Using polls and surveys? Don’t feel stumped by Trump

So Donald Trump has beaten the polls and is to be the next president of the United States of America.

Or has he? Beaten the polls, that is. Or have the polls beaten themselves?

Once again, there is a feeling that the polls have been found wanting. And, as followed the UK general election of 2015, there is bound to be extensive and intensive effort to understand what they did and did not get right.

In the meantime, a lot of people will still be using polls and surveys to inform strategies and campaigns. Public relations professionals are among them.

My advice, for the time being, is don’t abandon your surveys and polling. But do check you understand their limitations.

Here are just a few things to have in mind:

  • The responses give a snapshot of opinion as it was at the time of asking the questions. Caution is needed in treating them as a guide to future views and actions.
  • The views expressed may not be the views held by the respondent, especially on sensitive issues.
  • The wording of questions, and their order, can influence how a person answers. Indeed, just doing a survey may have a biasing effect on their responses.
  • It is increasingly difficult to get representative samples. Various methodological ‘corrections’ may lead to a few individuals having a highly distorting effect on the overall result. And, worse still, some important groups may get missed out entirely.
  • When an inference is made about a population from a sample, it comes with uncertainty – make sure you understand what it means whether it’s called a margin of error, a confidence interval, a credibility interval, or whatever. And understand to what level you can be confident. (The typical range is plus-or-minus three percentage points on a figure, to 95 percent confidence.)

If in doubt, get advice! Plug – I can help.

More efficient, more productive – in praise of touch typing

Up to 2001, one of the most used keys on my keyboard was Backspace.

I was a hunt-and-peck typist. I didn’t think I was a slow typist. I used more than one finger on each hand which helped. But I made lots of mistakes. And lots of mistakes meant lots of backspacing. So many mistakes that my right middle finger began to hurt both from the frequency of hitting Backspace and, I must admit, from the ferocity in which it got hit as I got ever more frustrated at lack of progress.

So I taught myself to touch type using some freeware. It took about six weeks to become reasonably proficient.

I’m now a much quicker typist. I touch type at least twice as quickly as I hunt-and-pecked. I’m not a record breaker, but I can get about 70 words per minute.

I make fewer mistakes. And I pick up any mistakes immediately because I’m able to watch the screen nearly all of the time.

A huge advantage of this is that my focus is maintained; thoughts don’t get lost.

There have been times when I’ve had to take a lot of notes for committees. Touch typing means I captured more fully what was said. In the past I would have hand written notes, transcribing them later. With touch typing, notes were prepared in real time. It didn’t take long afterwards to do a quick edit of spurious material. This led to some impressed committee chairs who got the draft minutes on the same day, when their own minds were still fresh as to what was said and agreed.

The death of keyboard typing has long been predicted. But it’s slow in coming, if at all. In the meantime, I’d strongly recommend learning it.

Maybe it could even be added to CPD programmes!

Public affairs and Brexit – don’t be a Daydreamer!

Whether you were a Leaver, a Remainer, or a Daydream Believer, if you’re in or near public affairs then these are exciting times.

Last weekend, Theresa May made two important announcements.

One: there is to be a Great Repeal Bill (Wikipedia).

Two: she intends to send notification under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty that the UK intends to leave the European Union.

Till now many column inches, broadcast minutes and social media characters have been devoted to the views of politicians and commentators. On the latter I strongly recommend David Allen Green, an FT columnist on law and policy, and an insightful and incisive tweeter and blogger.

The setting up of new government departments has given something for public affairs professionals to get their teeth into; both to inform the new secretaries of state and their teams, and to influence.

A Bill gives more. Bills have processes, content and decision makers. Will the Bill start its legislative journey in the Lords or Commons? It matters. What is its Long Title? That matters, too.

What will it say at the start, especially about giving powers to ministers to repeal laws by secondary legislation. What will members of both Houses argue for? Some Bills survive relatively unchanged; others see substantial change even at the last minute. What of the Salisbury Convention (Wikipedia) and the 2015 Conservative Party manifesto (pdf): “We are clear about what we want from Europe. We say: yes to the Single Market.”

I doubt there’s a person, organisation, business or sector that is immune to the effects of leaving the European Union. It will be a matter of scale and of time period.

So, if you can then bone up now on how to have influence in parliament. It’s not all about having contacts and being able to enjoy cosy chats on the terrace. My experience working for MPs and peers is that simple things can make a big difference – such as writing an effective briefing paper, or proposing amendments that are drafted properly and so are acceptable for tabling.

And if you are lobbying then make sure you understand the rules and requirements – both those applying to you and to those you are hoping to influence! I’ve just checked my own entry on the CIPR’s UK Lobbying Register.

There’s a good guide from the perspective of parliamentarians here. If you want real insight, spend some time reading – 300+ pages – what the government side has to consider: “Guide to Making Legislation” (pdf).

