'Don't come dine with me' said the headline in The Telegraph today above a story about how the recession has put people off throwing dinner parties.
When PR people see this kind of news, we immediately scroll to the end to see which brand commissioned the research. Then we smile and metaphorically tip our imaginary hat at the agency behind the idea, where bright young people have brainstormed their client's message into a well-pitched public interest story.
This story, it turns out, was undertaken in conjunction with a brand of food called Very Lazy. They make mashed up garlic, ginger and chilli so lazy people (like me) don't have to mash it up. Despite their products probably being more expensive than buying the unprepared stuff and mashing it yourself, it's not a bad link between survey and brand story. Plus it got into The Telegraph, which is something that'll make Very Lazy Very Happy.
But then I saw the comments under the story. There aren't loads, but a few of them question the validity of the research. Some of them question the conclusions drawn. Others question the motivation of a food brand doing a survey about food.
In a climate where a voracious appetite for news means its easier than ever to get your story in the press, we mustn't forget that the amount of information out there means readers are far more savvy. People are questioning everything they read, and they now have channels to share their doubts with other readers. Readership, which was once an abstract concept, now has a voice.
Which means this style of story is much tougher to get right. If the survey doesn't have a killer angle, it won't get coverage. But if the story is too close to the client message, you'll get called out as a fake. Very Lazy did a fine job, but only just.
Surveys are still a hugely valuable way of communicating a message without resorting to cheesy marketing lingo. So how do we make sure our surveys strike the balance?
1. Don't commission a survey 'to get coverage'. Do it because you're interested in the topic, or think there might by an unexpected finding, or know that people would be really interested in the results. Don't always write questions that pander to a brand message. Make it challenging and honest.
2. Use the results of the survey in other parts of the business. Lots of PR surveys are only used in marketing, but they are a great opportunity to pool resources and find out something to the wider benefit of the business. Design the survey to be shared with product development, the sales team, or the bosses. Even better, write it for them first and make PR secondary (see point 1).
3. Spend some money on it. If you don't spend enough time brainstorming, writing, and fine-tuning the survey, it won't tell a good story. If you don't ask enough people, it'll be worthless. Put the survey at the centre of your campaign, and treat it like the most important tactic. It is not an afterthought or an add-on! And if you don't have enough budget, pool your resources with another department (see point 2).
And now a survey of my own... Do you use surveys in your PR campaigns?