Nine out of ten office workers resent colleagues who throw a sickie; three quarters of British men will be overweight within five years; more than half of women plan to have cosmetic surgery; 90 per cent of Irish adults believe in God; and a third of children have no idea what chips are made of.
These and countless other headline-making statistics were lapped up by the media during 2005 – a result of surveys by organisations keen to raise awareness of their products within the context of wider social issues.
Topics have ranged from the quirky – residents in Ilford are more likely to win the Lottery – to the sublime: Seans are more likely to have car accidents than Fredericks, while Joys are unluckier than women called Tracy, according to a survey by Churchill Insurance.
The proliferation of surveys and the resultant coverage appears to be good news for all involved – clients, PROs, market research companies and page-filler-seeking journalists alike. But a debate is emerging around the reliance on these surveys, with some
labelling it 'lazy PR'. Indeed, the subject was even discussed on Newsnight in October.
The Times Scotland correspondent Shirley English says trivia is triumphing over substance, and that 'better research-based stories, such as serious research around house prices' are being pushed further down the news agenda. She says she spikes anything that does not have 'impeccable sources', but admits other journalists are less scrupulous.
Are PROs guilty of pushing too many surveys? And are they giving clients and journalists what they want?
The proportion of surveys covered is evidence that PR teams are succeeding in selling their clients' research-based stories. PROs know that studies with a human-interest angle, and those that are visually interesting, do well. They also know that the timing of research is crucial for published results to link in with the topics in the news.
'Surveys are a way to personalise the news agenda and the PR industry and research companies are simply responding to this,' says Andy Gallacher, managing director of researcher Tickbox.net. 'This is not lazy PR or journalism. The undeniable growth in the use of surveys is being led by publications, whether celebrity weeklies or local newspapers, which must show they understand what is important to their readers,' he adds.
Stephan Shakespeare, joint CEO at pollster YouGov, agrees. He says editors want quality surveys that reflect public opinion. 'We all like to see ourselves reflected,' he argues. 'Editors especially like a survey if the idea behind it is creative and people are asked interesting questions. It's not lazy if the surveys make good and relevant copy.'
But Kaizo chief executive Crispin Manners warns of a media backlash and says more stringent, research-based press releases are needed to convince journalists that the story behind a survey is credible. 'A survey must never be a blatant sales message. To give
a story depth it is preferable to include comment from an
independent expert in the press release,' he adds.
The Sunday Herald business editor Ken Symon is even more damning: 'Quite often surveys are just a blatant attempt at a puff for the business involved. In many cases the only quotes included in the press release come from one of the company's own directors – in these instances the whole story is such an outrageous piece of puffery it hits the bin straight away.'
Fiona Harvey, environment correspondent at the Financial Times, says research companies must take more responsibility for the content of their surveys, and that the worst surveys are clearly commissioned by firms determined to generate certain results.
'Although you do get genuinely interesting surveys that reveal trends you wouldn't otherwise know about, many have poor methodology, a tiny sample and skewed questions,' she complains. 'The press releases that go with them can be even more reprehensible and misrepresent the results in the hope of deceiving journalists.'
Manners says PROs must use research simply and stress its independence to circumvent journalistic scepticism. Unsurprisingly, he uses a piece of his own agency's work as an example of best practice – a survey conducted for NEC Mitsubishi, which wanted to raise the profile of its computer monitors. Kaizo commissioned research into how long workers spent at their desks and the effect this was having on their private life.
More than two thirds of respondents felt they were more desk-bound than two years ago, and Kaizo coined the media-friendly phrase 'irritable desk syndrome'.
To add authority to the findings, the agency supplied quotes from an ergonomics specialist and a charity that helps sufferers of back pain. Extensive media coverage followed, as well as a successful viral campaign that spread the results via email.
Such surveys, which mix the light-hearted with a serious message, are more likely to pass an editor's vetting process. Radio stations looking for topics to discuss on phone-in shows will also latch onto this kind of study. Paul Rodgers, producer of Radio Two's Drivetime, says surveys can get listeners to interact with a show. Radio Five Live news editor Robin Britten agrees, citing town v town and men v women as the types of survey that get his juices flowing.
However, he joins the chorus of voices calling for more substantive
research. 'Ideally I want surveys that take a political or scientific debate to another level,' he says. 'If they do not, I do everything I can not to mention a PR company's client if a survey has come from, say, a DIY store or a washing powder brand.'
