Statistics: Shady marketing or essential PR Partner?

Josh Glendinning writes for the CIPR.

“In theory, statistics should help settle arguments. They ought to provide stable reference points that everyone – no matter what their politics – can agree on…[Yet] rather than diffusing controversy and polarisation, it seems as if statistics are actually stoking them…Not only are statistics viewed by many as untrustworthy, there appears to be something almost insulting or arrogant about them. Reducing social and economic issues to numerical aggregates and averages seems to violate some people’s sense of political decency.” William Davies, The Guardian, 17 October 2017

For a research agency such as mine, William Davies’ Guardian article last year made for concerning reading. The argument that statistics no longer retain their power as an authoritative and neutral arbiter, agreed upon and respected by all, is a challenge to the entire research industry.

But the implications are no less profound for those working in public relations. At its heart, communications is built on trust: trust in the sincerity of the communicator; trust in a set of common beliefs and standards; trust in the receptiveness of the audience.

For communications, research has traditionally been a way to build trust and mitigate against accusations of bias. Brands and organisations have used research to give themselves permission to speak, to build their reputation on a subject, or to dispel common myths.

So the obvious question is how and why this has shift come about? Certainly, familiarity breeds contempt, and the proliferation of data and statistics over the past decade has led to public fatigue at best and outright cynicism at worst. Meanwhile, those who prize short-term AVE and RoI above all else have not helped this situation through the publication of poor quality and misleading ‘stats-bombs’.

On the other hand, clients and stakeholders are increasingly demanding that communications campaigns are guided by rigorous insights and measured according to more exacting data. We are told that data is the new oil and that it offers previously unimaginable ways to understand the world.

But the hyperbole evident in both these positions is the problem itself. Are statistics, data and research untrustworthy and elitist? No. But are they able to provide comprehensive and definitive answers to the most difficult issues in the world? Again, no.

Research and communications have much in common and much to learn from one another.

Research is a tentative endeavour aimed at illuminating certain parts of the world around us. The best research projects don’t provide definitive answers, they uncover more interesting questions about a changing world.

Similarly, effective communications campaigns aren’t about shifting views once and for all. Instead, they’re about starting or joining ongoing conversations that are often dynamic and unpredictable.

But most importantly, effective research is well-communicated research, and effective communications is well-researched communication. By better understanding the importance and value of each other, research and communications can build not only trust, but a mutually beneficial partnership.