Beware of the leopard! Damaging reputation through frustration

Quoted source: the planning office.

Actual location: on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard’, in an unlit cellar with no steps for access, in the planning office.

You may recognise that this is what faced Arthur Dent, hero of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, when he went to inspect the plans for a bypass that involved demolishing his house.

Dent is naturally, but at least fictionally, frustrated and probably couldn’t think worse of the planning office.

Unfortunately, something similar happens too much in the real world, not least in public relations materials.

What looks like a great fact or statistic is undermined by having woefully inadequate references.

In my workshops I stress that in using numerical information from any source it is vital to give it a reality check. Have the sums been done right? Is the original data the most relevant or has there been an update? And so on.

If there is anything remarkable or counterintuitive about the information then it’s likely someone will want to dig into the claim – maybe one of the growing number of fact-checking organisations. They won’t be shy in saying that the source of the information seems unclear. That simple description can easily damage a reputation!

Often, while the source organisation is named, there is nothing else. A dead-end is reached almost on starting.

Even when the source is given to a particular page on an organisation’s web site it can turn out that there are five, ten, twenty or more links to many different documents or tables. If the source is a third party such as the Office for National Statistics then this often the case.

This week a particular claim intrigued me. There was no source. I enquired and got a web address that linked to a compressed folder that, on downloading, proved to hold forty files with names like ‘Appendix O’ and ‘Chapter 6 Tables’ (which itself had five different worksheets – I don’t know if the others had more or less… I simply gave up hoping to find the right table).

I’m sure I’m not the only one who gets very frustrated by this sort of thing.

Yet, this should largely be unnecessary. If you’re the producer of the information then you will already know the details of the source – the file title, table title, even the particular column(s) and/or row(s) that have been used. Publicising those can make the difference between a happy journalist, civil servant, researcher, politician, customer or client, and a frustrated one who might pass on using anything from you in the future.

Alternatively, you could just put everything in the basement and buy a leopard. It’ll certainly get you talked about!

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