METHODOLOGY: Journalists will take a survey seriously if it has been
carried out by market research specialists FINDING AN ANGLE: Asking the
right questions will get the useful information that will attract the
CASE STUDIES: Barclays Bank and Reed Personal Services have found
success with their own brand of questions
The media loves a survey story but it is not just a matter of asking a
few questions as the information must be relevant and interesting. Nick
According to a 1995 survey by research company The Survey Shop, based on
a week-long sample of stories appearing in 24 national and regional
newspapers, over 3,000 survey stories make it into print each year,
representing two per cent of all stories used, demonstrating the power
of the survey as a PR tool.
In October The Survey Shop, which specialises in conducting surveys
aimed at securing media coverage, sought to clarify the effectiveness of
the survey story by asking 110 journalists on national and regional
newspapers, trade and consumer magazines, how they rated the survey in
relation to other PR techniques such as new product releases, providing
a key figure for interview, and supplying a photograph of a PR stunt.
The survey emerged as the joint most effective (along with a press
release with a warning or advice) means of attracting journalists, with
an overall score of 7.1 out of ten for usefulness. When asked which
technique they thought PRs could make more use of, journalists also
singled out the survey, with 33 per cent of national and regional
newspaper journalists specifying the survey as the tool with most
potential for further exploitation.
These results make encouraging reading for anyone contemplating using a
survey for their next media campaign, but far more survey stories get
binned than are used.
‘Surveys are a PR technique that is acceptable to most journalists.
However, achieving effective coverage means more than just recycling the
same tired old questions, and creative input is key in developing a new
angle for each survey,’ concludes The Survey Shop managing director,
Journalists’ main concerns about survey stories are that they simply try
to sell a product or service and have nothing to say about an issue, and
are not based on a sufficiently large or representative sample.
‘If it is blatant product endorsement we would not use a survey story
unless there was another angle, or perhaps it was amusing in its own
right. Anything put out by a single manufacturer is treated with a bit
of caution,’ comments Paul Kelbie, night news editor of the Times. Karl
Schneider, editor of Computer Weekly, says he receives about 15 survey
stories a week and tries to separate those with useful information based
on a valid sample from those which have clearly been done on the cheap.
‘Well over half the surveys we receive don’t give information about
survey size and method. If we are interested in a story we always check
on the sample and how it was carried out.’ But overall Schneider
stresses he is very keen on surveys where they provide genuinely useful
Michael Willmott formed The Future Foundation with Melanie Howards this
July. Both are ex-Henley Centre employees and aim to help businesses
understand their current and future operating environment, often by
using surveys. Having done a lot of work with PR companies on surveys
over the last five years, Willmott is concerned about the way they are
conducted and used.
‘What’s important is that research is seen as independent and robust.
We’ve got to maintain an aura of being independent, which is why people
come to us,’ he says. ‘We have to persuade companies that research
should be published warts and all. If you use only part of the data it
can be seen as a deliberate attempt to mislead and can lead to decline
in respect for the company.’
Willmott is by no means the only market research specialist, nervous
about the ‘spin’ that PR companies may put on the results of market
research in a bid to sell a story. Heather Dunn managing director of
Westcombe Business Research points out that most surveys will throw up
the good, the bad and the indifferent, the temptation being for PR
companies to focus on the positive messages, thereby twisting the
interpretation. ‘There has to be a story that people want to read but
market research reports are often turgid and boring,’ says Dunn. ‘As a
result the research gets honed down to bullet points and any caveats
that the market research company may have built in get lost.’
Increasingly, however, market research companies are seeking to control
the interpretation put upon results. MORI includes in its terms and
conditions of contract a clause prohibiting any release of data without
approval by the research companies. Advertising copy, press releases and
even graphics are checked before approval is given for release to the
media. This stringent approach to technically sound market research even
extends to the formulation of questions. According to chairman Professor
Robert Worcester, MORI even refused to give a costing on a study last
week, when it emerged that the client wanted to write their own
questions. ‘They wanted our reputation and their spin,’ says Worcester.
The media loves statistics but Willmott recommends that companies need
to present more than figures and give a broader analysis. ‘You need to
demonstrate that you understand the issues affecting people in the
street, and you can then say that because you understand these issues
you’re developing the right product or service for people.’
At the same time Marc Moninski, head of planning at Fishburn Hedges
voices concerns about the methodology behind many survey stories: ‘Some
of the research is spurious or not based on very robust methodology and
that it is beginning to devalue what is a very useful tool.’
Moninski has noticed greater interest from the press in the robustness
of methodology, particularly among the broadsheets, but also an
unnecessary interest in sheer sample size. ‘With the media there’s a
comfort in numbers which is pushing people to larger sample sizes,
leading to shoddiness in the methodology in order to cut costs.’
As MORI’s Worcester points out ‘One thousand has become a magical
figure. A sampling of 990 is probably statistically just as good, but it
doesn’t look as good.’
One PR man who is questioning the cosy assumption that surveys are a
good thing per se, and that the way companies go about doing them is the
right way, is Nick Band, managing director of Band and Brown. ‘PR
agencies use the pollsters to create a news spin to prop up poor
stories. Research companies like the business but add very little value
to the process, and the media reluctantly accepts that public opinion is
news - almost regardless of the subject or reasons behind it,’ he says.
