Bad research: Compromising the value of PR

NB: The inspiration for this post is Ben Goldacre’s excellent Bad Science column in the Guardian. The book came out this week (here is the Amazon link), and the Guardian has serialised chapters on the MMR jab and miracle pills.

I particularly enjoy the columns where he remorselessly picks apart a PR piece containing some level of human interest, but one that is entirely based on spurious research. This deconstruction of Jessica Alba having the perfect wiggle is a fine example of the method.

A doctorate-for-hire is commissioned to create a formula out of thin air. The story generated then gets picked up by the press. The sponsor is named in the article, and they conveniently have some tenuous link to the subject. The PR pays back the research cost.

The most depressing thing about this endeavour is that there is no conclusion in sight – they just keep on coming.

I work in a Research & Insight department. More often than not – and I include myself in this – the insight is dropped and it is simply referred to as the research department.

This is fine, but it is important to note that the two functions are distinct. Insight is about finding new things out and threading pieces together to form fresh conclusions or intelligence. Research is providing evidence to support a theory or hypothesis.

(Note that these are my own personal definitions informed in the most part by the way in which my job operates. Wikipedia defines them differently)

Both are necessary, but both can be compromised. Problems with insights tend to be more innocent – flights of fancy where the new findings (intended or otherwise) don’t justify the expenditure invested in producing them.

Problems with research are more sinister. The answer is already known. The end truly justifies the means. The research design, the wording of the questions and the data cuts providing the analysis are contorted to ensure that the correct answer is given.

In reality, this doesn’t (well, shouldn’t) happen. To take a form of research I am familiar with; advertising effectiveness studies don’t always produce positive results. If results are bad, the client and agency are informed (albeit with any silver linings accentuated), and the study is swept under the carpet.

The major problem is when the research resembles, but doesn’t match, the pre-ordained conclusions. Then the temptation seems to be too great to resist. So, the results are tidied up. The supporting evidence is hidden behind hyperbolic headlines and the announcement is made.

For all intents and purposes, the evidence may as well be removed. It only gets in the way of a good story.

Canon – “world-leader in office imaging solutions” – recently came up with a doozy. As you may have been aware, the Beijing Olympics recently occurred. Did it inspire office workers to emulate their sporting heroes and get fit and healthy? Of course not, and Canon has data to support this claim. Apparently officer workers spend “the equivalent of a staggering 34 working weeks per year”.

Fortunately for us, “Canon has teamed up with health professionals from the fields of dietetics and ergonomics to develop an ‘Office Olympian’ guide. The guide includes independent expert advice on a range of topics such as keeping active in the office, healthy nutrition advice and perhaps most importantly, correct posture for employees who spend long periods working at a computer”

Phew!

And for just the cost of a few questions on an omnibus survey, press coverage is acquired.

But let’s take a closer look:

  • The 34 weeks number comes from office works spending, on average, five and a half hours of work per day at their desks. In what conceivable way is this staggering? On average, people only have 90 minutes worth of meetings and toilet breaks per day?
  • Time with friends and family, exercising and chores are sacrificed when two thirds of office workers work beyond their contracted hours. The frequency and length of this overtime isn’t elucidated upon. I can only assume it is regular and extensive
  • The work-life balance is destroyed because a fifth of workers spend 7-8 hours a day in the office. Because with the 2 hour each way commute and need to get 12 hours of sleep a night, there really is no time to have a life outside of work
  • 20% of workers don’t consider their health when in the office, despite spending the majority of their time there. Firstly, health is generally only considered when there are negative repercussions, so that would imply 4 in 5 are healthy. Secondly, how does five and a half hours a day for five days a week over 47 weeks a year constitute the majority of my time?
  • This is my favourite one; Only 19% use the tea run as an opportunity to take a break and just 28% regularly leave their desk to pick up documents from the printer – an ideal opportunity to stretch and exercise. See how Canon’s world class imaging solutions help improve your life? Because I don’t drink tea and have no need for my rubbish non-Canon printer, I have no need to leave my desk. Outside of the 90 minutes I spend away from it of course. I think Canon missed a trick here. Consider the downtime involved in going to the toilet – surely some stretches and exercises could be incorporated into that?
  • A couple of rent-a-quotes are then wheeled out for the coup de grâce.

Just writing the above has actually made me quite angry.

Perhaps I am too cynical? There are no doubt some good intentions burrowed beneath the marketing effort, and some people may genuinely gain benefit from the tips on diet and ergonomics.

But when the advice is packaged up in such a moronic fashion, it completely destroys any appeal that the campaign may have instilled.

At some point, either the press must resist publishing these “stories” or the sheer ridiculousness of their claims must be exposed. But in the meantime, there appears to be no respite.

I eagerly await the next release on anger management.

sk

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2 Responses

  1. Damn right. It’s oh so easy to just rely on tenuous ‘statistics’ which are gobbled up by folk in the Metro – in a vain attempt to pack a paper.

    I’m not sure who is more culpable; the freesheets, the PR agencies or the average person, for just taking it.

  2. Hi Will, thanks for commenting.

    Coincidentally, shortly after writing this I listened to a Thinking Allowed, which talked about PR.

    I tend to agree that under-resourced newspapers (Metro being a good example where the premium on investigative journalism is close to nil) have become increasingly reliant on PR to write their stories for them.

    It is quite depressing when the puff pieces are as blatant as the ones I’ve quoted, but I cannot see this Faustian pact altering anytime soon – especially if resources dwindle along with the ad market.

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