Open Letter to Public Relations Trades Challenging USC Annenberg PR Survey

To media colleagues who specialize in covering the public relations and marketing communications professions and academic realms, please review the USC Annenberg survey and its June 20, 2017, report critical of the White House communications team. As author of the column in The Wall Street Journal challenging USC Annenberg’s survey methodology and report, below is additional background that public relations sector media might wish to collect in their analysis of this case.

Inherent political imbalance evident

As with any study of this nature, survey sampling methodology is critical, if the results are to be seen as untainted by bias and statistically valid, related to a larger pool (in this case, the views and opinions of the public relations profession, of which USC Annenberg stated / strongly implied in its widely distributed news release that its results were indicative “across the political spectrum,” despite also being a “convenience sample,” as noted in its boiler plate).

Relative to political balance, the USC Annenberg news release stated that “Of the 900 survey respondents, 55.3% identified themselves as liberal, 29.6% identified themselves as moderate and 15.1% identified themselves as conservative” (bold/italics inserted). 

Yet another survey – this one by Gallup — reported in January 2017 that the overall U.S. population self-identifies as 36 percent conservative, 34 percent moderate and 25 percent liberal. While the public relations profession may skew in political affiliation in one direction or the other, for USC Annenberg to position its survey results as indicative of sentiments “across the political spectrum” despite this noted chasm in representation presents serious concerns about inherent political imbalance.

Sloppy, quick, easy, cheap methodology evident on multiple fronts

The USC Annenberg study posed many other problems, which I voiced in a detailed e-mail to USC Annenberg via its Center for Public Relations on June 6 while the survey was still being fielded and a full two weeks prior to the Center issuing its survey news release.

First, USC Annenberg appeared to fail in controlling the authenticity and balance of its respondent sample – which resulted by 1) creating an open-access online survey (the link to which, by the way, remains publicly open as of this writing); 2) utilizing a digital survey platform that appeared to allow survey respondents to complete the survey multiple times from the same digital device (I was alerted to this issue after my June 6 correspondence with the Center); 3) pushing the survey out on open social media channels viewable by any individuals outside the public relations profession; and 4) requesting partner organizations to push the survey on their social media without input as to call-to-action messages that would be used by those third parties to ensure political neutrality.

CONCLUSIONS IN SEARCH OF DATA? . . . This May 31, 2017, posting on the CommPro website by USC Annenberg made an open pitch for public relations professionals to take the “quick and easy” survey and predicted that “the answers will be interesting and provocative.” The messaging also promised, “Once you take the survey, you will see why we anticipate there will be a lot of interest from the media.”

Secondly, the survey instrument itself contained a series of leading / loaded questions.

The survey’s questions appeared to presume guilt of the White House communications team across a host of negatively worded criteria, such as whether team members “purposefully lie” and “distort the truth.”

The survey asked for ratings of White House communications staff performance (even getting personal with individual staffers put forth to be rated by name — Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway, et al.) based on criteria that no one outside of the inner circle of the actual White House team would have any way of objectively knowing . . . such as whether team members “do their best” or “work hard” in specific job functions — as if the throngs of those working in public relations at-large can accurately assess these people’s work ethic.

As I communicated to USC Annenberg on June 6, the nature of these questions undermines our profession as a whole, to think that we – or anyone – can be in a solid position to judge these individuals when we have not the slightest first-hand knowledge of what their daily, granular-level efforts involve behind the scenes, amid complicated factors.

For anyone to make an evaluation of these individuals’ job performance with such myopic information upon which to base it – largely limited to what’s seen in front of a press room podium, or just as likely, as lampooned on a “Saturday Night Live” skit – does not just demean those working in the White House . . . it demeans what all of us do, by extension . . . if we all are to be judged by such non-substantive or glancing observations (the larger implication being that our profession’s work is not worthy or even indicative of any greater value than what one might perceive of one standing in front of a media briefing room microphone).

It’s my position that a strong communications ethic originates and sustains itself with leadership at the top of the organization, via the CEO.