The deadline of 31 March 2017 on triggering Article 50 gives a timeline. At that time a clock starts ticking: unless negotiations are complete, or the process is otherwise extended, the UK automatically ceases to be a member of the European Union after two years.

Deadlines force hands. What cards will be played and when? Who is getting the attention of ministers, and when, and why? In playing a card, what evidence is brought forward to support the case?

Remember, none of this is in an isolation chamber. The media will report, scrutinise and interpret. Will MPs see surges at surgeries, not just as particular sectors ramp up campaigns, but as constituency impacts become apparent? Postbags, email inboxes, @-tweets, Facebook comments, will overflow. There will be a lot of noise. How will you be heard?

How will parliamentary politics play out? Your influence might run to just one individual MP, or a handful. Remember, the Government has a tiny majority. Tiny majorities mean parties and even individuals can win favours. Just re-run 1992 to 1997, for a taste of what can happen. MPs defect. By-elections are lost. Others lose the Whip.

I’m a Remainer. I’m personally saddened by the journey the UK is now on. But as someone who has lived and breathed politics for over 25 years – but for 3,434 votes I might even have made it to the Commons! – I see exciting opportunities.

Whether Remainer or Leaver, whatever you do don’t be a Daydreamer. Get your act together quickly!

(And – plug – I’d be happy to help!)

CIPR president-elect – a checklist for choosing

I’ve cast my vote in the election for president-elect of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations.

I know a lot of people have either endorsed a candidate or declared their vote for one. I shan’t do so. But I want to share a bit of my thinking.

Early on, I tweeted a shortlist:

Image with text reading: Voting for CIPR president? My ideal is visionary, ambassadorial, listening, persuasive, team-building cat herder (aka good chair)
Early tweet: the text reads: “Voting for @CIPR president? My ideal is visionary, ambassadorial, listening, persuasive, team-building cat herder (aka good chair)”

In more detail, I was looking for evidence of the following:

  • commitment to the Institute, both in terms of its mission and in giving personal service (ideally beyond office-holding)
  • understanding of the position; whatever the primacy of the role (of president in the end) they are an officer within an Institute with a membership of many thousands
  • ability to preside; can they facilitate discussion and steer it to a decision aka a good cat-herder!
  • a team worker; building, leading, following, engaging and enabling
  • understanding that decisions must be well made; based on good evidence, and be capable of implementation within the resources available or procurable, and of being evaluated
  • ability to be an ambassador for the Institute and for the industry; be capable of communicating effectively, confidently, inspirationally and persuasively (here the videos were very helpful)
  • having a vision, and a record of putting one into practice

I looked for evidence in a lot of places: candidates’ statements, supporting videos, their tweets, and supporting blog posts.

Although no candidate ticked all boxes unambiguously, it was obvious that all candidates are capable of doing the job.

My preference order was decided mostly on the list above. But I also looked out for matters of particular and personal interest. Two candidates managed to tick one of my top two. It helped decide my second preference.

One thing that played no part in my thinking was the endorsements of others. I didn’t set them aside. I just noted that each candidate was backed by people whose opinions and judgment I respect.

Whether your preferred candidate wins or not, it is all our interests that we have elections in which many members are engaged. And the easiest way to measure that is through turnout.

So, if you’ve yet to vote, please vote!

UPDATE: one of the candidates, Gary Taylor, has suggested adding ability to make a decision. I agree. I probably had it implicitly in mind under the third bullet point.

Office-holder endorsements and CIPR elections – an agnostic view

The CIPR elections under way.

According to a blog post from former president, Kevin Taylor, the elections are unusual for the openness of existing officers in endorsing candidates. He welcomes this, though with caution, and in juxtaposition to the intrigue that went before in which a preferred candidate might emerge.

Another former president, Stephen Waddington, sets out a counterview, that allowing open endorsements “does the governance and reputation of the CIPR no favours”.

I am agnostic.

There is nothing wrong in seeking and using endorsements in principle. Anyone who’s provided a job reference or a client testimonial has done pretty much that. It is how endorsements are made and with what regulation that matters.

Endorsements can be helpful. I don’t mean the ones that say “X is brilliant. Vote for them”. I mean the ones that identify the qualities, skills and expertise that either a candidate declines to mention out of modesty (okay, unlikely in PR!?!), or might be discounted as bombast. I’m particularly aware that I’ve voted for one candidate on the open list because they came to my attention through the endorsement of someone I follow on Twitter. It meant I looked carefully at their candidate statement in a way that I might not have done had there been no endorsement.

I’m a party political animal. I’m used to elections in which the resulting body – a council – is split by political group. Councillors worked across the boundaries, but decisions routinely were by vote.

The CIPR Board is not a council. Working should be extensively collaborative and decision-making, ideally, by consensus.

