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Drinks Company + PR Firm + Enthusiastic Undergraduate = Massive Hangover for Universities

November 8th, 2009

Dr Petra

PNO Survey Team

A brief history of formulas as marketing tools

Over the past few years we’ve got used to seeing formula used as a promotional tool by PR companies. Sometimes these are simply presented as just a formula, other times they are fronted by an academic or other ‘expert’. This has presented problems for universities where staff members (or people claiming an affiliation with a particular institution) use the institution’s name as part of the formula promotion.

Critics of the ‘fake formula’ approach have argued they are often not based on sound science, make little or no mathematical sense, and usually seem to be created by the PR company for an ‘expert’ to front (although this is often disputed by those promoting formulas). There’s also the concern that such formula appearing in the media may devalue robust academic research and reduce public trust in science.

Those academics who do front such activity (and there’s a core group who specialise in this practice) argue they’re merely promoting science and engaging with the public. A view that might be easier to believe if the formula stood up to scientific scrutiny.

Until now, debates on this issue have focused on academics fronting formula, but recently PR companies have taken a new tack and have used undergraduate students to promote their products.

This raises a lot of issues for universities and students and we need to think carefully about how it ought to be addressed.

The new PR approach – the case of the ‘Perfect Night Out’
The case in question began with a competition for ‘Britain’s Best Job’. Drinks Company Global Brands wanted to promote VK Vodka Kick (primarily, it seems, at Fresher’s events). The job advert stated “Wanted! Talented maths or science student or graduate to spend the summer literally discovering the formula of fun. Must be over 18 years of age like bars, clubs and pubs and be prepared to have a fantastic time in the quest for knowledge, science and the pursuit of the perfect night out.” The press release also stated “But there is a serious side to this and the applicant will be expected to deliver a full thesis at the end of the trip that must stack up to academic scrutiny by Britain’s best brains”.

PR Company Brahm worked with Global Brands for this activity. 50 students applied, and one Biology undergraduate student from Leeds University was picked for the task – to identify the formula for a ‘Perfect Night Out’ (PNO) based on undertaking a survey, then creating the formula.

The report created by the student can be found here (as text document) and here (as pdf). (This was described by the PR company as the ‘full thesis ‘ that ‘Britain’s best brains’ would be scrutinising).

I will leave you to critically evaluate the student’s report. Further discussions of the formula comes courtesy of Steve at Irregular Shed. Meanwhile Tristan O’Dwyer at Cargo Cult Science tackles the wider issues about this formula in relation to science communication.

I’m going to focus on key methodological and ethical issues that the research invites, and the wider implications of such research for students and universities.

Perfect Night Out – Survey and Semi Structured Interviews
The survey can be found here. It mostly seems to be asking general questions about a night out. PR company Brahm confirmed the survey was designed by the student. While the questions may seem fairly standard (although not particularly robust) there is the wider issue of how this survey was conducted. The student’s report (linked above) states “an online questionnaire was completed by 2000 people (male and female) and had a 100% response rate”.

It is not made clear how this survey was delivered online. Who hosted the survey? How long was it available for? How were participants recruited? I’m also curious about the 100% response rate which is pretty much unheard of in genuine social research. I can only assume there’s been a misunderstanding in understanding completion and response rates.

Contradiction exists between the report and the promotional activity. The student’s report stresses data were collected by an online survey. But the Global Brand’s website show the survey being conducted inside clubs as part of promotional activity – for example at Chester University and Manchester Metropolitan University.

The student’s report does state they conducted additional semi structured interviews, but it’s not clear how many were undertaken and whether they based activity shown in the clips above (which indicate a survey being used, not semi structured interviews). It is therefore unclear whether the student knows the difference between the two methods, or whether reporting on two approaches is confused in their write up.

The report does not make it clear how the semi structured interviews and survey worked together. While it is perfectly fine to use a variety of methods within research (sometimes called ‘triangulation’) it is standard practice to demonstrate how those methods link together. In this report we’re told the semi structured interviews were carried out post survey, but not shown whether the survey answers informed the semi structured interviews or how both of these informed the subsequent formula.

Ethical questions about the research

What is more worrying is the study was conducted in part within clubs and social events. This raises key issues of researcher safety and wellbeing, ethics and consent. Those who may be drunk are not in a strong position to consent to research (and may pose potential risks to researchers or other participants). Indeed if you wish to study people who are drinking alcohol or may be drunk it requires particular sensitivity and ethical approval. [Leeds University confirmed this study was conducted independently of their institution and therefore had no ethical approval].

A press release for the activity states “The official VKendology tour will start on Saturday 19th September, where the Research Team will hit UK Student’s Union’s during Fresher’s Week and students will be in with a chance to win their Perfect Night Out.”

This indicates participants were directly incentivised to complete the survey, something that is frowned upon in reputable social research (and also requires careful management in market research). The mention of the ‘research team’ also suggests aspects of this work were not simply down to one student, a survey and subsequent formula. I’m not sure whether the ‘research team’ are actual researchers or glamorous guys and gals dressed up to deliver a survey (or both). I would question the former, as presumably anyone who did know anything about social (or market) research would know this activity wasn’t the most robust or ethical.

I would like to think this report and the research described represents something casual and fun, not the best quality work the student could offer – nor representative of research writing skills she may have been taught on her degree programme. There are key details missing and as a result the write up does not appear particularly professional or scientific (see critique and links above).

I can understand that this activity would appear very exciting. (In the past I have undertaken PR-based research and know how beguiling such an activity may appear – at first). In this case the student was promised loads of fun nights out, the promised opportunity to do a bit of science, the chance to get some media coverage – and most importantly for a student it also is a paid post.

