Political pollsters can't just supply numbers to be of value to PR pros. Douglas Quenqua finds the best ones help design strategy, refine messages, and locate mediums.
Polling is a vital element of any public campaign. After all, you can't change the way people think without first knowing what they're thinking.
There are, however, right ways and wrong ways to use a pollster.
Too often PR pros use poll results as a simple yardstick when they should be using them as a divining rod. It's good to know what people think about an issue you're preparing to tackle, but if all you do with that knowledge is gauge the challenge you're facing - or worse, use it to generate some one-time news coverage - you're using a very sophisticated weapon to achieve some very simple goals.
Pollsters should be an integral part of your strategic planning process.
Allowed to do their work properly, they can tell you much more than what people are thinking. They can tell you why people feel the way they do, how they developed those positions, how firmly rooted those feelings are, and, most importantly, what your best pathway is to changing those feelings.
"A lot of times a client comes to you basically saying, 'We want to do a poll,' and oftentimes they're not quite sure why their doing it except that someone told them they have to, says Bannon Communications president Brad Bannon. "They check that off on their to-do list and go on to the next project."
That, pollsters agree, is exactly the wrong way to do it. "The success or failure of everything you do is a function of the roads you choose," says Chris Wilson, president of Wilson Research Strategies, "and that's what we do. We help (clients) choose the roads to communicate to whatever their audience is. We literally remove the uncertainty."
The first thing you must do is choose what kind of pollster you need.
Some firms are strictly Democratic; some Republican; some avoid partisanship altogether. The campaign itself should make your decision obvious.
What might not seem immediately obvious, however, is precisely why someone would need a pollster with a partisan bent. After all, if a poll is supposed to give an honest reading of public opinion, what difference does the party loyalty of the person asking the questions make? But that question is again based on a limited understanding of what pollsters actually do.
"I have a much better idea than my Republican counterpart would of how to take that data and tell my client how to phrase Democratic arguments in a way that's going to resonate and bring people over to the Democratic side, says Bannon, whose firm specializes in labor and other Democratic issues. "I have a sense of the kind of arguments that are available to Democratic candidates and testing those arguments to see which ones will work better than others."
One should also be aware of a firm's methods when making a choice. "Methods are evolving constantly, says Wilson, who claims that too many polls are still "the equivalent of putting leeches on a patient's body."
There are too many different ways of conducting a poll to list them all, but a good rule of thumb is to find a firm whose methods are likely to yield the most detailed data. For example, a poll that asks respondents to simply give yes or no answers will yield simplistic results, but rarely is public opinion simple.
A poll that asks respondents to grade a statement either "not at all likely, somewhat likely, likely, not very likely, or unlikely will return much more detailed answers. Results from a poll asking for a grade from 1-10 will be even more subtle, and so on.
Beyond that basic rule, there are always new advances in methodology, often very complex ones, involving mathematical footwork too fancy for common understanding. Which means that, like everything else, it's sometimes best to simply ask someone who's worked with pollsters before.
"You need to talk to people who've used pollsters and find out what kind of experiences they've had with the ones they have used, suggests Bannon.
"It's like any other business. There are some folks who really know what they're doing and some who are clueless."
Ultimately, the most telling difference between the two is the same difference between those who know how to properly use a pollster and those who don't.
"I would ask the pollster how he sees his role in the project, says Bannon.
"Some pollsters believe very strongly that their job is to provide clients a set of numbers and get out of the way. My philosophy is that you do provide the client an accurate set of numbers, but then you work closely with the client to design a strategy based on them. Some pollsters honestly don't believe that's their role."
A good pollster can help you refine your message from inception to execution.
He can poll which messages are more likely to resonate, where public opinion is sturdy and where it's vulnerable, who's more likely to respond to what message, and what media will be most effective for your campaign. A good pollster can guide you down the right path, eliminate uncertainty, and save you time and money.
But bear in mind, while pollsters can help you figure out the best way to get your message across, you should never allow them to tell you what your opinion or purpose should be, whether you're a politician, environmental advocate, or widget manufacturer. "(Data) can tell you how to talk about where you stand on an issue, but it should never tell you where to stand, warns Wilson, "It should not change the fundamental core values of a corporation and how they are, but it can tell you how to define them to the audience."
1 Do choose a pollster who matches the political leaning of your cause or client
2 Do include your pollster when mapping strategy and messages
3 Do find a pollster who uses current methodologies that account for subtleties in public opinion 1 Don't use a pollster simply to generate one-time news coverage
2 Don't choose a pollster who has no interest in helping you map your strategy
3 Don't allow polls to determine where you stand on an issue.