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    Research in news headlines, shock


    Photo via Flickr by Ian Boulton

    It is not often that qualitative market research hits the headlines. Is all publicity good publicity? I think not in this case – but I hope to be proved wrong.

    A former Government adviser recently defended his decision to hand an £840,000 research contract on public attitudes to COVID-19 to a PR firm, with no tendering process.

    The owners of the firm, Public First, are friends of the former adviser and have links to political advocacy groups. One civil servant described the award as "Tory party research agency tests Tory party narrative on public purse". Public First does research too and are MRS Company Partners, at the time of writing.

    But apart from alleged skulduggery, this raises the question what does ‘doing a good job’ mean, in terms of qualitative research into public attitudes?

    The former adviser said “I have talked to (Public First) extensively about focus groups and public opinion over many years (and) Public First were very good at running focus groups”

    Oh good. A senior, influential figure has long recognised the value of the qualitative enquiry and is concerned with doing it well, right?

    What would ‘doing it well’ mean? I think that there are five, key tests:

    1. Clear objectives, understood and agreed by all parties;
    2. Good recruitment, finding the right range of participants, whose views and rights are respected throughout;
    3. Experienced and skilled moderation;
    4. Careful and thorough analysis;
    5. Honest and transparent reporting.

    All of this is well known within the research world. Processes and standards are clearly laid down in industry guidelines produced by ESOMAR and the MRS. Public First are obliged to abide by the MRS Code of Conduct, as MRS Company Partners. The Code includes following the core principles of ‘honesty, transparency and independence’ and upholding the reputation of the market research and insight industry.

    However, anyone can “do focus groups”. How and why they are done, analysed and reported on is what really matters. For this reason, “doing focus groups” is NOT well understood, in my experience. There is a tendency to think “focus groups” are an exercise in spin or PR rather than a valid, thorough and codified research process, as outlined above.

    This is where a potentially positive news story gives way. What was the motivation to do focus groups in the first place? According to the adviser who appointed Public First, they wanted to know “how people who usually ignore most news and political communication think and might be influenced.” (my italics)

    The adviser was then asked, why was only this firm given the chance to carry out this highly lucrative piece of work? (For context, at standard rates, £840k would buy 300+ focus groups, which would take months to complete, which is odd, given that the project was 'urgent'.)

    At which point the adviser said: “Very few companies in this field are competent, almost none are very competent, honest and reliable".

    This led to quite a reaction within the research industry. Finn Raben, Director General of ESOMAR, said:

    "Such statements … undermine our sector's proven ability to conduct impartial research which is amongst the few independent measures of the health of our democracies. To seek to devalue skilled professionals' expertise for the sake of one's own personal defence is … dangerous at a time when societies are questioning the very basis of truth."

    This is surely the point. Qualitative research is valuable as a way of exploring and evaluating how people view the world. To misuse this process and at the same time to slander honest practitioners must take a lot of nerve. Or perhaps is the sign of a reckless, immoral and desperate individual.

    If the research he commissioned can be shown to have been done well, now would be a good time to demonstrate this. Otherwise the episode surely plays into the narrative of focus groups/qualitative research as being about spin and manipulation, all smoke and (one-way) mirrors. Hardly a good news story.

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