One long-standing PR tactic usually used by advocacy organizations is the use of what has been called the “publicity survey.” The concept is pretty simple.
You want to draw attention to an organization, an issue, or an organization’s position on an issue. So, you conduct a survey, compile the results and release them to the media. The goal is to use the results of the survey to generate visibility and possibly persuade the public towards your organization’s point of view.
We see the results of such surveys in media stories that use terms like, “most Americans think,” or “more Americans are starting to…”
Did you ever wonder where those news stories originate when you read such headlines as, “Most Americans prefer organic foods,” or “More Americans would rather pay more for groceries than use plastic bags.”
To be sure, these are hypothetical examples, and not based on real stories, but I’ve learned that in the case of the example on organic foods, there’s a good chance the sponsor of the survey is somehow in the business of selling organic foods. And in the example of plastic bags, it wouldn’t surprise me of the sponsor of that survey had some ties to plastic bags' competitors. Of course, in both cases, the sponsor of the survey could simply be an activist organization with its own media relations objectives.
This tactic of creating publicity surveys has been on my mind quite a bit lately as election season heats up. It seems that every week, we see stories about the presidential polls, or polls on the economy, or polls on foreign policy. Many of these polls are from respected, independent media or research organizations which do this kind of thing all the time.
But wedged into this flurry of research-based news coverage are quite a few surveys and polls that are bought and paid for by foundations, political organizations and activist groups. Not surprisingly, the findings of each survey somehow advance their agendas, yet who is behind the survey receives little to no notice as the sensational value of the survey results garner most of the attention.
As you follow the news over the next month, to be an armed news consumer, I’d recommend a couple of things as you are exposed to stories of polls and surveys. Find out who is behind the survey or the poll and ask yourself what they have to gain through certain types of headlines. What you’ll then have is the context you need to determine the credibility of the data.
To give you an idea of how some publicity survey questions are structured, here are some very common approaches:
- Of the following issues, which is most/least important to you? (ranking)
- As you understand it, which claims are true? (can select more than one)
- Please rank the level at which you agree or disagree with following claims? (ranking)