Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Bad Polltaking 101

A good publicist knows the press value of well-done polls. Of even more importance, there's the methodology -- was it scientifically taken? Random sample? Who was polled? Margin of error?

You can have all those things locked in but they won't mean a thing if the questions are bad.

Sir Robert Worcester, founder of the MORI polling and research center, had rules for good poll questions: A question must be logical (allowing a simple answer), precise, even-handed, without a preferred answer. A good poll question must not assume knowledge, must not supply so much information as to be leading and must not be too complex.

From a publicist's perspective, you want to ask questions that have not been asked before, questions that "hit home" with many people, and ideally, nothing that will produce a "duh" response.

Which is precisely what the new teaming of Vanity Fair magazine and CBS-TV's "60 Minutes" have produced in their new monthly surveys of "the American consciousness," as surprisingly reported in The New York Times. Like the first survey results reported in the article, there is just no news here.

For example, "respondents overwhelmingly selected Wal-Mart as the best corporate symbol of America today." Surprising, huh? The TV program's executive producer told the paper: "I wouldn't have guessed Wal-Mart would have run away with that."

I guess if one were living in a New York City or Los Angeles bubble, that would be news. After all, Vanity Fair has a reputation "for being read in elite circles." And for 60 Minutes, known for riveting news journalism, breaking stories and astonishing interviews, these results must seem like they were slumming it.

Here's another one for the vain set: "Which of these men would you most like to trade places with for a week: George Clooney, Barack Obama, Tom Brady, or Bruce Springsteen?" Clooney "narrowly topped Mr. Obama." This seems right out of the Esquire or GQ school of manly polls!

No mention in the article of the survey's methodology or margin of error, but there is the mea culpa of The New York Times being a polling partner of CBS News.

Now that the New York Times article's buzz boost on this first poll is behind us, I look forward to seeing if Vanity Fair and 60 Minutes grasp for better questions and relevance next month... and if they can get press ride without the Grey Lady. There's nothing worse than being a publicist being handed poll results that are as earth shattering as announcing the next Shrek sequel.

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