For the Sake of Transparency: Informing Interviewees

FalconiA few days ago, the New York Times printed an intriguing article featuring Scott Howe, CEO of Axciom Corporation, and his decision to embark on a ‘novel public relations strategy: openness.’ The marketing technology company unveiled a free website where consumers in the United States can view some of the information collected about them.

The article goes on to explain how this decision also serves well the interests and reputation of the company. I must confess it is a delightful sensation to read, once in a while, how public relations can also be interpreted as a win-win activity… and not always at the expense of someone else. More importantly is how effective forms of public relations need always be relevant to the organization’s core business.

However, I can’t help but wonder if the time has not come for us to review – in light of new social sensitivities that have emerged around the popular buzzword, ‘transparency’ – how we engage directly or as clients, performing or commissioning consumer, opinion and behavioral research. It is one of the fundamental pillars of this Institute’s activities.

The simple fact that over 70% of potential interviewees refuse to be interviewed (doubled in the last decade) can certainly be, at least in part, attributed to an understandably growing reluctance of people to confide their thoughts to other unknowns whose expressed motivations may often enough be interpreted as opaque.

Yes, in consolidated research methodology many questions are indirect and not correlated to the stated objective of the research (if and when declared). Furthermore, these responses are commonly used to interpret or confirm responses to other more direct questions.

One, however, wonders if a more advanced interpretation of ‘transparency’ would not include today that the researcher inform the interviewee (in the street, on the phone, online, in the home, or in focus groups) about the identity of the client (not some kind of front organization), specific objectives, use of indirect questions, and methodology being used.

A further profile of transparency could call for the interviewee to receive a temporary password to a non-downloadable final report. In some countries (Italy being one), legislation implies polls of political nature, with all methodological framework, be uploaded on a publicly accessible website. Though, in the case of consumer market or opinion research, this does not apply.

Finally, such cautions do not conclude the doubts that have been growing in my mind since I began my intense use of research for public relations activities some forty years ago.

  1. If we could say way back then with some confidence that opinions expressed by representative samples of a given universe would likely transform into behaviors, today the situation has changed. Correlations between opinion and behavior are less frequent due to the trust issue and feebleness of fixed points of reference, as well as the growing number of interviewees that find ‘amusement’ in voluntarily misleading researchers with their replies. On this last issue, I asked some major European and American research companies if they had agreed on a common corrective factor, but while they all told me such a factor is used in interpreting results, they would not tell me how.
  2. Is the methodology to construct a representative sample still correct today? Increasing personal mobility, including the use of mobile telephones and online environments, does not allow the same preciseness in the localization of interviewees. What is more, the increasing number of immigrants (legal and illegal) does not allow researchers to collect reliable indications about age, ethnicity and gender. Once, most interviews were conducted in person. Today it is almost never so.
  3. And now let’s also consider the client side. In the past, most research efforts were commissioned by organizations with the aim of improving the quality of products, services and ideas, or to verify the likelihood of interviewees to accept new products, services or ideas. Today, researches are frequently commissioned to verify the effectiveness of communications for products, services or ideas; and in the worst case, simply to receive confirmation of existing ideas of the client. If the research confirms them, all is ok and the research company can hope to receive further assignments, while the client, a CMO or CCO, is happy to use results to further his/her internal career path. If, instead, the results do not confirm the ideas, they are more than often deleted and, in turn, the research company cancelled from the client’s supplier list.

I am a great fan of research in our domain and for decades have been an intense client, researcher and analyst.

I would like to probe my friends of and around the Institute to see if at least some of these perplexities are also theirs, and if so, what they are doing about it.

I am well aware that we have, as professionals of public relations, more than one soft spot to look out for before being critical of some of our most strategic suppliers (researchers). However, thanks in part to the great work IPR has done in recent years, research has become so vital for our professional accountability that I wonder, for our own sake, if it is not time to look into these issues with a more critical and ‘out-of-the-box’ perspective.

