We’ve all seen status updates on Facebook stating the corresponding user is associated with a certain cause/religious faith/political ideal and dares others to post the same status, claiming that anywhere from 93 percent to 97 percent “won’t re-post this.” Where do those statistics come from? Nowhere. They are assumed and fabricated.
There is something very comforting about a statistic. Numbers are clear and simple and seem to hold no bias. However, just as in the Facebook status example, stats can be just as easily manipulated as any other fact.
Oxford mathematician, Peter Donnelly, gave another, more serious example of wrong and careless use of statistics in a TEDOpen Translation Project speech back in 2005. He told the story of a British woman, Sally Clark, who gave birth to twins, both of whom died from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). The mother was tried and convicted of murder because a then-distinguished pediatrician said the chance of both babies, who were born to a professional, non-smoking family, dying fromSIDS was one in 73 million. Donnelly later went on to explain how this claim was not only bad math but also a blanket use of statistics. Thankfully, Sally Clark was later acquitted of the crime, and the doctor was faced with a disrepute charge before the Britain’s General Medical Council.
Statistics are dangerous things. They can be presented as truth with little to no support to back them up. They are used and abused and misinterpreted. Misrepresentation happens easily in everyday life, but, surprisingly, it also occurs in the professional realm as well.
How can we, as future or current PR professionals, use statistics responsibly and ethically?
Psychologist John Grohol’s blog “Bad Statistics: USA Today” on Psych Central outlined the important use of context in relation to statistics. Grohol cited a USA Today article that used the statistic, “Since 1970, the percentage of people ages 18 to 34 who live at home with their family increased 48%, from 12.5 million to 18.6 million.” He said the statistic sounds great . . . except for the fact that population growth within that 36-year period was not taken into account. Also, in 1970 many aged 18-34 were drafted for the Vietnam War — the 1970 number would naturally be lower.
We should always make sure to check the background of any statistics we use. Our goal is to help our client, but another one of our goals should be to provide factual, relevant information to our audiences. Check the context of all statistics and make sure the information is being presented in its correct light, and ensure you are not making wide-sweeping claims based on these statistics.
An example of a PR blunder related to blanket statements and statistics is the Baby Einstein case in 2009. The New York Times Article No Einstein in Your Crib? Get a Refund explains how Disney, who bought the rights to Baby Einstein, had to offer a full refund to any parent who bought Baby Einstein for their children after studies were released that showed that “television exposure at ages 1 through 3 is associated with attention problems at age 7.”
Baby Einstein previously claimed to improve a baby’s cognitive development and prepare them for future education, according to the article. Baby Einstein also released a variety of baby-related statistics as good PR for the company, which, whether the statistics were true or not, helped create a false image of validity and reliability for the company.
Vicky Rideout, vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, stated in the New York Times article that companies were more careful with blind claims after the Baby Einstein case, but misuse of statistics still occurs.
“When attention got focused on this issue a few years ago, a lot of companies became more cautious about what they claimed,” said Rideout in the article. “But even if the word ‘education’ isn’t there, there’s a clear implication of educational benefits in a lot of the marketing.”
Remember, just because it’s a number does not mean that you shouldn’t check and re-check the validity, just as you would with any other source. According to the PRSA Code of Ethics, PRSA recommends that all professionals “protect and advance the free flow of accurate and truthful information.”
Statistics can be very useful and fun in highlighting trends to your audience, in creating a message and in tracking the success of a campaign. Just keep ethics in mind, and there shouldn’t be any problem!