In my personal view, President Trump’s communications style / tactics and the position in which he routinely places his communications team are worthy of scrutiny and criticism. Further, anyone collecting a government-issued paycheck, particularly in such an extremely visible role, should fully expect to find their work product under a microscope.  However, as my WSJ column stated, it’s best for anyone who wishes to issue that criticism — particularly from a center of study sited at a ranked school for communication and journalism — to do so on documented facts and cases in point . . . not by creating and issuing data positioned as the voice of a profession without a basis in universally accepted, transparent academic methodology.

In my WSJ column, I also disclosed that I lean conservatively, so that readers could judge my assessments within that context. USC Annenberg offered no such disclosures with its news release on its survey – the insinuation being that this institution’s political stance and intentions are purely non-partisan and/or apolitical, a notion belied with the approach to this survey.

Application of the PRSA Code of Ethics

To the subject of ethics, I also point to the PRSA Code of Ethics and urge that we as a profession bear in mind specific Code provisions that may be relevant to this case:

Free Flow of Information Provision:

A (PRSA) member shall:

  • Preserve the integrity of the process of communication.
  • Be honest and accurate in all communications.

Disclosure of Information Provision:

A (PRSA) member shall:

  • Act promptly to correct erroneous communications for which the member is responsible.
  • Investigate the truthfulness and accuracy of information released on behalf of those represented.
  • Reveal the sponsors for causes and interests represented.
  • Avoid deceptive practices.

Conflicts of Interest Provision:

A (PRSA) member shall:

  • Avoid actions and circumstances that may appear to compromise good business judgment or create a conflict between personal and professional interests.

Enhancing the Profession Provision:

A (PRSA) member shall:

  • Acknowledge that there is an obligation to protect and enhance the profession.
  • Keep informed and educated about practices in the profession to ensure ethical conduct.
  • Decline representation of clients or organizations that urge or require actions contrary to this Code.
  • Report practices that fail to comply with the Code, whether committed by PRSA members or not, to the appropriate authority.

 

In closing, because I’m not a research expert or scholar, it would be appropriate for our sector’s media outlets to look to credentialed, reputable centers of academic research for further comment on what types of methodologies would have been appropriate for the type of assessment that USC Annenberg attempted to undertake. I would be keenly interested to know which academic institutions would go on the record to embrace USC Annenberg’s methodological model.

Respectfully, Mary Beth West

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Mary Beth West
Principal
Mary Beth West, APR, has more than 20 years’ experience in strategic communications. Mary Beth’s award-winning work has included creation and implementation of national media relations campaigns, employee communications programs, consumer and business-to-business marketing initiatives and crisis preparedness systems.

3 thoughts on “Open Letter to Public Relations Trades Challenging USC Annenberg PR Survey

  1. susan hart / Reply July 5, 2017 at 2:50 am

    Congratulations and commendations for speaking the truth, discerning the facts, and highlighting the differences between a real survey and a fake survey as instituted by USC. Most importantly, thanks for promoting PRSA’s Code of Ethics. We are a professional discipline based on research – the very component of which USC lackadaisically described as a survey, but which admittedly resulted in a convenience sample of fewer than 1000 questionably qualified respondents. Their execution, particularly their quick-and-dirty methodology they apparently took hours to execute (as opposed to well-thought-out, subjective questions illustrating a genuine interest in gathering credible data), are an embarrassment to the public relations profession. Research experts should be doubly offended. Shame on USC. You’ve done more to damage the public relations profession that any White House comms team every could.

  2. Steve Slagle UT Comm Class of '69 / Reply July 26, 2017 at 1:52 pm

    Kudos to you for calling out the suspect methodology used by the USC Annenberg study. Sloppy and poorly done, the study doesn’t reflect what a non-biased party should engage in.

    • Mary Beth West / Reply August 1, 2017 at 12:40 am

      Steve — Thanks so much for chiming in; we agree! A school like Annenberg could do much better than this . . . if it wanted to.

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