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Our survey says…

I have always wondered what it must be like to work in PR. A few years ago, when I first struck out in the freelance world, I was contacted by two or three lovely people who asked whether I might like to come in for a chat with them.

For various reasons, I was unable to take them up on their kind offers, mainly because I wondered how I would fare if I had to churn out rubbish in a desperate bid to ensure my clients received a media mention.

The problem as I see it is that many PRs despair of ever being able to do it on the basis of a “straight” story. They know journalists love an angle so they find themselves chasing their tails to provide that elusive “something” that will get ensure a tiny sliver of additional name recognition from a jaded public.

The end result of all this effort is the PR stunt, masquerading as “research”, in which a few hundred people are polled about their attitudes to some non-issue and is then released as if it truly represented what millions of people in the UK are thinking or doing.

The classic example last week was Egg, which quizzed 1,000 consumers to examine their holiday preferences. Predictably, Egg found that nearly two-thirds of Britons prefer going abroad for their summer holidays.

When asked to name key UK holiday destinations, the results were shocking, with consumers allegedly displaying a staggering lack of knowledge of more local tourist zones.

For example, when asked to identify the county or region of eight top UK holiday hotspots, one in seven “Britons” were unable to identify even one location, according to Egg.

Almost three-quarters could not correctly name the main county the Cotswolds lie within and two-thirds of the people surveyed did not know where to find Padstow, the New Forest or the Peak or Lake Districts.

Maybe I just mix with intellectual giants but I have never in my life come across someone who does not know where all those places are. I do not believe for one second that the proportion of complete geographical ignoramuses who knows where none of these places are is that substantial.

What is almost certain, however, is that at some stage in the coming weeks and months, perhaps even years, snippets from this survey will appear in a wide range of titles, from travel and women’s magazines to serious, issue-strapped newspapers as desperate as Egg for a new angle to a boring story.

At which point, whoever at Egg dreamed up this stunt will probably hug him or herself with glee, always assuming they manage to get their names in print, of course. This is after all, no mere transient survey but Egg’s regular “Retail Therapy Index”, something immensely more serious and long-lasting.

I am being a little unfair to Egg here. After all, they are not the only ones at the same game. In the past few weeks, I have come across a whole raft of similar press releases, telling me all sorts of things that are so staggeringly banal or intuitively wrong that I find myself in despair.

What are we to make, for example, of the information from NatWest that “age plays a large part in Brits’ ability to follow road rules”? Seventy per cent of respondents over the age of 55 in this survey keep two chevrons away from the car in front but only 45 per cent of those under the age of 24 do.

Similarly, 35 per cent of those under the age of 24 admit to talking on their mobile phone while driving, compared with only 2 per cent over the age of 55. Fascinating stuff. Not.

Or the revelation from Portman Building Society that women continue to go on holidays with their girlfriends well into their old age while men would prefer to go alone.

Portman “found” that 20 per cent of both boys and girls aged 18-24 enjoy holidays with single-sex groups. However, 8 per cent of 55-64-year-old women expect to take a girls-only break in the next year compared with just 1 per cent of men in the same age group.

Yes, I know it’s a bit wrong of me to pick on companies desperate for a mention at the height of the holiday season when the news, other than that coming out of the Middle East, seems so sparse.

But the real worry I have is that this kind of stuff not only takes journalists for mugs – and maybe we are – but it also devalues the real financial planning issues that both we and the industry ought to be discussing instead. It is not just froth but dangerous froth.


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