 

Toni Muzi Falconi is an adjunct professor at New York University and LUMSA University in Rome. He is also Senior Counsel to Methodos spa, the Italian change-knowledge management consultancy that operates in Milano and Rome.

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14 Comments

  1. Interesting points you make, Toni. I believe the phenomenon you are describing fits in with other patterns that are making citizens question their sense of trust in authorities. Be it polling, politicians making decisions verbally and not in writing and thus leaving no paper trail, bureaucrats using personal g-mail addresses and not their institution’s formal e-mail address again in order to leave no paper trail that would be available through access to information requests or simply the e and voice mail intrusions of various national security organizations, who can you trust to be transparent?

  2. More transparency can’t be a bad thing. However research can be skewed if the client is not ethical by asking questions that are too leading. You can influence results in durveys or focus groups that way.

    Public opinion researchers in Canada have codes of conduct and standards of practice-one of which us a mandatory statement regarding the margin of error which must be oubludhed in all media articles resulting from the research.

  3. Toni, Axciom Corporation seems to be practicing good old issues management presented in a language of The Cluetrain Manifesto (www.cluetrain.com). But you are making three very interesting points: (1) how to think “openness” (“transparency”) that has become a mantra of the day and, (2) can social research become a collaborative practice between researches and their subjects (sic!), and (3) would such new “open research” produce better (more valid, more reliable?) results?
    (1) Whenever I see believers in openness, I wonder if they have ever thought about panopticism (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panopticism). There are costs and benefits of everything in life (I definitely don’t want to be understood as somebody propagating closeness). There are reasons why we have skin, there are reasons why our houses have walls and some also curtains, there are reasons why we might be more concerned with privacy than openness.
    (2) Social research can be thought in many ways, but I belong to the old guard who believes that research is about description, understanding and control (recognition, prediction and action) – both basic and applied. Sapienti sat.
    (3) I am afraid (well, no, I am not afraid, it is good) that there are no shortcuts for competence and hard work. Sometimes luck helps, but loving interviewees will not make them more responsive (in Ljubljana, which is not at the centre of the world, there are days I get up to five telephone calls in a couple of hours asking me about all kinds of things, from politics to insurance – why would I be willing to volunteer them my time?) or more reliable (when so often they have no idea what they are asked about, yet they are still quite capable of producing intelligible responses).
    I agree with you, Toni, that we have a problem. It is in the thesis 26 of The Cluetrain Manifesto: “Public Relations does not relate to the public. Companies are deeply afraid of their markets.”
    There is only one solution to problems of quality in research: better research.

  4. In the last census in the UK there was a ‘movement’ to have Jedi Knight registered as an official religion and a huge number of people put it on their forms. This could be considered irresponsible and make the validity of the whole exercise open to question. On the other hand it could suggest that people want very much to have an impact and play a part in creating change.
    I prefer the second interpretation and from that would suggest that seeing the outcome of the research, not just the results but the changes that the client has made as a result, is vital and will encourage more people to take part.
    I have tried to create an online issues management system which asks people for their opinions about anything at any time, to track where they increase or decrease their trust of individuals, companies and brands according as stories about them develop. They are promised that their views will be passed on and a quarterly report will show how they might have played a part in change.Trials have shown that those taking art have enjoyed it and want to continue. It is a work in progress.

  5. I see your point, this openness strategy is towards the people interviewed and not the client paying for the study.

    I gave this some thought and Jean’s comment is right, there are some professional interviewees who can use this information to skew results.

    Also, there is a little known rule that people are entitled to full access of their information held by private companies. So the “new” openess strategy is just a way to pro-actively comply with the law.

    A deeper issue is the format lock-in. Most companies provide a PDF report, but not a file with the raw data that is easy to read/analyse to confirm findings.

