Comms and stats: a match made in heaven, or forged in hell?

Written by Joe Meaney on . Posted in Features

The day before European Statistics Day, the RSS hosted an event on the ethical use of statistics in advertising, marketing and public relations, with the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR). Joe Meaney from AprilSix Proof reports from the meeting. 

Communications professionals need to understand best practice in the use of statistics for their jobs, whether it is using research to underpin key messages in external campaigns or presenting data analysing the results of such campaigns to internal stakeholders.

Knowing how to interpret, present and promote statistics is essential to any detailed PR campaign, whether it is in showing the results of a communications programme, analysing the wider impact, or talking about the ROI of a campaign. This blog however, is looking more at how statistics can be used in external communications, what are the traps to avoid and the best practice approaches to take?

Last week, AprilSix Proof MD Jim Sutton chaired an event with the CIPR on the ethical use of statistics in PR, advertising and marketing. Speakers from the Royal Statistical Society, Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and the BBC discussed a range of issues around the ethical use of statistics in communications and whether the figures used in PR, marketing and advertising stand up to scrutiny.

Jennifer Rogers, vice president for external affairs at the RSS and director of statistical consultancy cervices at the University of Oxford, discussed what a robust sample size was, and asked whether advertising claims such as '70% of 53 people agree that a product is good' are statistically valid and whether the study was properly conducted.

Anthony Reuben, a journalist from the BBC’s Reality Check, spoke about the kind of statistics in press releases that can ring alarm bells with the media and how the BBC trains its journalists to deal with statistics-based stories. The questions asked by journalists and editors included – who paid for this research; what questions were asked; to how many people and were those questioned the right people to be asked? He went on to say that the most powerful question in journalism was: 'Is this reasonably likely to be true?'

The ASA’s Jessica Tye informed the audience about the types of situations where they would ban advertisements based on misuse of stats. In 2007, the ASA banned a slogan from toothpaste manufacturer Colgate that claimed more than 80 per cent of dentists recommend its toothpaste. The slogan, which appeared on posters and adverts, was based on telephone surveys of dentists and hygienists carried out by Colgate. However, the ASA found that the survey allowed each dentist to recommend more than one toothpaste brand. 'The claim would be understood by readers to mean that 80 per cent of dentists recommend Colgate over and above other brands, and the remaining 20 per cent would recommend different brands,' the ASA said at the time.

While statistics and how to use them can be a communications minefield, help is at hand for professionals looking for advice on stats. Readers interested in more can access a CIPR guide to help them get to grips with data and statistics as part of their PR campaigns. This was written in partnership with former Royal Statistical Society comms lead, Andrew Garratt.

Still want more? On European Statistics Day, Jen Rogers posed the Puzzle for Today on Radio 4 - attempt to solve it here.

This blog was originally posted on the AprilSix Proof website. Read the original post

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