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Christmas Tipple

December 28th, 2005

Dr Petra

As you know I periodically have a grumble about the misuse of surveys by PR companies. I recently had a cracker of a Christmas PR/survey combo so thought I’d share it with you as a little holiday treat.

I received the following unsolicited email from a PR company (who’ll remain nameless) on behalf of a drinks company (who’ll also remain nameless). I’ve removed identifying information from the email but the remainder of the text is as I was sent it. You might like to keep a close eye on how they describe their proposed survey….


I’m interested in finding out if DR Petra would be available for comment on a survey we are looking to send out to all consumer media prior to Christmas.

We are conducting the survey via [an online relationships site] on behalf of [drinks company]. We envisage the release drafted together from the responses received as being light-hearted and topical with the Christmas party season in full swing. The comment from Dr Petra would then put additional weight behind it.


If you’re planning a hot date over the party season and are desperate to impress, think twice about your choice of drink. A new survey commissioned by [drinks company] has revealed that a staggering 8 out of 10 people will make a judgement about their beau based on what they choose at the bar. And that’s not all, nearly all of these people are also prepared to raise a glass of something they wouldn’t normally drink simply to impress!

Cocktails come out top as the drink with the highest status but be aware of your choice of cocktail as this can also speak volumes……Story to go on to mention different cocktails and what they say about your personality. Comment from Dr Petra to be included.

Potential Survey Questions:
1.What would you order to impress a date?
* Cocktail
* RTD eg Bacardi Breezer
* Pint of Lager
* Half a cider

2.Do you think your date’s choice of drink says something about his/her
* Yes/no

3. Which of the following do you think is a sophisticated choice (pics to be
* Manhattan
* Sea Breeze
* Margarita
* Caipirina
* Cosmopolitan

4. Which of the following do you think is a fun choice (pics to be included)?
* Pina Colada
* Screaming Orgasm
* Blue Monster
* Coco Loco
* Sex on the Beach

5. Would you ever match a cocktail to your outfit?
* Yes/no

6a. Have you ever ordered a drink you don’t like just to impress?
* Yes / no

6b.If no, would you?
* Yes / no

The questions are aiming to explore the image certain drinks have and whether people choose drinks to be cool thorough association etc.

The results will then be forwarded to a Dr Petra for comment and following that, a release drafted and distributed to all national and regional print media.

Please let me know ASAP if you think this might be of interest, how long it would take her to comment on the responses and how much she would charge.

Hope to hear from you soon.

Best wishes,

[PR Company representative]”

How kind of them. I could potentially have charged a nice tidy fee and got my name in the papers.

But as I’m sure you’ve already figured out, I didn’t go for it. And I’m sure you’ve also guessed why, but it’s worth looking at why I didn’t respond. PR companies routinely send out emails like this and it’s worth knowing why experts don’t want to get involved.

They had decided on the survey results before they’d even run the survey

If you notice from the email they mention in the paragraph under ‘Eg.’ they say: “A new survey commissioned by [drinks company] has revealed that a staggering 8 out of 10 people will make a judgement about their beau based on what they choose at the bar”.

The point of surveys is although you might have an idea about what your results will reveal you never truly know until data is collected and analysed. And you certainly don’t decide what you want in advance and go fishing for it. This is a key component of the PR survey, they’ve already decided what they want to say and questions are fitted in to try and generate these findings.

Or not. Because in this case (as with countless others I’ve seen) the findings they were trying to get weren’t even reflected in the questions. Journalists don’t get to see questions and are often too busy/lazy to check they frequently miss that the survey questions and findings don’t bear any resemblance to each other.

And I’m sure you don’t really need me to say that the survey questions were also leading, didn’t always make sense and wouldn’t produce reliable data.

That said, if you pay a market research company to call a few hundred people they’ll answer for you and you’ll produce numbers, even if they are meaningless. And since you won’t do any analysis on them (just produce percentages that journalists will then reproduce) nobody will notice that the data you’ve collected is junk.

It was obviously a round-robin email.

It wasn’t addressed to me but was clearly written for an agent, and giveaway capitals for ‘DR’ (where obviously a space had been left to insert a name of choice) further suggested this had been sent out to several people. Okay, so perhaps it’s a bit snotty to just turn something down because it’s not sent direct to you, but here’s another reason why it was a problem….

They’d not found out anything about me prior to getting in touch.

A quick glance of my site might have indicated that I teach research for a living. Which is a bit of a problem if I’m then seen fronting a survey that not only hadn’t been designed by me, but also was so bad I’d have failed it if it were a project I was marking. The fact that I work in healthcare is also not something that pairs well with fronting a survey for a drinks company (well actually for them it’s probably a good pairing although I’m certain they didn’t know that when they emailed me. It’s not such a good pairing for me).

I’ve done PR research in the past. A few years back you’d be approached and asked to help put together a survey or other study in collaboration with a client and PR company. Whilst these studies were never rocket science, they were able to be linked to evidence and although be completed quickly were still of a reasonable methodological standard.

Nowadays the approach is as you see above. An ‘expert’ is seen to ‘give weight’ to a ‘light-hearted’ story. They don’t help design the research (and boy does it show), instead a few people working for the PR company will throw together some questions that will vaguely match the client’s brief and off they’ll go for market research. The expert will either write a quote or more likely put their name to one that’s written for them by the PR company (mentioning the client’s name) and may also be engaged to do some other media appearances (say on radio or traipsing round magazine offices) to endorse the survey/product it’s promoting.

And that’s the final reason why I said ‘no’ to this offer. Putting my name to this ‘survey’ wouldn’t give it any weight because even though journalists will run stories based on PR research like this they don’t value them. Meaning putting your name to something like this helps the PR company/client but does your own reputation no good at all.

Someone will have become their expert-for-hire. But call me Scrooge, I’m afraid my Christmas spirit didn’t extend that far. Not even during the festive season.

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