FEATURE: And our survey says…

Robert Gray tests the enduring popularity of the PR survey and takes a look at some of the success stories.

Red Rum: UK’s best known racehorse – even though he died in 1995
Red Rum: UK’s best known racehorse – even though he died in 1995

Surveys have always been one of the favourite tools in a PRO’s armoury. Yet the very ubiqu­ity of surveys can devalue them in the eyes of editors. Sure, journalists love facts and statistics – but not pointless, irrelevant or dull ones.

In this age of information proliferation, securing prominent coverage for surveys is seldom easy. Opinion polls and statistical exercises rain down on journalists with the power of an unrelenting tropical storm. So what makes for a compelling survey? And what do you have to do to achieve your coverage objectives?

Equine welfare charity The Brooke secured significant coverage for its cause by commissioning a survey about the best-known horses (three-time Grand National winner Red Rum came out on top). Carol McKenna, PR consultant to the charity, wrote a dummy press release before she commissioned the survey to reassure herself that it would be possible to tie The Brooke’s comms messages in with the likely findings before committing herself to the expense of a survey of nearly 2,000 consumers.

Racing Post associate editor Howard Wright says: ‘The survey itself was well-timed as it came in Grand National week and we gave it coverage because we were satisfied with its provenance as they used MORI.’

To promote the Science Museum’s Science of Spying exhibition, Lexis PR commissioned research to reveal how much ‘normal’ people snoop on their partners’ text messages and emails. ‘We used the web to ask the questions as we felt respondents would talk about behaviour they may not admit on the phone,’ says Lexis account director Stephen Hector.

The research findings were linked back to the exhibition by building the exhibition’s gadgets into the questions. The campaign spokesmen – former MI6 agent Harry Ferguson and exhibition director James Rudoni – were briefed to talk about gadgetry that people could see at the museum.

The story was sold exclusively to PA on a Sunday night under embargo for the following Tuesday. On Monday morning, the team hit the phones to the nationals and broadcast stations.

Price comparison website uSwitch.com regularly uses surveys, and often asks YouGov to research samples of 4,000 to 5,000. In January it released research on credit card affordability and followed it up in March with a survey on bank charges (see below).

The story, says uSwitch personal fin-ance PR manager Tracy North, was prepared in-house to coincide with an OFT statement on current account charges. YouGov was chosen for its ‘crucial’ ability to deliver large samples.

To avoid offending key media contacts, the results were not offered as an exclusive but a release was sent out under embargo, for Monday 12 March, so the in-house team could sell the story to both the news and broadcast media on the Friday and Sunday.

Although surveys can be superficial, there are times when research sheds light on serious issues. Premature baby charity Bliss knew that units which care for premature and sick babies were turning away babies because of a shortage of capacity, but did not have comprehensive data to prove the point.

It approached the National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit (NPEU) at the University of Oxford and an annual ‘Baby Report’ was developed.

NPEU questions every neonatal unit in the country and conducts a web survey of parents of sick and premature babies. It then collates the raw data and compiles a report.

‘We decided not to agree any exclusives, but we had been letting journalists know the report was coming for about a month before launch day,’ says Bliss media relations manager Amy Edmunds. ‘We were getting so much interest from the Sunday papers in the week before publication that we agreed to a sneak preview. We gave them one statistic to work with and suggested ways they might build this into a more substantial piece to “trail” the launch. They did their own research and prominent pieces appeared in the Sunday Express and The Sunday Telegraph.’ Articles appeared the next day in other nationals and the broadcast media.

Use shock value
‘A really shocking statistic will always appeal to a journalist,’ says Edmunds. ‘They look for figures that will immediately capture the interest of their readership. If the findings are less easy to simplify, journalists will look for ways to put a human face on the figures by expressing the findings in terms of the direct impact on people.’