If journalists want to avoid mentioning the client, the PR behind the survey has obviously gone wrong. Maybe this is an argument for diverting the money being thrown at headline-grabbing
research on alternatives that, while not generating splashes, may provide insight for PROs into what consumers think about a product or brand, enabling them to more effectively campaign on behalf of their client.
The results can be illuminating. When Starfish Communications was briefed to handle to the rebranding of Switch to Maestro, it used pre-campaign research by HPI – which revealed consumers did not understand the reasons behind the rebrand – to inform its strategy. Further surveys by HPI allowed Starfish to adapt elements of the PR campaign as it went along. Two of these surveys were used by the press. One was about the 'average cost of Christmas', and the other – which looked at the predicted increase in debit cards – was entitled 'The death of the cheque'. The latter secured coverage for Maestro in all of the national dailies.
One of the reasons this practice is not more widespread is that this kind of consumer research tends to be managed by the internal marketing department or an external media agency, with little or no PR team liaison.
'PR has traditionally been creatively-, rather than planning-driven, but this is changing,' says one PRO. 'There are more PR companies buying TGI data, for example. PROs are realising that strong insight is essential to produce the most effective headline-grabbing surveys.'
At accountancy firm KPMG, senior corporate comms manager Simon Griffiths says that while small surveys are organised by its PR department, larger projects are more carefully planned with the strategy, sales and marketing teams.
'If we identify a story and the budget is available we will ask a researcher to conduct a survey to substantiate it, but increasingly we work alongside the marketing department when commissioning studies,' he says. 'Often this means [the PR department] getting involved at the end of the process, once the data is available, to dig stories out of the numbers.'
Sometimes research is spurred by motives other than simply grabbing attention. This spring it was reported that the Radio Advertising Bureau (RAB) and Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) were arguing over which industry was winning more advertisers. This rumour prompted the organisations to co-operate on a project that would convince advertisers to use both media, radio and online, simultaneously.
They commissioned Other Lines of Enquiry to poll 500 internet users. One fifth of respondents said they listened to the radio while surfing the web. More than 70 per cent said they would use the internet more over the next year, and 25 per cent claimed they would listen to more radio.
In July the RAB and IAB issued joint press releases and gave one-
on-one briefings with journalists, explaining that online and radio were the only media predicted to significantly increase their audience.
'The research and the PR activity put to bed all the gossiping in the trade press that claimed these organisations were fighting,' says Other Lines of Enquiry research director Jason Brownlee. RAB planning director Mark Barber says the activity also
revealed how radio complemented other media. 'Issuing joint research is popular with journalists,' he claims. 'They tend to feel it is more honest and accurate if they see competing parties issuing something together.'
Back in the world of pure coverage generation, Eulogy! director of business development and former MORI marketing executive Lara Leventhal says story pitches rarely go out without research backing. 'Research is usually vital to support a story and to back up the views being made by a client, or to argue against claims being made by a competitor,' she says.
'It has to be the PRO's role to say when it is appropriate to spend money on research, because we know what journalists and their readers want – and what the client is trying to achieve. There is a place for touchy-feely straw polls as long as the PRO involved is careful about how these findings are communicated.'
Leventhal adds that client expectation in this area must be very carefully managed, especially if it has enjoyed widespread coverage from a piece of market research in the past. 'You cannot keep doing surveys and they are not always covered.
'We have to work with the client to clarify what the objectives of each piece of research were, and whether those objectives, including media coverage, were met,' she says.
Of course, there are a number of companies lucky enough to generate regular coverage of ongoing research. Halifax has published its monthly house-price index since 1983, providing its PROs with a regular news hook. The in-house PR team supplements the findings with media comment on topical issues such as stamp duty or inheritance tax, rather than simply bombarding journalists with just another set of figures.
'We have cultivated relationships with journalists who use our research – they trust it and see it as relevant because we link it to the issues affecting their readers,' says Halifax media relations officer Alex Barnett.
Most journalists, however, usually require careful explanation of figures to understand the importance – important to the PR agency and its client at least – of findings. This means PROs and researchers must understand each other's role and work together to get the most out of research projects.
Other Lines of Enquiry's Brownlee says while the researcher will take an objective view, a PRO will find the emotional angle from statistics. He says this can cause friction when the PRO concentrates on an element of a survey that cannot be reinforced with further facts.