    As for the point about the validity of research, I don’t see it as a problem we can solve. People are not always truthful in interviews, and even when they are, at the time to really make a decision, they may be skewed by circumstances. (Middle aged men who would buy a sports car may end up buying a van by pressure from their spouse.)

    But looking at both intention (interviews) and actual behaviour (client data) we may be able to pin-point where/how this mis-match happens. But at least during my experience, clients seldom provide any actual data we can use.

  6. In reading the five comments from the friends who bothered to share their thoughts on my post, my first reaction is that the arguments of the post were irrelevant .

    Yet five comments from such reputed colleagues contain interesting perspectives.

    Where Fraser smoothly ‘surfs’ on the generalized mistrust for any institution and Jean confirms his consolidated view that only ethical codes of conduct are liable to produce results for professional behaviors impacting the public interest; Dejan introduces us to collaborative research as an option to better research (his is only a question, not an answer).
    When he says, citing the Cluetrain Manifesto, that PR does not relate to (not with?) the public because ‘companies are deeply afraid of their markets’, this notion is confirmed if we accept the still dominant ‘symbolic, interpretive management’ buffering approach to protect the organization from its environment.
    However the very recent Page Society report on the 25 interviews with as many Ceo’s, indicates that the two major shifts in the last six years see the CCO more involved in a proactive rather than a defensive role towards the environment and, in parallel, are more directly engaged in partnering with other management functions in order to enable them to relate directly with their stakeholders (the 2002 bled manifesto ‘educative’ role).
    If this is true then we are quickly moving to the other stakeholder relationships governance approach or, at the very least, to an increasing hybridization of the two.

    Sue gives an interesting example of what Dejan indicates as collaborative research and invites us to look at even the strangest phenomena as another way of expressing interest in participation to the public policy process.
    Finally the youngest of my dear friends, Bruno, cannot remember when only 20 years ago the refusal to be interviewed rate climbed to 30% provoking a nightmare amongst most serious research companies and introducing agreed upon correction factors.
    Quietly, today the level is at least 70% and nobody seems to bother.

    In parallel, we were all amazed when Scott Cutlip in 1965 told us that 45% of newspaper content came directly from media relations activities, while very few of us reacted when 5 years ago the University of Cardiff showed us that the figure had reached 82%.

    Bruno says people are entitled to know what personal data private companies have about them. If this was true the NSA scandal would have been less disruptive and the New York Times would not have published the article I cited in the opening of my post. I imagine Bruno refers to Portugal and possibly (but I would be very surprised) Europe. And this could be interpreted also as a counterargument to Jean’s trust in codes of conduct.

    To conclude, I ask readers and colleagues to take the time to listen to this truly inspiring ‘it’s a brand new world’ radio program by Ira Basin aired on Canadian radio Sunday (http://www.cbc.ca/thesundayedition/popupaudio.html?clipIds=2406139657) and to read (if they haven’t already done so) David Carr’s parallel piece on the NYT (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/16/business/media/storytelling-ads-may-be-journalisms-new-peril.html?pagewanted=all).

    Don’t think that I am ‘beating around the bush’ or ‘changing the argument’.
    Here are two very serious, intelligent, senior and reputed journalists who, despite all, still have some impact on people’s opinions.
    A terrifying future in which many of our colleagues take center stage lays ahead, and we need to think about how we want to live with it and still do our job in a way that allows us to look at ourselves in the mirror feeling relatively at ease.

    I despise the word transparency because it means everything and nothing and conflicts with my description of public relations as an innate ambigue and opaque profession, two indicators that make our work so challenging and fascinating.
    I suggest we use responsibility, interpreted as in the Melbourne Mandate (http://melbournemandate.files.wordpress.com/2012/09/working-paper-responsibility-group.pdf).

  7. Toni – I have given this post some thought and also found the earlier comments of interest. I am not surprised by what you report because like many tools in society, research has been tainted by vested interests, lazy methodology and public fatigue as a result of over-use. PR has played a huge role in this – not least by attitudes that seek to influence or exploit findings rather than seeking to be informed by them. And, let’s be spared from the vacuous PR surveys that are nothing more than a hook for publicity stories!