The bleak statistic that a third of teachers in the UK have faced physical aggression from pupils was thrown up by a survey from the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. The ATL came up with the idea for a behaviour survey, tying its release – and those of six other surveys – in with the body’s annual conference at which violence and aggression was debated.

The in-house team wrote the questions, specified the cross-section of ATL members to survey, emailed the survey, analysed the results, wrote the press release and sold into the media. Before the conference, ATL briefed journalists to outline the research-based stories that would emerge.

‘The behaviour survey was not given to any journalists as an exclusive as we knew it would be a strong story,’ says ATL external relations officer Christine Gregory. ‘We did, however, give one of the surveys, on the impact of TV on school behaviour, to two papers to run exclusively on the same day. This was agreed in advance with both pap-ers, which then ran sizeable stories.’

Timing can be critical. CBI director of press and PA Audrey Nelson says the annual research it conducts into workplace absenteeism with partner AXA was covered widely in the natio­nal press this year in part because it was released just after the Easter break.

Stay in the limelight
But The Mind Lab research director Dr David Lewis cautions PROs to think carefully about research before commissioning it. ‘Sometimes it seems to me that the survey company gets more coverage than the client.

Research conducted by MORI or YouGov gets the headline – and the client gets edged out,’ he warns.

The Mind Lab measures human ­responses in real life situations and recently helped Cadbury’s garner headlines that said eating chocolate was ‘better than kissing’ after it compared the heart rates and brain activity of couples in their 20s who tasted melted chocolate and kissed. Sputnik Communications achieved coverage in nat-ional and regional newspapers – the story was even picked up by foreign papers such as the Sydney Morning Herald and New York Times. Lewis says innovative research such as this may be necessary to provide cut-through.

Market Research Society spokesman Graeme Trayner points out that surveys for publicity purposes are only a tiny portion of the market research landscape. He feels that journalists and the public can see through work where the sample size is insufficient and the methodology ropy. Trayner previously worked for a market research agency, but is now planning and research director at PR consultancy Brunswick. He thinks PR can help organisations identify issues on which to comment.

‘There are so many media surveys out there that their impact is lessening,’ says Trayner. ‘It’s getting harder for PR to gain attention through surveys.’

Harder undoubtedly, but the media’s voracious appetite for information means that illuminating, insightful, surprising or even amusing surveys stand a good chance of securing prominent positions – as long as they are rele­vant, robust and correctly pitched.

Journalist's View

Paul Brannan, BBC News

‘Surveys require the same consideration of editorial merit that would be applied to any story,’ says BBC News Interactive deputy editor Paul Brannan.

‘Who has conducted the survey? Who sponsors the survey? What is the size of the sample, its methodology and the rigour of its analysis and its conclusions?’

Sky News’ head of home news Phil Wardman says: ‘Only the most important or quirkiest surveys will make it on TV or the website. Each one gets a 20-second look on average.’

Quirky surveys picked up by Sky include: UK school kids think cows lay eggs (dairy farmers survey), teenagers know they put themselves at risk by getting drunk (YouGov), the rudest town/city in UK (Somerfield supermarket survey), and Skoda is UK’s favourite car (Which? magazine).

How were these stories sold in to Wardman and his team? ‘A headline of “City kids don’t know much about the countryside” would probably have gone into the bin, but the PR firm got us hooked with a good line.’

Dos and don’ts

DO
- Use a reputable survey company
- Invest in a sample large enough to be taken seriously
- Try to discover something fresh or surprising
- Think about what you can offer the media as well as the survey findings – such as video footage, or expert and vox pop opinions
- Negotiate exclusives if the findings aren’t strong enough for blanket coverage
DON'T
- Commission surveys that are too frivolous or off-message for the brand
- Skew the questions in a way that removes objectivity
- Use surveys for shameless product plugging
- Let the market research company get all the glory
- Forget to supply clear and balanced interpretation of the data

ECHO RESEARCH SURVEYS THE SURVEY
Suspect sickies

Background A poll conducted by the CBI and insurer AXA studied trends in the number of employee sick days last year, including 21 million ‘suspect sickies’ – for which employers doubted genuine illness was involved in an employee’s absence. The findings were released to coincide with the Easter break – a time when employers’ suspicions were high.

