The Walmart “Poll” of Chicago Residents
Mistakes to Avoid when Conducting a Public Relations Survey
Surveys and polls can be powerful tools to understand what people are thinking and doing, and they can provide good data for public relations efforts and community outreach. Unfortunately they can also be gimmicks, which erodes trust in polling and in the organizations sponsoring them.
Here is an example. Walmart wants to build a new store in the city of Chicago, and so far the city council has said “no thank you.” So Walmart conducted a “poll” of city residents to prove that the residents back them. Eric Zorn at the Chicago Tribune has been following the story (so has Chicagoist). Zorn describes several problems with the poll: It was conducted via computerized telephone calls; there was only one question; the wording of the question was biased.
Here’s another issue to add to the list. Walmart says they called every resident listed in the directory in the city of Chicago. They made over ONE MILLION phone calls in one day. Smart and effective pollsters do not do this. A legitimate and accurate poll of Chicago city residents would have relied on a carefully selected and statistically adjusted sample of 800 residents. Each phone call needs to be carefully handled, managed, and tracked. You need to know who answered and who did not, where they live, how old they are, and so on.
Imagine the US Census Bureau conducting its annual American Community Survey by robo-calling every household or every telephone number in the nation (how long would it take — a week at most?) then declaring they have accurate data on the population. Would you trust these results?
If you want to conduct an opinion poll for public relations efforts and community outreach, devote some time and thought to these key issues in designing your poll:
- Write neutral, well-worded questions
- Use an appropriate data collection method
- Design a credible sampling plan
- Carefully manage of the sample, outreach, and data collection
These will help ensure your findings can withstand media scrutiny.
—Joe Hopper, Ph.D.