Very few of the market research companies PR Week contacted were able to
cite recent examples of surveys they had conducted for companies seeking
media coverage. One reason for this may be that the research company
often does not get to hear whether its client has attempted to use the
survey in the media.
Research companies that do a fair amount of work in survey stories
include MORI, NOP and Audience Selection, a division of Taylor Nelson
AGB. Both NOP and Audience Selection run surveys every weekend of 1,000
consumers aged 15 plus, offering companies a way to gauge public
opinion and perhaps create a spin on a story. While MORI’s Omnibus
continues to provide a relatively cheap, technically sound source of
sampling and cross analyses.
Survey stories that have recently made a media splash demonstrate at
least some of the qualities identified by journalists in The Survey
Shop’s recent poll as the key attributes they look for - relevance, hard
information, surprise, topicality and novelty.
Nigel Dickie, managing director of Holmes and Marchant Counsel, says of
surveys: ‘Where it can be difficult to generate interest in certain
product areas, by being imaginative with your linkage into a survey you
can achieve quite outstanding results.’
The latest fruits of this philosophy are the coverage the agency has
achieved for a survey story for client Highland Spring this October.
Highland Spring recently won the first Award for Excellent Commercial
Use of Tartan, and on the back of this commissioned a survey to check
Britain’s knowledge of tartan.
Holmes and Marchant’s press release was headed ‘Show us your knees John
Major’ after the survey revealed that women would rather see the Prime
Minister in a kilt than Paul Gascoigne or actor Daniel Day Lewis. ‘We
timed it to coincide with the Conservative Party Conference,’ says
Dickie. The approach clearly worked with front page coverage in The
Herald, picture coverage in the Scottish Daily Mail, and further stories
in the Scotsman, Daily Record and Aberdeen Evening Express.
The Automobile Association was one of a handful of companies mentioned
by name when journalists were asked in The Survey Shop’s survey which
recent survey stories had struck them as particularly good?
In October the AA got excellent coverage, including a major feature in
the Daily Mail, plus news items in the Financial Times, the Independent,
the Daily Mirror and the Evening Standard, for a survey story about the
problems faced by householders because of cowboy tradesmen. The story
positioned the AA as an authoritative source for finding tradesmen via
its national network of approved workmen.
‘As an ex journalist and editor I have no doubt that linking a story to
a survey can be very powerful,’ says Tony Peagam, group PR director at
the AA. ‘But the research needs to be broad ranging and genuinely
interesting and to add to the fund of knowledge about a subject.’
Sandra Hewett of Sandra Hewett Media Relations, who works mainly with
law and accountancy firms, acknowledges: ‘Clients do not generate their
own stories as much as the City or FMCG sectors, so we look to devices
as part of the media relations strategy. Surveys are used frequently
because of their ability to grab the headlines, but most often they back
up a specific marketing activity or tactic.’
This summer Hewett commissioned a survey for the Legal Aid Practitioners
Group to find the average salary of legal aid solicitors in the face of
a White Paper which threatened the underfunded legal aid service, and
hostility from the press which often targets solicitors and makes little
distinction between legal aid, high street and City lawyers. The survey
found that legal aid solicitors’ average earnings were less than pounds
10 per hour, and the story was covered in the Financial Times, BBC
Business Breakfast, and the Solicitors Journal.
The timing of survey stories is often critical. The Anchor Trust, a non-
profit making provider of care and housing services for older people,
has found it ‘extremely difficult to get political messages across at
the time of party conferences,’ admits national press officer, Ima Rix.
Anchor failed to get coverage of a MORI poll on the views of older
people on the political parties and the most important issues facing the
country which was launched at fringe meetings at the Labour and
Conservative Party Conferences in October.
However, an in-house survey of 1,228 Anchor residents and clients in
July looking at their loyalty to the political parties was much better
received by the media, with coverage on BBC TV’s South of Westminster,
15 regional radio stations, trade press including Inside Housing and
Nursing Times, the Guardian, and regional papers.
In the charity sector, surveys are increasingly being used. ‘Five years
ago we wouldn’t have thought there was particular value in a survey, but
now we’re finding they not only attract a lot of media coverage but also
help us decide our strategy,’ says Susan Osborne, Cancer Research
Campaign’s director of communications.
CRC, working in partnership with Boots, has commissioned MORI to carry
out several surveys in the last three years. One on skin cancer has
helped CRC develop its own sun protection lotion, and encouraged Boots
to change its strategy on the kind of sun protection products it stocks.
In the new year, CRC will carry out a joint survey with food retailer
Iceland, looking at the attitudes of working class mums to buying
Such joint surveys, which share costs and benefits, could become more
widespread, particularly in the charity sector. ‘We’re increasingly
trying to share costs. Companies like Boots and Iceland give us street
cred, while we bring a scientific angle,’ says Osborne.
Case study: Barclays banks on student co-operation
This summer Barclays Bank released its fifth annual survey of student
debt, and once again gained massive media coverage.
