Corona survey reinforced negative clichés about PR and journalism

A PR firm’s survey with dubious methodology and scaremongering headline findings provided the backdrop for a depressing cautionary tale about how quick clicks and not robust journalism are driving modern media.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

One of the first things I was taught in journalism school is that reporters and editors must rigorously kick the tires of their source material before embarking on a story.

That particularly applies to the many and various surveys and polls that get pitched to news desks on a daily basis, a good percentage of which turn out to be nonsense if you just take a little time to test the integrity of the material.

Like seemingly every other newsroom in the U.S., PRWeek last week received an email from Ronn Torossian at 5WPR claiming 38% of beer-drinking Americans wouldn’t now buy Corona beer due to concerns about the “deadly coronavirus that’s spreading around the world.”

The release went on to claim 4% of people who said they usually drink Corona would stop drinking it and 14% wouldn’t order the Mexican beer in a public venue. It added that 16% of beer-drinking Americans were confused about whether Corona beer is related to the coronavirus.

As was no doubt the intention, it was the 38% number that went viral rather than the more relevant 4% one.

Torossian’s press statement also quoted an SEO firm called SEMrush as having seen an uptick in searches for “corona beer virus” and “beer coronavirus” in recent weeks.

Beyond that, the release was brief and lacking in substantial detail about the survey, which was conducted by 5W over the telephone with 737 people.

The PRWeek news desk reviewed this material, quickly decided it was lacking in credibility, due to the flimsy nature of the release and lack of proper methodology detail about the survey and, frankly, due to previous interactions with 5W and Torossian, who has courted controversy in the past and is not averse to a little self-promotion.

Many other newsrooms took an opposite view and soon the 38% stat and the release were being quoted verbatim without further due diligence being conducted on the story in media outlets ranging from CBS News to CNN to Esquire to Fox to Vice to the New York Post and many others.

It became a top national trend on Twitter. It was also used as source material for a bit by Colin Jost on Saturday Night Live.

A piece by Yascha Mounk on The Atlantic does a good job of debunking the credibility of the survey, though it does contain some gratuitous unfounded clichés about PR people being “ruthless flacks” that are unfortunately all too common in mainstream media.

After the survey got such widespread coverage, PRWeek did a follow-up story to balance out the narrative, with Corona owner Constellation Brands’ beer division senior director of communications Maggie Bowman telling us: “Despite the misinformation circulating, consumer sentiment and sales remain strong. Consumers understand there’s no linkage between the virus and our business.” 

When asked for comment about the statement, Torossian replied with one of his notorious all-upper-case emails: “SORRY, UNTRUE, WHAT SPECIFICALLY IS UNTRUE?”

Fair play to Torossian in some respects. His survey got amazing play and many mentions of his firm and SEO firm SEMrush. He clearly has good contacts in the media borne of representing high-profile clients such as Sean Combs, Pamela Anderson and Snoop Dogg. Aggressive media relations is his modus operandi.

But the other side of the coin is that touting surveys produced with dubious methodology such as the Corona beer example aimed at getting cheap clicks from alarmist headline findings doesn’t paint the PR profession in a good light.

You also have to wonder about his motivation, beyond simply promoting his own and 5W’s name. In a follow-up email conversation with Torossian it proved difficult to establish whether the SEO company referenced in the survey release, SEMrush, is a client of 5W’s. I asked him four times and each time he refused to answer the question.

I also tried to get more info about the survey, but only managed to elicit the fact that the 737 Americans polled were “a random sample of Americans” that “encompasses a sample of the population.”

According to its website, 5WPR works with alcohol brands including 1800 Tequila, Direct Wines and Purity Vodka, but Torossian confirmed his firm doesn’t currently work with any beer brands.

In these days of social media outrage and trolling and constant discussions about fake news, it’s difficult to disagree with Yascha Mounk’s summation that some PR people are “willing to play fast and loose with the truth” and that “many journalists at supposedly trustworthy news outlets… are so desperate to rush to publication that they can wind up misinforming their public.”

Both sides of the equation need to do better if they are to maintain credibility in the modern fast-moving media and communications environment we live in. Otherwise the lazy clichés about ruthless PR flacks and journalists peddling fake news will continue to permeate public discourse about our professions.

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