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Research with your eyes open: who can see your bad news stories?

December 4, 2017

As an independent researcher and an accredited member of the Market Research Society I am required to report on research in an accurate and neutral way.  Basically, I always set up an unbiased research project and give a ‘truthful’ account of the findings (insofar as ‘truth’ is ever achievable… muses on the philosophy of truth… anyway…)

The Market Research Society Code of Conduct states:

2. Researchers shall be straightforward and honest in all their professional and business relationships.

8. Researchers shall exercise independent professional judgement in the design, conduct and reporting of their professional activities.

54. Members must ensure that outputs and presentations clearly distinguish between facts, opinion, and interpretation.

55. Members must take reasonable steps to ensure that findings from a project, published by themselves or in their employer’s name, are not incorrectly or misleadingly presented.

As an independent researcher I will not shy away from telling all sides of the story.

Often it’s majority good news.  Lovely stories, lots of positive impact, happy days.  Luckily most of my clients are really keen to be given some constructive criticism so that they can learn from it and improve.  ‘The journey’ tends to be important to Funders, and we’re all keen on building capacity, so there’s no problem there.

Very very occasionally it goes a bit beyond that.  The research might demonstrate that an intervention has been ineffective, or money has been badly spent, or members of the public have been having some sort of negative experience.  This might make people or organisations look bad.

Understandably, that can be difficult and problematic for a client to hear.

  • What if people said they felt worse after attending a community group?
  • What if people said a charity’s adverts were offensive?
  • What if people said the big boss of a public body was a bully?
  • What if people said that harm or injury or something criminal or negligent had happened to them while under the care of a public or third sector organisation?

That is sensitive information that needs to be heard, and considered, and dealt with appropriately.

Now I promise complete confidentiality.  I won’t talk about or share a client’s research with anyone but my direct client contact.  That’s also required by my professional body, actually:

10. Members must not disclose the identity of clients or any confidential information about clients without the client’s permission, unless there is a legal obligation to do so.

But what the client does with the research at their end is a different matter.

When I worked in the private sector everything was very hush hush.  Good news and bad news were heard and dealt with behind closed doors.  Fine.

Issue is, many of my clients in the public and third sector are required to share what they know.  Most have a broad commitment to knowledge exchange, many have funder requirements that compel them to be open, and some are subject to the Freedom of Information Act which means that anyone can request to see pretty much anything they do.

Journalists can request it.

Journalists love this stuff. They are expert at sniffing out a story and they are quite capable of finding the tiniest tasty titbit of information and jumping all over it.

Genuine Scotsman newspaper headlines resulting from my research include:

“This spells the end of Edinburgh Festival Fringe”

“20% of Scottish adults think women deserve to be raped”

Believe me that’s not what I said.  The first is subjective interpretation (time proves it wrong!), the second is misleading out of context.  I’m required to report in particular ways, but journalists are not.

If anything I’m supportive of sharing knowledge and information in the public and third sectors, particularly when it comes to how public money is spent.  I don’t think that bad news should be hushed up.

But.  But but but.  It should be shared in a fair and honest and controlled manner that is in the public interest. No exaggerating or scaremongering or jumping the gun.

As a client, there’s two ways this could effect you.

Firstly you might have genuinely done something crappy and newsworthy.  In that case I’m sure you wouldn’t want your sensitive information splashed all over the front page of the paper before you’d had a chance to decide how you planned to resolve it.

Secondly, your research might turn up something random and juicy (a la the ‘rape’ quote above) and I’m doubly sure you wouldn’t want journalists essentially making up nonsense and linking it to your already over-burdened organisation, based on half-arsed interpretations of tangential information.

There’s nothing I can do about Freedom of Information.  (OK well that’s not quite true.  On one occasion a company I worked for was sub-contracted by a sub-contractor to avoid the Freedom of Information paper trail.  But that is rare and the subject matter was unusual.  I don’t think my business would get involved with such shenanigans.)

There’s certainly nothing I can do about journalists.

But I’ve learned from past experience and I want my clients to go into every research project with their eyes open.

I can never promise a good outcome from my research, and I will never shy away from being honest.


I might ask clients at the start of the project “do you really want to know the answer to that question?”

Because if you’re not ready to face the consequences of the answer, you might like to consider whether it might be preferable not to ask the question in the first place.


One Comment leave one →
  1. January 22, 2018 3:27 pm


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