Are there risks then in open endorsements? Indeed, open endorsement seems to be a campaign tool judging by the number of tweets and retweets I’ve seen. It could be a source of friction once the election is over and people must work with each other.

Open endorsement also carries with it the risk of perceptions – if not the reality – of a slate; an organised attempt to push the organisation in one or other direction through sheer weight of numbers. I should stress that this is a deliberate offering of the most pessimistic view for discussion, not because I believe it to be the case.

As I said, I’m agnostic. But I agree with Stephen Waddington when he says: “This will be an important discussion for the CIPR once the election is over.”

UPDATED: paragraph relating to numbers of candidates for president-elect being unusual deleted as incorrect. Other minor changes to improve use of English language! No material impact on substance of post.

Calling for N years’ experience? Your PR job ad is risky and bad practice

In around ninety days I hit 50 years old. I’ll wave my metaphorical bat to the pavilion and then settle down to making a century.

What have all these years brought me? A good number of experiences. A reasonable amount of learning. Some skills acquired. Application of the last two in undergoing the first.

Of those years, a lot have been spent in public relations and public affairs.

That’s nice. It makes it much easier for me to hit one of the common recruitment criteria you’ll see, such as these from the CIPR’s job pages:

  • “At least 5 years in a PR position preferably gained with a professional services environment”
  • “3 to 8 years’ experience, with a comprehensive and rounded PR skill set with proven expertise in media relations ideally in a B2B context”
  • “7 years + experience as a marketing professional”
  • “2 years Digital PR experience”

N years’ experience over and again.

It’s easy to understand. Years on the job mean expertise and wisdom, right?

But there’s a problem here. You’re discriminating. And you’re quite possibly discriminating in a way that employment law doesn’t like.

Have a look at this from the ACAS guide, Age and the workplace (pdf), my bolding:

“Avoid references, however oblique, to age in both the job description and the person specification. For example, avoid asking for ‘so many years’ experience. This may rule out younger people who have the skills required but have not had the opportunity to demonstrate them over an extended period. A jobseeker could challenge any time requirement and you may have to justify it in objective terms.

It’s not just ACAS. A simple web search will find you plenty of the same from a lot of employment law firms. (Some of them might be ideal for the candidate who takes you to tribunal!)

I’ve known people shrug their shoulders and say they’ll take the risk, presumably because they see a number of years’ experience as a proxy measure for the expertise they’re looking for.

Not only is this potentially bringing them to the edge of what is legally acceptable, it’s just bad business practice.

There’s evidence that some potential candidates are put off by a criterion they cannot meet. They simply don’t apply, and so you can’t possibly interview them. There’s particular evidence that this is more so with women than men.

Plus it’s not hard to spell out clearly what you’re really looking for – experience of effectively applying skills in particular circumstances. And doing so makes it simpler to mark candidates on how they meet the person specification.

So for your next job advert, think. What is it am I really looking for?

And bear in mind: now you’ve read this you won’t be able to plead ignorance should you end up at tribunal!

What every PR needs to understand from Brexit polling

The dust is … well … not settling.

The only poll that ever mattered – the actual vote – has delivered a Brexit majority.

Last year, after the pollsters failed to detect a Conservative majority was on the cards, pollsters held an extensive industry-wide inquiry.

The much-respected academic institution, NatCen, followed the inquiry’s findings. It found that at the time of its survey the UK would have voted 53:47 in favour of Remain.

The outcome, of course, is not in line with that finding. Many other pollsters found a small Remain lead in the final days.

On the headline figures, not just NatCen but many pollsters were wrong.

For many PR professionals, polls and surveys are the go-to tool of their campaigns. So, can they have any confidence in them any more?

The clue is in that word: confidence.

Every poll comes with a measure of its uncertainty – often called a confidence interval, a credible interval or, most commonly, the margin of error.

In the skills guide I put together for the CIPR on using statistics in public relations, I said “be certain about your uncertainty”.

What does this mean?


A rule of thumb is that any figure reflects the true situation within three percentage points both up and down. Any decent pollster will tell you clearly what the particular interval is.


So for any poll that found Remain or Leave on 50 per cent, then the true figure was most likely to be in the range 50-3 per cent and 50+3 per cent, that is somewhere between 47 and 53 per cent.

But there’s more. There’s more to this likelihood. Because it too tells us something about the certainty.

That interval is not 100 per cent certain. The true figure could, actually, be higher or lower than the plus-or-minus-three suggests. It is often that the certainty is given at the 95 per cent level. That is, if the poll had been done 20 times, 19 of them would have the true figure in their respective interval, though not necessarily the same interval.

There is even more, though.

Any poll is only a snapshot of opinion at the time those opinions were sought. In the referendum, as with elections, opinions can switch rapidly.

