PR is in urgent need of a strong, independent research sector

The relationship between PR and research has always been controversial.

The research sector is engaged in a race to the bottom, warns Mark Lowe
The research sector is engaged in a race to the bottom, warns Mark Lowe

From the much vilified 'PR survey' to shady think-tank payments and spurious claims written on the side of buses, it's generally assumed that PRs will make it their business to rig research findings in their clients' favour, particularly when it comes to the use of quantitative research (aka polling).

The truth is more complicated. Good market researchers adhere to standards laid out by the Market Research Society (MRS) which means they push against classic rigging tactics like posing 'leading' questions or using samples that aren’t statistically representative.

The leading public-opinion pollsters also abide by transparency rules set by the British Polling Council (BPC); if there is any dispute about the findings of a poll, detractors have all the tools they need to prove it.

The most effective research, then, is the product of a relationship between PRO and researcher that is friendly but adversarial.

Sadly, this relationship is under threat.

The research sector is engaged in a race-to-the-bottom as the internet makes access to larger panels of consumers easier but working out who the respondents are, or whether they are even human, a lot harder.

We are also seeing the emergence of cut-price polling companies that do not adhere to MRS, BPC or any other standards.

PR agencies are getting in on the act; many now have stakes in market research or polling firms and some even offer clients polling 'in-house', which is an invitation to say 'whatever you like' about a product, service or trend and have it rubber-stamped for release to the media.

On the surface cheaper, less-transparent research makes life easier for PR agencies, but in the long term it will damage trust because people really won't be able to believe what we tell them.

A PR agency that offers in-house polling is a bit like a management consultancy offering audit or accountancy services: today's conflicts of interest will become tomorrow's scandals.

That's why, for its own sake, the PR industry needs to back strong, independent standards in market research and agencies need to be honest with clients: proper research (done by someone else) is worth doing and worth paying a bit more for.

Mark Lowe is the founding partner of Third City

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