    Who can blame the public for increasingly being cynical and jaded by the research attempts that bombard them (escalated by online technologies). For example, I honestly gave my support to the campaign to feature a woman on British bank notes, and subsequently receive emails on all sorts of issues where it would be easy to give response, but would it indicate any commitment, interest or attitude on my part?

    It also seems easy for organisations to conduct research without valuing those who participate. The world is certainly messy and complex – maybe it always has been but modernist perspectives created an illusion of scientific understanding of human behaviour and hence predictability and control. Relying on simple techniques (no matter how transparent data becomes) is likely only to generate superficial responses and insight often based on poor statistical analysis (especially within PR).

    For my own PhD studies, I am looking to my participants to be co-researchers rather than subjects – but I do appreciate that my depth interview technique and other more qualitative approaches designed to give insight and understanding, are not as appealing as fast, cheap and ‘big data’ driven approaches stimulated by online research.

    But as the adage of research has always had it – rubbish in, rubbish out. Sadly that’s ever more true of modern research.

  8. Heather and friends, I hope it is evident that I had not read Heather’s rich and stimualting comment before posting my reply to the others.

  9. In traditional sociall research we have to distinguish between two opposite sides: willing openness (question: how to improve it creating a continuous dialogue, not a one-way question-answer relation) and willing misleading (question: why do citizens have this approach?). As usual, we have also to think about how and how much the researcher can manipulate tools and answers so to have results matching with his initial assumptions.
    Anyway, the research scenario will be completely changed by Big Data. Big Data works on tracking behaviors as they are, without imposing any theory or hypothesis but only trying to see useful correlations.
    Let’s think about a research about sexual orientation and habits. One man in his twenties could answer saying that he is straight and has between 5 and 7 new girls a year. The researcher will correct these answers through usual research technique. But the tracking of his internet habit can let us see that this subject goes often on gay websites, spending on them dozens of minutes a week. It’s a curiosity? Is he realizing his deep real sex attitudes only now? Is he a gay and simply he hasn’t decided yet to coming out? We really don’t know. In the traditional approach we have a lack of openness, in the Big Data approach we have habits without a clear causation (it’s not exactly so but I’m trying to simplify). Our digital habits are completely “naked” today, and this is a point of big concern. What we would like to cover up is disclosed by the tracking of all messages and traces let by our “digital body”, as I call it.
    What I can see as a solution is a new approach able to mix different research techniques: Big Data and traditional quali-quantitiative researches. Unfortunately, so many times researchers are devoted to only one methodology, as believers of a sectarian religion: few days ago I had a dinner with some Italian social researchers who were near to consider Big Data only fluff and to propose a total subjective (not qualitative, really subjective like a subjective narration) approach to the research!!!! :) (both Malinowsky and Geerts would have been ashamed, from my negligible point of view)
    What I could say is that to be more open to the responders is still not enough. I can see at the horizon the necessity to involve the responders in a co-interpretation of the data, transforming the interview in a constant dialogue (by email, chat, forum and so on) during all the research period to get multiple perspectives and interpretations, useful also to understand the emerging correlations from Big Data analysis. In this approach the role of PR can be central in explaining the meaning and the aims of the research, to create the right “mood” between researchers and responders, to manage the interactions and to analyze their quality, to define the best ways and tools to involve respondents in the research (right messages as well as gamification and so on, so on).
    PR and social analysis is real a big topic. For now, my two cents…

  10. How challenging!
    I had no idea that our discussion would eventually lead into participative research and the growing role of Big Data.
    Very stimulating indeed.

    It began with Dejan’s question ‘can social research become a collaborative practice between researches and their subjects (sic!)… and would it be better research?’.

    Sue, in turn, suggested that maybe ‘seeing the outcome of the research, not just the results but the changes that the client has made as a result, is vital and will encourage more people to take part’.