My concern is that in undertaking such activity, what may look like a fun opportunity may result in numerous problems for students and Universities.

What issues does involving students in PR activity raise?

Firstly, we have the question of student wellbeing. Usually students who are conducting research will require ethics approval and tutor support for studies they’re undertaking. There are three main reasons for this:
- to protect the participants researchers are interacting with and ensuring they are not harmed by the research process
- to ensure the research undertaken is appropriate and of a high quality
- and to protect the wellbeing and safety of the researcher.

It’s easy to say in this case it was basically a promotional activity and nobody was likely to be harmed. The questions seemed innocuous and unlikely to upset anyone. However, if a participant had disliked the research, or someone had threatened or harassed the researcher, who would be responsible? The point of having ethical controls over research is to ensure people can’t be harmed, and that researchers don’t play god and decide just because they don’t think their research is problematic then it won’t be bothersome to the public.

University staff are often aware of students who don’t let them know about research they are undertaking, often trying ambitious projects without notifying tutors or gaining ethics approval for their work. This can make students very vulnerable.

If PR companies intend to continue to use this method of getting students to front their campaigns, who is going to look after student or participant welfare? (Particularly if the ‘research’ is of a more personal or invasive nature). PR companies are keen to use Universities to add clout to campaigns, but where do Universities’ responsibilities lie if the student technically undertakes work without informing them and any negligent or non negligent harms arise?

No doubt PR companies and the commercial organisations who hire students may care little about the actual quality of research and be in no position to check on key questions about consent, ethics and personal safety. That is why both researchers and participants could be at risk if such activity becomes standard practice.

We know researchers can and do make mistakes. In fact it’s part of the steep learning curve of being a researcher in the natural, health or social sciences. Usually such problems around misunderstanding methods or poor report writing can be overcome with tutor feedback and practice. And remain relatively private.

However, if you undertake PR activity like this you run the risk of any errors you make being picked up on in public. Already bloggers have begun critiquing this particular study for example here and here.

This raises further issues about student wellbeing. After all, if you undertake a piece of work that’s promoted as fun and exciting, but the backlash is to label you a poor scientist, then that’s got to hurt (it’s partly why I’ve not named the student in this blog and am focusing more on the wider issues this case raises as opposed to a personal attack).

But if you undertake research outside of your institution who will be there to support you when things might go wrong? And what issues might this raise for your future career if, when you apply for a job, you’re known not as someone who advanced public understanding of science, but someone who undertook a piece of substandard PR research?

There’s also the wider issue of student responsibility to their fellow students and academic institution. As well as thinking about your own possible career pathway, you also need to consider the impact of your work on the reputation of others who might be associated with you. You may not appreciate that presenting ‘science’ or ‘research’ in a particular way may actually make other genuine researchers lives a lot less safe, and recruitment a lot more difficult. Not to mention reducing public trust in science.

Sadly, not many universities teach this within methods training (and it’s fair to say many academics don’t always reflect in this way). You can see why an enthusiastic student being wooed by a PR company is probably not going to think twice about what the end result of their work might be for either their own reputation, or for those associated with their subject area.

I emailed Leeds University’s PR office to ask them if the student in question was studying with them (she is), whether she had applied for ethics approval for the study (no, since the research was not conducted as part of the institution), and whether she undertook the research in her capacity as a Leeds student (the PR office said no it was unrelated to Leeds, although they had put journalists in touch with the student so they could write their own stories/take photographs of her).

This is a key issue for me. We can’t really expect students to be aware of wider ethical and methodological issues that underpin research. That’s our job to teach them. We can’t blame students for wanting to earn cash and seeing PR activity as a fun way to do this. We can’t also blame students for being unaware of the background to the whole ‘fake formula’ issue (after all many academics don’t take it that seriously).

Universities and PR companies need to be responsible here. PR companies cannot use institutional names as part of promotional activity without ensuring that institution is aware of what they are doing and approves it. [Not that I expect PR companies to take any notice of this]. Universities also can’t play the ‘research wasn’t conducted as part of our university so it’s nothing to do with us’ line. If students are getting involved in so-called research activity and are allowed to be linked to it with mentions of the university in the press or passing on the student’s contact details to journalists, then the work is partly linked to the institution.

Universities need to be aware that the problem of PR activity in misusing scientific approaches has now been extended to students. They need to consider what this means for their students wellbeing and institutional reputation. Some institutions may not care, perhaps they’ll just be glad of some publicity. However there is the wider duty of care issue, and if any student is undertaking research-related work during their time studying with you then you have a responsibility to ensure you are aware of what they are doing and can ensure they work safely.

If PR companies are going to use students for promotional events then the media will report this and draw attention to your institution. Do universities want to be associated with studies that imply their teaching of research and ethics plus their pastoral care is substandard?

The problem is we have no clear guidelines on this issue. It is something that is new and many institutions won’t have had to think about it.

However, we’ve seen the uptake of using academics for fake surveys and formula has grown and it is likely using students (particularly to promote products to other students) could follow the same path.

The issue we must now face is what our approach should be on this issue. Let students do as they wish, so long as we can argue it’s not done in our name/on our time? Or take a stand and make it clear we do not endorse student activity in this way?

After all, if students really are keen to learn more about research methods, want to undertake studies, write reports, or bring science to the public there are numerous ways that can be done. As academics maybe we should make these opportunities more obvious (and focus on making our teaching of these topics more engaging).

Sure, they may not pay as much as a PR activity like this one. But in the long term they might be a whole lot better for a student’s reputation and personal development.

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