toni-albanA 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.

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.
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.
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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