In modern PR, numbers matter as much as words.
- Does Nicholas Cage cause drowning in swimming pools?
- Is a 28% increase in the chance of getting skin cancer bad news?
- Would you say £2.45billion is a lot of money?
It was traditionally a badge of honour for some in the communications business to be no good with numbers; not any more. From company results to audience surveys, professional story-tellers need to be as adept with figures as they are with words.
In a world increasingly driven by data, there are at least three good reasons for PRs to develop their skills in this area:
- You want to tell the strongest possible story that the numbers will support, which you can only do if you understand them.
- You don’t want your otherwise brilliant story blown apart when a data-savvy person in your target audience uncovers the huge flaw you missed.
- You want to ensure that you can make sense of the successes and failures, or threats and opportunities, contained in evaluation and research.
Returning to the questions above…
No, Nicholas Cage does not cause drowning in swimming pools, despite there being a correlation between the number of such cases and the number of films he has appeared in. It’s one of the golden rules of statistics that correlation does not equal causation, yet such assumptions are everywhere.
Health risks are also often misrepresented. I found a quote online suggesting that the number of Australian men diagnosed with melanoma had increased by 28%. That sounds a bit scary. The base risk in 2005 was 0.549 out of 1,000 and this rose by 2011 to 0.703 out of 1,000. Any increase in the instance of any cancer is bad. However, in this case, the increased risk still doesn’t amount to a single person per thousand individuals, so it may be an outlier in that particular year. A lot more info would be needed to draw conclusions, especially for a sensational headline.
Lastly, £2.45 billion may or may not be a lot of money. If it was the deficit of NHS hospitals in England would it be a lot of money? I guess most people would say yes. But at the time that figure came out the total budget was around £76 billion, so the deficit is a touch over 3%. Managing such a huge budget to within a tolerance of +/- 3% is arguably a pretty good result. (Also, a quick look suggests that year was also an anomaly with the figure being <£1bn around it.)
So, before drafting a story or drawing conclusions from one, here are some questions you might want to ask yourself:
- Is that really a big (or small) number?
- Does correlation definitely mean causation?
- What might be missing from the picture?
- What would I expect to see?
- Does it make common sense?
Sometimes, you might be left with more questions than answers, but better that than a story that just doesn’t add up.
Stewart Argo from our Edinburgh PR team is our resident statto and believes we should all be confidently numerate.