    And, in her brilliant and multi facet comment Heather said: ‘for my own PhD studies, I am looking to my participants to be co-researchers rather than subjects – but I do appreciate that my depth interview technique and other more qualitative approaches designed to give insight and understanding, are not as appealing as fast, cheap and ‘big data’ driven approaches stimulated by online’.

    And up comes Italian professional, teacher, blogger and digital thought leader Biagio Carrano telling us of ‘.. the necessity to involve responders in a co-interpretation of the data, transforming the interview in a constant dialogue (by email, chat, forum and so on) … to get multiple perspectives and interpretations, useful also to understand the emerging correlations from Big Data analysis. In this approach the role of PR can be central in explaining the meaning and the aims of the research, to create the right “mood” between researchers and responders, to manage the interactions and to analyze their quality, to define the best ways and tools to involve respondents in the research….’.

    When I wrote the post I did not realize that I was inadvertently trying to rationalize a public relations approach to better research.
    Dejan and Sue, would you accept this interpretation?.

    Biagio’s correlation between co-interpretation and Big Data analysis, well beyond my limited experiential comprehension, could probably give us a clue of where the discussion might usefully proceed.

    I will say, at this point, that when Heather says that ‘modernist perspectives created an illusion of scientific understanding of human behaviour and hence predictability and control’ ….I presume along Dejan’s recognition, prediction and action description of control.. and adding that ‘ Relying on simple techniques (no matter how transparent data becomes) is likely only to generate superficial responses and insight often based on poor statistical analysis (especially within PR)’ vividly stimulates us to develop further elements for a fruitful discussion between responsible professional research and responsible professional public relations.

    As I would have said in the late sixties… continuons le debat!

  11. As a researcher, I’m geared towards transparency and co-creation, not out of an ethical concern, but a quite selfish one: it’s the only way to get the truth.

    As Toni and I have discussed, shifting identities and established cynicism make plain polling a not-so-valid tool in many cases. In order to interpret answers, one has to understand the overall context, which mostly comes from a deeper and richer interaction with those being studied.

    I do not, however, think transparency is applicable to all of the research world: not only is a lot of proprietary information involved in these projects, but like someone else pointed out, it can negatively influence the results of a research study.

    That said, in many of my studies I like to be transparent about the ultimate goal of the project once the actual study has been done. In more than one occasion, I’ve directly asked the interviewee what would they do in my place. This is more commonplace in qualitative research, and like Heather mentioned, more aligned with co-creation and interpretative research tools.

    It is interesting how many commenters pointed to the world of big data, and how they’ve been forced to be more transparent about how they collect and use that information. What’s interesting is that with more transparency companies might actually become more aggressive in their data gathering. For example, the industry is moving towards clearer and simpler ‘opt-out’ mechanisms, thus fulfilling some legal and ethical considerations. But unless literacy about the process is widespread, most people will just accept the status quo be knowing participants in the equivalent of an always-on, quantitative research project.

    Startups like ctrlio.com are trying to create such 3rd party platforms to give people more control over their data. Question is: what kinds of similar controls can be applied to the overall research industry?

  12. You know I am a big fan but 11 is not an ” extraordinary number of comments. ” Especially when Toni accounts for two of those comments. Can we please frame this for its importance and not its number which really isn’t extraordinary at all? I try to teach my PR writing students not to embellish. I expect the same from IPR.

  13. I found it almost laughable that Axciom could position itself as doing something remarkable by calling for openness in business communications, and that the Times would eat it up. How long have we been talking and practicing different degrees of openness in the PR game? How long has it been a baseline idea among senior practitioners in public companies? Certainly by the time of Arthur Page and ATT. Then there’s what Ivy Lee preached. And Bernays and others. But I guess we should be thankful that a CEO went public with acceptance of the idea and in doing so gave professiona public relations a modest slap on the back.

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