Four ways you’re misusing data in your writing

Entrenching yourself in a client’s work requires research. We’re trained in the field of public relations but are expected to write as if we’re entomologists, engineers, bartenders or politicians – depending upon the client and the day of the week. We’re also tasked with building organizational credibility, and hence, we rely upon research and industry professionals to provide supplemental materials that verify our claims. 

Despite our best efforts, many PR people have fallen into the bad habit of shallow research. This pitfall can create materials that open our clients up to criticism, claims of shortsightedness or outright bias. If these claims come at the expense of our research failures, we’re to blame. 

So, how can we be effective information sleuths and simultaneously produce work that protects and builds our clients’ reputations? Stop making these four mistakes in data use. 

Relying upon a singular source. 

For your clients, you likely have data mines that come through time and time again. You visit XYZ.edu, head to the department page that is most relevant to your client industry and then grab their most recent infographic stats to shape your email newsletter content theme. This is a good starting point, but it shouldn’t be your stopping point. Relying upon a singular source doesn’t take into account the many perspectives that could provide additional color to your writing. Let’s think about university research, for example. If an esteemed university known for its research conducts a study in its home state, the data isn’t invalid – but it only provides one state’s worth of information. It would be wise for a PR professional to seek additional studies from other sources across the country to either confirm the study’s findings or provide another perspective from which you can consider the material. This doesn’t make your client’s ultimate claim invalid, even if they agree with the one initial source you selected, but it does demonstrate that they are judiciously considering multiple sources and building a meaningful evidence bank when coming to a specific conclusion – which builds trust.

Prioritizing certain sources over others. 

In the world of research, there are many alphabet-soup organizations that provide meaningful research. Those organizations can hold a lot of weight in some belief circles and can be chastised by others. If you find yourself only pulling data from the sources that your audience favors, it might be time to examine your motivations. Balanced writing and thought leadership are both rooted in the consideration of diverse perspectives – i.e., hearing from people who disagree with you and meaningfully considering their conclusions while drawing your own. As PR people, we need to consider what our audiences believe and what they scoff at equally when creating credible content. 

Entering research seeking validation. 

When I write a piece for a client, I almost always write with an end conclusion in mind. After all, we usually set out to create materials that shift sentiment in specific directions. But we need to be more deft and creative when the information we find doesn’t align with our initial desired conclusion. Let’s pretend that we are working for a banking client, and we’re trying to talk with people about the benefits of a loan product. When starting to look into the long-term financial benefits of the product nationally, we find that people of a specific socioeconomic status don’t benefit from the product – and actually, we find that it can damage their financial health. As PR practitioners, it is our responsibility to shape our piece to clearly articulate what we’ve learned, while also advocating for our client to be entirely honest in its communication beyond our work. 

Goofing up on the math. 

Let’s talk numbers. We need to make sure we’re reporting the data we find accurately. I can’t speak for all PR practitioners, but when choosing my major, I asked my advisor what field would require the least amount of math. She informed me that many fields in the department of communication are math-light, but PR sounded especially so. As I manually input and calculate social media metrics each month for my clients, I do feel a bit hoodwinked.

In all seriousness, there is a lot of statistical understanding that is required to accurately relay data to an audience. It can be hard to sort through, but small nuances like the difference between a percent change and the change of a percentage point can have an enormous impact on the validity of your claims. With this in mind, crowdsource your editing and include a few math-minded colleagues in the process. It’s much better for them to know that numbers are not your strong suit than for an angry commenter to point out your egregious error. 

The takeaway: Ethics reign supreme. 

Increasingly throughout my career, I have come to the conclusion that public relations cannot be done effectively if it is not first rooted in integrity. That requires professionals in our field to be diligent and straightforward, creating content that centers around sincerity and truth. If we don’t use sources ethically, then we can jeopardize relationships with the public, with our clients and with the profession at large.