Lies, damned lies and PR

Some of you may recall that a few months ago a number of major news outlets ran headlines about how eating dark chocolate can help you lose weight. The ‘scientific’ study that the story ran on was recently revealed to be a prank by a group of gonzo journalists seeking to highlight bad science within the media. Of course, the revelation that the study was completely bogus has garnered a lot less coverage than the initial story. The reason, as many PR professionals know, is the Faustian bargain journalists have with the PR industry in relation to statistics.

The scenario is familiar – a client wants some media coverage but has no news. The PR team suggests a ‘data story’ based on a subject of tenuous relevance but wide appeal. Third-party research is commissioned with the PR team supplying questions crafted to generate the headlines they would like to see. £800, 1,000 respondents and two days later a table of stats returns which are reviewed for the most impactful headline (either the biggest number or most-counter intuitive stat). After some cajoling the client signs off the press release. A PR exec finds a world-weary, time-pressured journalist to pitch the salacious top line stat to and hey presto, a day later the story appears and people across the country learn a new ‘fact’ based on research by company X.

Although I haven’t commissioned the necessary research yet, I would imagine 90% of the people who read these stats driven stories dismiss them as PR fluff. Well, you would hope that is the case, as the terrifying alternative is that millions of people genuinely believed that gorging yourself on chocolate could help you get beach body ready. If we accept that most people dismiss these stories as being either rubbish or falling into the ‘duhh’ category of research e.g. commuting in London is stressful (research courtesy of Mandara Spa in Park Plaza Westminster Bridge, 5 November 2014), then the question is what’s the point?

Research that is genuinely insightful, suitably rigorous and, ideally, based on a client’s proprietary data will generally generate a lot more meaningful coverage than the aforementioned quick and dirty stats-driven press release. Granted, getting good stats from a client is usually quite hard due to data-protection or process problems, and crafting good research takes a lot more time and budget. However, there are two straight-forward solutions to these problems.

First, PR professionals need to ingratiate themselves with the number-crunchers within an organisation, not just the CEO or marketing team. The simple reason is that the data analysts or scientists often don’t realise that the information that they see every day could have wider appeal. Regularly speaking to information holders within an organisation to educate them on how the PR process works and what data is useful can create a pipeline of solid, data-based news. Circumventing the marketing contact also streamlines the generation of research and engages more of the client’s employees in PR. More points of contact usually equates to a better overall relationship with a client.

Second, the cost-benefit analysis. As the majority of PR accounts are based on results i.e. coverage, the overriding temptation can be to remove the pressure with specious stats releases. However, with clever account planning and being up front with the client on your intention to create meaningful coverage that takes more time but in the long run will be more valuable, a lot of this pressure can be removed. Bizarrely, it’s often the case that PR agencies are scared of being transparent with clients, relying on ‘smoke and mirrors’ instead of being open with how the coverage sausage is actually made. After all, what client would say no to a more thoughtful campaign based on longer-term research and data if it gave them a better reputation in its industry?

The reality is that the value of spurious stats releases is only ever going to go down. I’m sure some PR professionals will argue that it’s enough to get a client’s name in a national newspaper even if it’s linked to a dubious piece of research. I would counter that the majority of people only remember the headline, not the company that commissioned the research. Pointless or disingenuous stats distract from real research, provide little value to clients and is the lifeblood of churnalism (according to 84% of PR professionals*).

This article was first published in PR Week and can be read here

*Based on two respondents surveyed between 31st May – 1st June 2015

All rights reserved Salient.