The death of advertistics? How fake news fears could topple a favoured PR mechanic

By Jennifer Grey | 30 Oct 2019

“Fake news” denotes a story that, while reported as straight fact, is built on less-than-credible source material. Do any of the stories you’ve recently pitched to press fit this definition?

When looking to create a headline, running a quick 2,000-person survey and creating stories from the data is one familiar tactic we’ve all employed. Whether you’re ‘proving’ who the UK’s biggest cheaters or favourite pets are, they make for neat little news stories that appeal to readers and journalists alike. However, since Arwa Mahdawi shredded a US-based survey claim in her Guardian column, these "advertistics" are coming under increasing scrutiny.

So, are we really seeing the death of the survey? The short answer is no, but there are some tips to ensure your data is ahead of the game:

  • Consider the theme of your piece. If it’s a light-hearted study of the nation’s pet or breakfast preferences, you can probably get away with some editorial licence. If you’re planning to poll the best cities for mental health, you may want to really think about how it will be presented or use other trusted data sources to ratify your claims.
  • Ensure you’re making statistically significant claims. Your survey results may show that 70% of Glaswegians enjoy working from home, but if only 10 of your respondents are from Glasgow, you can’t extrapolate that the ratio holds up for the wider city. Run a larger survey or look for trends which are statistically significant to ensure your piece is watertight.
  • Beware of removing ‘N/A’. You might be able to get some juicier data from a piece where a large percentage of your respondents opted for a ‘prefer not to say’ option, but if over 50% of them did so, you might end up unfairly inflating the remaining options.
  • Find your stats another way. If you’re working with a heavier topic, or don’t have the budget for a large-scale survey, consider using existing reports from trusted sources and combining or interrogating the data therein to create your headline. More time-intensive? Yup. More attractive to journalists? Also yup.

In short, there’s no need to panic and throw all your survey-led campaigns in the bin (yet). Just bring a little rigour to your interpretation of the figures, or consider other ways of getting that golden factoid, and you’ll have a clear methodology when it comes to pitching. Who wants to spread fake news anyway?