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Research + PR = a very depressing equation

January 20th, 2006

Dr Petra

In today’s Times Higher Education Supplement, Anthea Lipsett discusses a very real problem facing academia (“Research+PR=a very depressing equation”). She describes how PR research is detracting from genuine scientific surveys and uses a classic example of PR spin:

“Cheer up! The saddest day of the year is nearly behind us. According to a formula popularised by Cliff Arnall, a health psychologist affiliated to Cardiff University, January 23 will be the unhappiest day of 2006.

Or will it? His equation – which considers factors such as weather, seasonal debts, broken New Year resolutions and the like – was this week dismissed as pseudoscientific nonsense touted by public relations companies to promote products they represent”.

Arnall’s equation has already been criticised. As a mathematical equation it’s full of holes (mostly around concepts and forms of measurement used). Lipsett’s interview revealed how the PR company behind the ‘unhappiest day of the year’ created the equation and tried to persuade countless other psychologists to back it before Arnall agreed.

Lipsett explains “Academics are often asked to endorse PR surveys to lend them an air of scientific rigour. They used to be paid to design, conduct and analyse surveys, but now academics are presented with a complete package to “sign off”. Payments range from £100 to £500, but well-known psychologists can get £2,500 or more”.

This is true. I’m constantly being approached to do PR research and offered silly money to put my name to findings I’ve not designed or analysed or quotes written for me by a PR company. I refuse.

In the past I’ve done some PR research, and although it wasn’t rocket science it was based on evidence and also I designed, ran and reported it. Nowadays PR companies don’t let you do this. Instead they decide on the findings before they even run the research and only buy in academics to give credence to their ‘survey’.

I went on record in Anthea’s THES piece as saying I felt PR surveys were putting kosher research at risk.

But in the THES piece Cliff Arnall’s quoted as saying his study was valid and also “gets people talking about depression when the people who run psychology aren’t getting the message across. Peer-reviewed papers do not do what psychology ought to do – help people talk about their feelings and get the most out of life.”

Whilst I feel we can always do more to improve science communication I don’t feel Mr Arnall’s ‘study’ does more than peer reviewed research, or helps the public. You only need to look at the research, therapy and practice carried out by psychology to see what inroads it’s made in dealing with depression. Arnall’s work is not to tackle mental health or inequalities, it’s to promote a travel company – people are told they’ll feel more depressed on a particular day and can relieve the stress by booking a holiday.

For someone who describes themselves as a health psychologist one would hope Mr Arnall would want his work to be evidence based and not make people misdiagnose depression. If you’re clinically depressed you should see your GP, not book a holiday. And if you’re researching depression you should be drawing on the existing evidence and applying that in an understandable way to the general public.

If we’re not going to bother about standards in research, then we can forget about painstakingly designing our work, piloting it, ensuring it’s ethical and completing it carefully. We don’t have to worry about publishing in peer-reviewed journals we can just go straight to media. If Mr Arnall’s approach is to be followed we don’t need to base our work on evidence, we can just make it up. Who cares if it’s nonsense? It gets people talking and that’s the most important thing.

Which is how PR research works. A few people on a PR team make up the questions based on getting answers a client wants, which they either make into a dubious equation, or more commonly a survey which they give to a market research team to collect in the course of a weekend. It’s an about face on how research ought to work.

My other concern with this sort of work, is that these PR studies do get in the way of genuine social and health research findings. They mislead journalists and the public about the range of research methods available, and whilst they might get people talking, they may also lead to people worrying unnecessarily about health issues, or just begin to distrust genuine research.

Although Mr Arnall’s work is about an equation, the main culprit of PR coverage is the survey. To illustrate, I just ran a search on ‘survey’ on PRnewswire (where journalists get PR stories from). In just three days 100 press releases were posted using a ‘survey’ as a promotional tool. That excludes all the other PR survey press releases sent to other newswires or direct to journalists.

Here’s a selection of findings from the past three days – and the companies who’re behind them:

Look out employers because women who negotiate at work get what they want! The 75% women who negotiate – are more satisfied than the 27% who don’t. (perhaps maths wasn’t the strong point at Simmons School of Management). Office staff need to be careful because only 13% executives use the phone to communicate leading to a crisis in business (OfficeTeam). And 31%, 32% or 35% retailers plan to leave their jobs this year (Career Builder posted three press releases with increasing percentages to get noticed).

37% of Americans have already broken their new year’s resolutions, according to vitamin supplier TwinLab, but that might be because 86% of us have homes that need reorganising for the new year (Lowes).

Women are just as likely as men to not only watch sport – 65% want to view it on a flatscreen TV, according to a survey for electronics retailer Circuit City.

68% adults aren’t incorporating enough whole grains into their diet (Whole Grains Council and Knorr). Probably because 60% of Americans are grilling all year round (Hearth and Patio Barbeque Association) – although again grilling’s not a guy thing – 35% women bbq too – couples even do it on Valentine’s day!

Yet it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good, as a survey for the Construction Writers Association shows. Hurricane Katrina may have caused death and devastation, but it was the top story in their survey of news reports.

Not only are these surveys unrelated to the companies who’re being promoted, unethical at times, or certainly unsympathetic, they’re not based on evidence, aren’t subject to any analysis (only lists of percentages), yet seek to grab our attention by spurious gender differences, pseudo-scientific terminology, shocking headlines, and catchy titles.

Journalists and the public increasingly distrust surveys – partly because they’re overwhelming our media – and partly because most of them are rubbish.

These surveys don’t perform any public good. At best they’re fish-and-chip paper, at worst they mislead the public on health and social issues and cause them to distrust genuine health messages.

So the 23rd will be the most depressing day of the year. Not because there’s any scientific evidence, or an equation to prove it, but because yet again the press swallowed a PR pill without question.

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