five whether they have a favourable or unfavourable view of a range of sectors. Then the process is repeated for a range of companies within the sectors, and finally questions in detail are asked about three or four specific businesses.

The whole process, if done properly, takes well over an hour. The point presumably is for companies to see whether they score better or worse than their sector and, by looking at the data over several years, whether the trend is improving or worsening.

That possibly has a value. But the detailed analysis of a few specific companies does not help them much at all.

Because the questionnaires are designed by people who have no idea how journalists work, they ask questions which only an industry expert could understand - for example about the challenges a company faces and whether it will meet them, about the split between its regulated and non-regulated businesses, whether its strategy will work, and whether it will be able to maintain its dividend for the next five years.

Most day-to-day reporting of companies is done by journalists who try to build up a bit of knowledge about the sector. But senior commentators and City editors cast their net far more widely and only address corporate issues after mugging up in the file before writing. A column with two or three items in it appearing 242 days a year can only be done on the basis of cramming for exams - total immersion followed by brief understanding, then instant forgetfulness. Asking detailed questions when we are in forgetfulness mode is a waste of time and money.

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