Are surveys the last great Potemkin village of media relations?

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Fireworks_crimeaBy Francis Moran

Grigory Potemkin was a Russian nobleman who, in an effort to impress his benefactor, empress and lover, is supposed to have erected facades of villages throughout Crimea when Catherine the Great came on an excursion through the southern regions of her empire in 1787. The purpose was to suggest that there was something far richer and more substantial behind the facades, which is what people mean when they say something is a Potemkin Village.

Now, most scholars agree that Potemkin’s fraud on his lover was probably not anywhere near as extensive as was once commonly held. I wish I could say the same for public opinion surveys, that great Potemkin Village of media relations that persists into today.

You’ve read, heard or watched enough of these to know what I’m talking about. Indeed, it’s a rare edition of any major daily newspaper or newscast that doesn’t feature at least one story built around a survey commissioned by some corporation or association. The media gloms onto the survey’s easy numbers as well as onto the illusion of accuracy and authority associated with the supposed scientific methodology of public opinion surveying and, in the process, readily serves up the sponsoring organization’s agenda or point of view in a way that no self-respecting journalist would ever agree to do if the opinion was presented in any other fashion.

Now, don’t get me wrong — as a media relations practitioner, I love a good survey and cheerfully endorse their use as an effective media relations approach. Hell, it’s as close to a guarantee of media coverage that you’re going to get in this business.

But the publicly minded media critic in me sees such surveys for what they are — artfully constructed facades that suggest there is science, objectivity and real news value stacked up behind them.

What I don’t understand is why journalists fall for them so easily.

Actually, I take that back. I do understand, and the reasons get at the root of an awful lot of what’s wrong with journalism these days.

First of all, public opinion surveys are the mother’s milk of political reporting. Unfortunately, unlike mother’s milk, political polls are about as nourishing as coloured water, virtually devoid of the news calories found in far more substantive investigative or analytical reporting. But like all empty calories, they’re cheap and easy to come by, and they sure do fill up a paper or newscast rather quickly.

This isn’t going to be a post about political reporting and the undue role that polls play in it, however; that’s a whole different rant I’d be happy to get into at another time. My point is that having become addicted to the fast-food hit of political polls, it’s all too easy for the rest of the newsroom to grab the quick snack of a survey when it’s offered.

Second, surveys have the illusion of scientific accuracy and objectivity. But any honest pollster will tell you that the results can be skewed almost any way you want through question-order bias, field biases of one form or another, or just the simple reality that it’s really hard to get at a representative cross-section of society any more using traditional survey methods such as phone calls.

Not that much of this is even relevant for surveys pitched to the media in the guise of news. Even if they employed the most rigorous of methodology, the fact that they are almost always conducted only to push the sponsoring organization’s point of view ought to make them suspect in any professional newsroom. And yet they get past the well-honed filters that most journalists instinctively deploy to weed out most of the rest of the self-serving pablum that comes their way.

And, finally, surveys come across as the latest and freshest of news. In the PR game, we struggle mightily to get the word “today” into the lead sentence of any news release. It’s what’s known as a breaking news hook, that burning sense of urgency that will help persuade our media targets to drop everything else that’s come across their desks in favour of our story. And surveys give us this is spades, serving up fresh-from-the-oven new news that smells and looks just like the real thing.

I know I’m biting the hand that feeds me with this. But I can’t help it. Even as I helped a client put together the news release a few weeks ago that reported on the results of a public opinion survey it had commissioned, the cynical media critic in me deplored the hungry newsroom addiction we were willingly going to feed while the media relations practitioner in me delightedly looked forward to all the great ink we’d get.

And we did get great ink. More than 50 outlets ran a story based on the results of our survey. That’s about five times as much coverage as we get for other news releases for this client, even ones that cover more substantive issues.

The Prince would be proud. Potemkin is alive and well and living in PR.

Image:Fireworks during visit of Catherine II of Russia in Crimea,” public domain image, Wikimedia Commons

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