He also warns that misrepresentation of figures can be counter-intuitive: 'Journalists have to be spoon-fed research – which means there is a massive opportunity for the PR business to tell interesting stories using the data we provide – but they know when they're being hoodwinked. I will look over a press release before it is issued to ensure that what is being communicated is an accurate representation of the work we did.'
Journalists will react positively to a survey if it is credible and relevant to their readers or viewers. But will they be using more or fewer of them over the coming years? Now there is a question worth asking...
Five surveys that made headlines in 2005
Client Channel 4 and OMD Insight
21st century youth: the new British sophisticates
Media coverage The Guardian, News of the World, Evening Standard, Independent on Sunday, Daily Star, F T, The Observer, The Daily Telegraph
PR agency The Media Foundry
What was the research? The study was carried out by OMD Insight, the research division of media agency OMD. One-thousand 15 to 24-year-olds and 1,000 25 to 34-year-olds took part in an online survey of media habits and attitudes. The results were compared with a 1995 poll to reveal how these age groups' consumer habits had changed in the past decade.
Strapline New warning for off-road car sector
Media coverage Financial Times, Daily Express, Daily Star, BBC Online, Professional Engineering, AutoWired, Marketing Week.
PR agency In-house
What was the research? The study was carried out by YouGov to demonstrate how the car industry must tackle the image problem of 4x4 off-road vehicles. The survey of 2,131 people revealed that 56 per cent wanted the cars banned.Eighty per cent of those who did not own one said they would never buy one.
Client Hudson Shribman
Strapline Working 9 to 5? Not a way to make a living
Media coverage The Sun, Daily Record, Glasgow Evening Times, Western Mail, The Press Association, People Management, Personnel Today, management-issues.com, BBC World, BBC Asian Network.
PR agency In-house and Fishburn Hedges
What was the research? One-thousand UK employees and 500 employers were asked by The Survey Shop how they viewed the traditional nine-to-five working day. The major finding was that more than half of women had either created more flexible working patterns or wanted to do so.
Strapline A quarter of all UK adults are binge drinkers
Media coverage Five, Sky News, Capital Radio, BBC online and all the national papers except the FT.
PR agency In-house and Bulletin
What was the research? TNS carried out this survey into Britain's drinking habits. It asked 2,000 men and women how much they drank and whether they felt their intake was harming their health. The results revealed that 11 million adults binge drank and four out of ten regarded their intake as not harmful.
Client Synovate Market Research
Strapline Is the 'leisurely drive' on the road
Media coverage Auto Express, The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Times
PR agency Westgate Communications
What was the research? Synovate asked 4,000 drivers in ten countries if they had ever experienced road rage. Ninety-five per cent said they had, with drivers in the UK, Greece and South Africa suffering the most.
What the papers said: survey stories from a single day
The Guardian: 21 November 2005
Headline 'Physics dying out in schools'
Survey by University of Buckingham
Headline 'Drivers' sleep disorder threat to road safety'
Survey by BBC's Real Lives programme
Headline 'Risk to children from mothers in stressful jobs'
Survey by Development Psychobiology
Headline 'Ads reach parts of the brain programmes can't reach'
Survey from Advertising sales firm VBS
Headline 'Bottom marks for Andrex in recycling study'
Survey from WWF
Headline 'Poll suggests shift to right as voters back Chirac'
Survey from Le Parisien
Headline 'Younger voters would prefer to get rid of monarchy'
Survey from El Mundo
Headline 'Children studied for signs of mobile phone harm'
Survey from Australian Centre for Radiofrequency
Headline 'Britain's drink culture'
Survey from Research and government bodies
The Sun: 21 November 2005
Headline 'Pubs beat top grub in France'
Survey by Egon Ronay's 2006 Guide
Headline '£114 veg in the bin each year'
Survey by No credit given
Headline 'People's heads are getting smaller'
Survey by Ohio professor Spencer Larsen
Headline 'Mums in IVF snub'
Survey by National Infertility Awareness Campaign
Headline 'Smashing places'
Survey by Endsleigh Insurance (revealing London drivers have the most accidents)
Headline 'Fob story – half of Britons lose keys once a year'
No credit given
Headline 'Physics crises'
No credit given
Headline 'Truckers doze off at wheel'
Survey by Transport Safety Group
Headline 'Kids of three stressed'
Survey by Bristol University