Do I mean what I say when I say what I mean?

Chris Anderson writes about the lack of meaning in words such as most, average, typical, all and none/no in the light of huge populations, such as the increasing number of blogs, YouTube videos and Flickr images.

He also says the following “tend to obscure more than they reveal” : majority, minority, many, few, leading, declaratives relating to a class (Wikipedia editors are…) and implicit ratios (virtually all…).

Whilst agreeing such words are meaningless in this context, as communicators, PR practitioners and students writing assignments, need to realise such terms have a real or mathematical basis and take care even when using for populations of a known (or estimable) size.

How often do students submit papers claiming “most authors” – without being able to prove that the majority (ie more than half) fulfil the criterion being discussed.  Even if you have read all authors on a topic (which is unlikely) asserting that most have a viewpoint should still be substantiated by citing your sources of reference. 

It is much better to be specific and cite a particular source of an opinion.  If that author has undertaken research, rather than just expressed a personal viewpoint, then there may be some statistical basis for any claims made in their work.  But again, readers need to be aware of the methodology of such research and whether it is statistically reliable.

What about PR practitioners and their press releases?  Esure claims “the national average petrol price is currently £1.15” citing AA data which originates with Experian Catalyst who provide “retail fuel prices for main fuels on sites across the UK… obtained from fuel card transactions.”  This may be highly reliable, but even if the price of fuel from every filling station was recorded, the data would only be relevant until one changed its prices.

Data is imperfect, and in public relations this may be ignored in the face of telling a good story.  Levels of risk may be extrapolated for the sake of increasing the perceived problem – or played down, if the opposite argument is being made.  The individual case study may be used to imply greater generalisation of an issue. 

PR practitioners may extrapolate from small sample surveys, often without considering whether those who participate are representative in themselves, rather than fulfilling a statistical calculation of reliability.

Then we use “experts” to give opinions on a matter.  Their credibility as a source may be overplayed enabling them to make sweeping statements that are taken as definitive or authoritative.  Although, of course, other “experts” may counteract with their own opinions,  statistical or anecdotal “evidence”.

Generalisations are an everyday aspect of life (there’s one) that we all use (another).  It is impossible (strike three) to be specific on every point we wish to make.

We should think carefully about how we are using such terms and identify if we could be more specific.  That means checking and questioning our sources and their sources.  PR practitioners should avoid “spinning” data or using vague terms to deliberately obfuscate an argument.  I appreciate that a particular perspective is normally being communicated and the “story” may disappear if we are more open and accurate.

But the reputation of public relations communicators would be improved if we take more care in the veracity and value of the content of our messages, rather than seeking to persuade by using woolly or meaningless phrases.

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Heather Yaxley

Heather Yaxley is passionate about PR - teaching the CIPR qualifications, lecturing part-time at Bournemouth University and running the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA). I'm undertaking a PhD looking at Career Strategies in PR. I love sharing ideas and knowledge - connecting news and views by blogging on public relations and educational developments, especially relating to accelerated and active learning. I'm also a published author, qualified trainer and experienced consultant.

3 thoughts on “Do I mean what I say when I say what I mean?”

  1. Recently, I’ve purchased medical published papers to substantiate stories I’ve tried to sell in. Journalists are appreciative of these examples. I’m not suggesting they wade through them all as they can be heavy duty reads but the statistics are there and any journalist I’ve worked with recently gets stats that stack up. I think this helps to add credence to public relations practitioners as professionals.

  2. Jill – that sounds a good approach, provided that the medical papers have a level of credibility in the evidence they present. I believe there are issues though when the funding of medical research affects its outcomes.

  3. Yes, that is certainly one aspect to bear in mind.
    I wonder what the outcome would be if Allergan funded a randomised study into the currently unlicensed uses of botulimun toxin as to whether they should become licensed uses. Botox for bladder complaints and wrinkles etc.

    It was raised once in the Scottish Parliament and was given a standard reply.

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