And, any poll is only as good as its methodology. If there is a fundamental flaw, then it doesn’t matter how certain its results are. It’s like taking a temperature with a thermometer that has a flawed scale. The figure might go to tenths of a degree, and so be very precise, but it’s no use if it tells you that your temperature is 44 degrees!

PRs should not fret. But they should make sure they’re fully aware of the certainties and uncertainties. Read your pollsters’ Continue reading “What every PR needs to understand from Brexit polling”

Sex stats – size matters and a problem of approximation

Saturday morning. Test Match Special on the radio. Browsing the web.

My eye is caught by a BMJ press release (newsroom page) on holiday sex stats (pdf).

There are lots of percentages. The BMJ has helpfully interpreted those in words – something I strongly recommend in my training workshops.

Two interpretations have caught my eye:

BMJ-men-women BMJ-61.5-almost-two-thirds

In the first, almost 58.5% is described as over half, ie over 50%. True – but over half is a big range! And 58.5% is a long way over half.

In the second, 61.5% is described as almost two thirds. Two thirds as a percentage is 66.7% (to one decimal place).

The difference between 61.5% and 58.5% is just 3 percentage points. They are closer to each other than they are to the 66.7% and 50% to which they are respectively compared. Two thirds and one half differ by a whopping 16.7 percentage points.

Both 58.5% and 61.5% are 1.5 percentage points away from 60% aka three fifths.

So 61.5% could be described as “a little over three fifths”, and 58.5% could be described as “a little under three fifths”.

Does this matter?

Yes. When we convert percentages to words it makes it easier for others to understand, and to remember. A politician might glaze over at 61.5% and 58.%, but be comfortable with “almost two thirds” and “over half”.

A problem comes when approximations in words – easily recalled and reported onwards – get turned back to numbers. Things get lost in translation.

Let’s use our BMJ numbers: what if a debate becomes one of two thirds versus one half – of 66.7% to 50%. Not of 61.5% and 58.5%. How would any decisions be affected?

Alternatively, what if the words used had been “a little over three fifths” and “a little under three fifths”? Would recalling both as three fifths – a difference of zero percentage points – be less problematic than the 16.7 percentage point gap?

In the end, size matters. And so does approximate size. Choose your words carefully!

If you need to…

● make sense of the numbers, data and statistics you work with daily

● have greater impact with the data you collect and the surveys you commission

● develop confidence talking and writing about the numbers that matter

… I can help with training and consultancy.

A charity’s view on policy need not be a view on politics – they should enter the EU debate

Should charities speak out in the EU debate?

There is no doubt that Brexit carries with it big risks for the not-for-profit sector. Will post-Brexit Britain reproduce EU regulations, initiatives and partnerships that advance charities’ objectives.

And what of income? Most economists say Brexit is very likely to lead to a downturn in the UK economy. And a weaker economy means less money for government grants; less money for individuals to donate.

In an article on the CIPR’s Influence site, Kate Turner, discusses other risks:

“The risks of speaking out are arguably similar to that faced by any consumer-facing organisation or company whose fortunes depend on the goodwill and support of a considerable number of stakeholders. Alienating supporters who take a different view could have a significant impact on donations, volunteers and receptiveness to other key messages from a charity.”

It seems to me, that what is often overlooked is that entering a debate does not necessarily require taking a side.

Saying that an EU regulation, initiative or partnership has been a benefit to a charity’s work, is informative.

Saying that whatever the outcome of the referendum the charity would want to see a continuation of helpful circumstances is also informative.

Surely, a charity can voice a view on policy – regulations etc – without having to voice a view on politics – the Remain or Leave options?

And, by voicing such a policy view, charity-supporting voters (whether tending to Remain or to Leave) get extra information ahead of making their final decision.

Are PRs without data skills set to be left behind?

I doubt anyone imagines that a PR professional lacking skills with words is going to find their career anything but challenging.

But what about numbers?

I’ve been stressing for years that PRs need to embrace their numerate side. It’s not just me. The Global Communications Report 2016, launched at the World PR Forum in Toronto, is just the latest to identify the increasing use of data as a driver of change.

But while the future may see a specialist data analyst be embedded in your team, will you understand what they find?

Will you be comfortable – and, more importantly, competent – in presenting the numbers to the Board?

Could you explain a confidence interval? Or decide which average to use and why – arithmetic mean, or the median, or the mode? How about calculating a percentage with confidence?

And, could you turn your numbers into compelling messages that sway opinions and influence behaviours among your audiences, publics and consumers?

As the Global Communications Report puts it: “writing… might be considered a ‘price of admission’ ability for a communications department”.

In years to come, lack of data skills may not see you refused entry to the profession. But it’ll be those who can handle the numbers who’ll get into the VIP lounge.

If you need to…

● make sense of the numbers, data and statistics you work with daily

● have greater impact with the data you collect and the surveys you commission

● develop confidence talking and writing about the numbers that matter

… I can help with training and consultancy.