‘It’s become a highly thought of and much-quoted survey and we’ve even
had journalists phoning up and asking when it’s about to come out,’ says
Marc Moninski, head of planning at Fishburn Hedges, the PR agency which
promotes the survey.
Fishburn Hedges works with Barclays’ in-house PR team, Barclays’ head of
youth strategy, Richard Harvey, and market research company CEL, a
specialist in the student market, to devise the questionnaire and plan
A unique feature of the survey is that it is conducted by students,
recruited and briefed by CEL, who do face-to-face interviews with 1,500
students around the UK over a three week period in May.
The survey is launched at a press conference organised by Fishburn
Hedges in July, with information split for two separate groups,
financial and education correspondents. This year there was a lot of
radio interest, including interviews on Money Box, Radio 5 Live, and ten
Follow-up is handled mainly by the in-house PR department. ‘After the
press release to nationals we regionalise the information. There are
also a number of events which generate further interest - the launch of
our product package in July, the announcement of A Level results in
August, and fresher fairs in October. This year coverage has gone on and
on,’ says Harvey.
The nationals have always covered the survey, but now they are quoting
it more often. The Guardian, Independent and Sunday Telegraph have all
mentioned it on three separate occasions, and the Times and Mail on
Sunday twice. ‘The kind of coverage has also changed, we’re getting
deeper analysis and more feature coverage, which gives us as a bank more
opportunity to comment,’ says Harvey.
He believes one of the reasons for the continuing coverage is that the
survey is now regarded as authoritative.
‘The fact we’ve been doing it five years and have shown an ongoing
commitment has taken away a lot of the suspicion from journalists.’
Intelligent and well targeted packaging of the data, and the ability to
change the emphasis at the right time are also cited as reasons why the
survey is popular with the media.
The value of the survey to Barclays is three-fold.
‘At one level it helps us to demonstrate we’re experts in student
banking and understand students’ problems,’ says Harvey. ‘It gives us a
benchmark which helps us see how we’re doing, and it helps us shape
Case study: Reed’s secretarial statistics
‘We’re a people business and journalists are normally very interested in
what we’re doing,’ says Katy Nicholson, group PR manager of recruitment
agency Reed Personnel Services.
When it comes to surveys, Reed is in the fortunate position of receiving
regular feedback both from job candidates and client companies. ‘We ask
branch staff to invite them to complete forms, so we don’t actually
commission surveys,’ says Nicholson.
Reed runs at least one major survey a month, and Nicholson finds that
survey stories still work extremely well for the company. ‘I’ve heard
that in the consumer field journalists are becoming survey-resistant,
but this is not our experience in the business-to-business sector.’
A Reed survey at the end of August into the role of secretaries
illustrates the company’s approach, and the coverage its survey stories
‘We wanted to highlight that Reed is a secretarial specialist and that
demand for secretaries is rising, but that secretaries have to be
skilled,’ says Nicholson.
‘We know that change always interests journalists, so we decided to look
at how the role of the secretary has changed in the last four years. We
then targeted our questions to get statistics where we thought there
might be trends. If you get the questions right the story writes
Once the survey was complete, Reed posted the forms to The Survey Shop,
which processed the data and produced the statistics. ‘When we get back
the statistics we stare at them for a long time to assess the most
interesting information and then write the press release,’ says
‘Responsibilities of UK secretaries have escalated’ was the headline of
Reed’s press release, which also looked at the workplace revolution and
changes in content of the secretarial role.
Major news stories appeared on the day of release in the Times,
Independent, Daily Mail, Evening Standard, and the Observer section of
the Financial Times. The Guardian made extensive use of the survey in a
feature on secretaries in its Monday careers section.
Surveys are set to continue to play a significant role in Reed’s PR
activities. ‘There are an unlimited number of topics and issues for
anyone creative in PR. The key is to keep survey stories fresh, new and
interesting,’ she says.
Pointers: The way to a successful survey
Do choose a subject that’s likely to appeal to the media.
Do try to add to the fund of knowledge about an issue.
Do be careful about how the survey positions the company or product.
Do ask publications what questions they’d like answered.
Do approach a reputable market research company to do the survey for
Do decide a suitable survey size - between 200 and 1,000 is generally
Do get the results properly tabulated and presented by the market
Do decide the key findings from the survey and base your story angle on
Do include the sample size and method in the press release, otherwise
journalists will assume it’s been done on the cheap.
Do look for different angles for different publications, and don’t
neglect the regional angle.
Don’t just regard a survey as the last resort
because you can’t think of a story.
Don’t skimp on survey costs - if it’s worth doing at all it’s worth
Don’t attempt to do the survey yourself - market research companies are
experts, and newspapers will usually only use stories where the research
has been conducted by an independent body.
Don’t formulate questions simply to get the response you want or try to
feed answers to people.
Don’t twist the data to get the story you want or choose an angle in
your press release that is clearly not supported by the facts.
Don’t overbrand the press release - the more you stress the brand name,
the more it’s likely to turn off journalists.
Don’t just state the figures - also include some analysis of the
findings, and try to point up trends.