Freedom of Information requests – anyone can ask to access information recorded by public organisations and they’re a great way to gather new research, garner interesting industry insight and tap into business and consumer sentiment. All with no need to fork out on commissioning your own study. But, on the other hand, they can be a little complicated, potentially very time consuming and not to mention that rather overwhelming influx of confirmations and replies into your inbox. Luckily, we’ve found out about the website, WhatDoTheyKnow, which hopes to make the whole process a lot easier, quicker and hassle free.

All you need to do is click to make a request, choose the public authority you wish to contact, input your questions and send. It’s as simple as that. The site will also keep you updated when you receive a response, so there’s no chance of missing anything and no need to trawl through your emails.

Not even sure where to begin or who you can approach? No worries, the website lists all the UK public authorities that can be sent FOI requests and, if it’s wider European organisations that you’re interested in, then just pop over to its sister site asktheEU.

Someone may have even done the asking for you. Not only does the site help you to make a new request, it also publishes all the requests and responses to other users –  the information you need may well already be there, ready to use. Or, if you’re hoping for something a little more exclusive, it’s an easy way to check if someone else has beaten you to it and submitted a request for the same information.

The first podcast in a new series presented by Fireflies: Austin Brailey and Phil Szomszor.

Each week Austin and Phil take a statement about PR and, as industry insiders, decide whether it’s true or false based on their experiences.

This week, they address whether “It’s possible for PR agencies to make up research results.”

Have a listen and let us know what you think. Do you think it’s possible for agencies to make up research results? Have you had any experience of it, either as a PR or journalist?

Follow @PRTrueOrFalse

Tweet #PRTrueorFalse

Ask 10 different people what media they consume, and they’ll give you 10 different answers. As social sharing, search engines and ‘trending topics’ become the go-to places for fast access to the hottest stories that instant, it gives rise to a thirst for small, impactful and easily digestible nuggets of information.

Just take the most shared article on Facebook last year. It wasn’t Justin Beiber’s new haircut. Perhaps more comfortingly it was ‘The world at seven billion’ – a widget which shows where you fit into the story of human life.

Data is the gift that keeps on giving. It’s easily shared and can be represented in various formats. The media is hungry for more! So what if your company has no original data assets? Research is the answer.

We run lots of research for our clients – from simple, low-cost consumer omnibus surveys:

‘Is David Bowie a) over the hill b) still rocking it c) Who?? (I was born in the 90s)’

To targeted, more complex B2B telephone surveys:

‘In your role as an HR manager, what proportion (%) of your time is spent resolving conflict in the workplace?’

There are many options, but the result is the same – more coverage for campaigns, by more influencers, across more channels. Especially if you can challenge pre-conceived ideas or stereotypes.

Here are some of our recent favourites:

Scots are NOT tight-fisted finds survey of tipping as Welsh emerged as Britain’s stingiest people

Company: Click A Taxi, a mobile phone app

Why it works: It challenges a long-held perception, and its findings apply to a whole nation of people. Nothing niche about this study.

1. Scots are NOT tight-fisted finds survey of tipping as Welsh emerged as Britain’s stingiest people

Company: Click A Taxi, a mobile phone app

Why it works: It challenges a long-held perception, and its findings apply to a whole nation of people. Nothing niche about this study.

2. Drivers sleep in car to save fuel

Company: RAC, breakdown recovery

Why it works: Soaring fuel prices are a real concern for a nation of car-lovers. This research adds fuel to the debate, and supports The Sun’s own campaign to keep prices low – it is also well integrated back into the brand’s own proposition and not all surveys are.

3. Blue Monday’s job hunt

Company: Job Bounties

Why it works: tapping into cyclical calendar events that media editors are looking for, and capturing the mood of a nation.

4. Suited and Loubouted: Women spend a FIFTH of their salary on work clothes every year

Company: Brother UK, printers and electronics

Why it works: Minimum 50% of the population will be able to relate to this and have an opinion on it across social sites. Brother UK cleverly partnered with a celebrity, columnist Grace Dent, to add a bit of extra sparkle and credibility to the findings.

5. Bookshop numbers halve in just seven years

Company: Experian, credit services for individuals and businesses
Why it works: The findings present the trend from bricks to clicks in hard numbers. It’s impactful and can be supported by testimonials.

6. Small business owners trust energy firms less than banks, finds new study

Company: MakeItCheaper, energy switching service

Why it works: The Robin Hood sentiment. It publicises the plight of small business owners trying to survive against rising energy prices and ‘fat cat bankers’.

Occasionally the numbers are right under your nose, already within the company. They just need mining, such as this simple study from – Looking for love online? Log on at 8.52pm tonight – and this from payroll company Vocalink – Workers ‘£89 a month worse off’ than before crisis.

Partners and customers are another potential sample for research through simple, low-cost surveys.  We’re working with Give as you Live to carry out the ‘Digital Giving Review’ and ‘Digital Donor Review’, using its reach within the charity and charity giving spaces. The first report – which produced online giving insights from over 500 charities – was so successful that this year we are mid-way through surveying charity supporters, in order to get their perspective on the same subject.

Research is simple and doesn’t need to be expensive. It just takes a newsworthy idea and the right questions. Whether you’re targeting consumers or businesses, it’s an excellent mechanic to increase brand recognition – and offers all departments original data to use again and again. 99% of comms professionals consider it an essential item in their toolkit.

For communication professionals, the survey is an extremely valuable – indeed, often indispensable – tool, offering a unique window of insight onto a particular demographic, audience or customer base.

In order to fully-harness the power of the survey, however, it is important to select your questions carefully.  Get it wrong and what could have been a potentially invaluable piece of market research to add to the PR pro’s portfolio becomes nothing short of useless.

With this in mind, let’s begin by looking at the types of questions:

1.       Factual

Questions where people know the answer without thinking. For example: age, gender, family composition, main supermarket, which high profile TV programmes they watch etc.

2.       Simple

For example, providing people with two, three or even more options and ask which they prefer (asking why and/or rating them is harder than just picking a winner).

3.       Time Sensitive

Questions about things that are easy to remember within set parameters. For example, “Did you buy a car this year?” or “Did you go to the movies last week?”

4.       Rough/Average

Questions that can be made easy to answer by grouping the answers. For example, “How many times do you eat in a restaurant in a typical month?” With answers perhaps grouped as:  “Never,” “One or two times a month,” “Three to five times a month,” “More than five times a month.”

It seems straightforward, but it can be all too easy to word a question in a way that confuses the respondent and causes incomplete responses. Some examples of these sorts of questions are:

1.       Unspecific

Not putting a date range or asking the respondent to think too far back – “How many times do you eat ice cream? Per day, per week, per month?”

2.       The double-barrelled question

“Was the train clean and on time?” This invalidates a question; if the train was clean but late, the respondent will be stuck.

3.       Socially loaded questions

“How often do you feed junk food to your children?” These questions can be made less judgemental by not using loaded terms such as “junk food” and instead showing parents a list of foods (including, say, crisps and burgers, but also apples and carrots) and ask which their child eats weekly.

In addition, respondents may not know the answer to all questions. So, for questions like “What is the speed of the internet connection to your home?” or “Will you vote in the next local election?, it is important to include an “I don’t know” option. Sometimes the number of those not knowing the response can be an interesting finding in itself.

Asking survey questions is a science and an art; it is not just an extension of how we ask questions in everyday life. It is worth thinking about what sorts of questions work, what sorts of questions don’t, and piloting your surveys to make sure they achieve exactly what you want them to.

Is it time to shape your reputation?

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