FOCUS: MARKET RESEARCH; Surveying the rise of a potent PR weapon

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 media CASE STUDIES: Barclays Bank and Reed Personal Services have found success with their own brand of questions

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

Purdom reports

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,

Peter Gill.

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

the campaign.

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

regional stations.

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

product development.’

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

research company.

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

doing properly.

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.

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