PR team In-house
Article count 62
Where the bulk of the coverage was picked up The Sun, public sector press
Key finding ‘Suspect sickies’ cost the UK economy £1.6bn in 2006 and 175 million working days were lost. This figure was up from 2005, when each employee took an average of 6.6 days – a total of 164 million days lost to sickness – real or faked.

Aimless web trawling
Background moneysupermarket.com hired 3 Monkeys Communications and asked the agency to get some coverage in the mainstream media. Internet users were surveyed and the term ‘wilfing’ – What Was I Looking For?, the habit of being frequently distracted when surfing the web – was coined.
PR team 3 Monkeys
Article count 48
Where the bulk of the coverage was picked up Nationals, regional, blogs
Key finding Almost a quarter of the country’s internet users spend the equivalent of an entire working day every fortnight aimlessly browsing the net.

Violence against teachers
Background Before new laws were introduced to allow teachers to use reasonable force on pupils, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers asked teachers about their experiences with disruptive pupils. The survey was timed to coincide with the ATL annual conference, at which violence was one of the topics. The survey was one of six released during the conference. Teachers were also asked where they thought the blame lay for disruptive behaviour.
PR team In-house
Article count 88
Where the bulk of the coverage was picked up All major nationals
Key finding Ten per cent of teachers have been attacked and injured by pupils.

Spying on a partner’s texts

Background London’s Science Museum asked Lexis to drum up coverage of its Science of Spying exhibition. The agency commissioned research to find out how often ‘normal’ people snooped on their partners’ electronic communications.
PR team Lexis PR
Article count 15
Where the bulk of the coverage was picked up Nationals
Key finding 42 per cent owned up to reading their partner’s emails to find out if they were being unfaithful.

The UK’s best-known racehorse
Background Equine welfare charity The Brooke asked people to think of a horse and a word to describe it. Red Rum, Shergar and Black Beauty came top, and were described as ‘beautiful’, ‘fast’ and ‘strong’ – words the charity said would not apply to 90 million working horses.
PR team In-house
Article count 5
Where the bulk of the coverage was picked up Online, regional and specialist press.
Key finding Red Rum (1965-1995) remains the best-known horse in the UK.

Food waste
Background Government waste body Wrap discovered Brits waste a total of 3.3m tonnes of food a year. Wrap asked 1,800 people about their attitudes to food waste as a way of reminding people that a fifth of carbon emissions are related to the production, processing, transport and storage of food.
PR team In-house
Article count 3
Where the bulk of the coverage was picked up Online (BBC) but coverage stifled by release of similar surveys
Key finding Most people are ‘in a state of denial’ about how much food they throw away.

Bank charge fees
Background uSwitch wanted to use a consumer backlash about potential charges on bank accounts to highlight its switching service. After commissioning research, uSwitch discovered the introduction of fees would have a marked effect on consumer banking habits.
PR team In-house
Article count 20
Where the bulk of the coverage was picked up Nationals
Key finding Up to 83 per cent of consumers would change banks if free accounts were no longer available.

Airport romances
Background Travel group Opodo asked 6,000 European air travellers what went on in a modern day airport lounge. The company had a hunch that the stress of catching a flight would make people less reserved than normal.
PR team In-house
Article count 1
Where the coverage was picked up London daily freesheet Metro
Key finding 43 Brits admitted to finding the love of their lives at an airport, while a fifth said they also made a good friend during their wait. Britons are the biggest blaggers – one in three men and one in five women admitted they have lied to gain access to business or first class lounges. Only a fifth of German and French respondents said the same.

Analysis of recent surveys was conducted by Echo Research. Articles were retrieved from online sources and searched by topic and organisation.

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