The ethical communication of research in PR

Director of Client Services at Thwaites Communications, Helen Desmond, reflects on the power of research in communications, and why all communications professionals have a duty to use it ethically.

The power of research in communications

All communications professionals have a duty to use research ethically.

Telling stories with research evidence is very powerful.

Research findings, especially statistics, allow us to grasp the scale of a problem quickly. They help us to see how issues affect our peers and therefore might affect us. They give definition and shape to complex ideas and macro problems. They let us relate to an issue in a way that would otherwise be impossible. In short, as a consumer, and as a communications professional, working in the technology space, statistics and data are very close to my heart.

Recently I took part in a panel event at the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR), on the ethical use of research in PR. In preparing for the event, and listening to the views of my fellow panelists on the day itself, I was reminded how fundamental research is to communications. Without solid facts, narratives fall apart; without evidence, stories are merely chatter and  conjecture. Here are some of the other key points that I put forward on the panel:

Making better decisions

PR is about communicating information to people in a way that is relevant to their everyday lives. Sound research, good statistics and well-crafted stories should empower people to make better decisions. As communicators we should be working with the media, with stakeholders and through social media to equip people with knowledge to make better informed choices.

Ethics and openness go hand in hand

Research should stand up to scrutiny. Indeed, it should welcome scrutiny and create discussion. Findings should be easily accessible online, ideally with an open license, or at least one which makes it clear how they can be used. They should part of an open culture which welcomes transparency and challenge, even though it may not always be easy. Some of our clients use public-facing company dashboards that report on measures such as staff numbers, investments secured and value generated.

Building and retaining trust in data

As communicators we have a significant role in working with our clients to retain and build trust when is comes to research. We do this by being very clear about the origins of research, the sample size and methods used. Twitter polls, omnibus surveys and formal research studies are all valuable and have their place but they’re all different and have varying degrees of efficacy, so it’s important the research is correctly framed.   

The role of thought leadership

We can also build trust by making sure that research and thought leadership link hand in hand. Research should illustrate and bear out the wider beliefs of an organisation, speak to its policy positions on key issues, and link into its vision and purpose in the world, which is hopefully more than just making money.

People have become disillusioned with research and statistics

In recent years, statistics have been used incorrectly and inappropriately by some of the organisations we should be able to trustYoung girl in woodland covers her eyes for a game of hide and seek. Image is overlaid with a quote from the article.

Ethical story-telling

Yes, statistics can be used in many ways, some of them omitting key items of information in order to create a stronger, albeit it biased, story. It is our responsibility as professional communicators to ensure this doesn’t happen. We need to make good judgements about how research is delivered; including signposting clearly to the full dataset and ideally a summary of all the top level findings; being aware of the audience and what they need, and understanding the media and the channels for reaching that audience in the most balanced way possible. Good infographics can also be hugely beneficial. It is possible to have a strong, attention grabbing headline and a good balanced story, working with the right journalists to achieve the kind of informed, balanced coverage you want.

In the past five years, many people have become disillusioned by research and statistics. They have been used incorrectly and inappropriately by some of the organisations we should be able to trust; the Brexit bus, and the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal being the most obvious examples. But facts about how and why people do things remain crucial to how we interpret the world. Our job as communicators is to use research to tell powerful stories with openness, clarity, and trust.