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Communications and statistics: a match made in heaven, or forged in hell?

by AprilSix Proof


As today is European Statistics Day, our blog this week looks into the use of data and statistics in PR. 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 measuring any PR campaign, whether it is through processing the results, analysing the wider impact, or talking about the ROI of a campaign. This blog however, examines more how statistics can be used in external communications, what are the traps to avoid and the best practice approaches to take?

This 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 (RSS), 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, the Vice President for External Affairs at the RSS and Director of Statistical Consultancy Services 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 is a journalist from the BBC’s Reality Check. He 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.

Perhaps the most intriguing stat fact to come out on the night was nothing to do with toothpaste, but a British institution – the Jaffa Cake. Apparently the jelly inside is not, as most people presume, from Jaffa oranges, but the pulp of apricots. Although there was some debate on Twitter after the event as to whether or not this was a myth.

While statistics and how to use them can be a communications minefield, help is at hand for professionals looking for best 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 and is available here.

Still want more? One of last night’s speakers, Jennifer Rogers posed the Puzzle for Today on Radio 4 this morning, you can attempt to solve it here.

If you have any questions about this blog please email