election polls are only the tip of an iceberg for an essential review of understanding reality as it unfolds ever so fuzzily…

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Once again most polls conducted for the recent Italian elections were wrong.
Giuseppe De Rita, a highly intelligent and reputed analyst, sentenced: Italians are born liars.
So what else is new?
Helas!
This is but the tip of an iceberg which calls into question, and not only in Italy, a number of ‘truths’ in many traditional activities such as market, political and social research, analysis, public relations, procurement, journalism…..

1. are publics gone?
Let’s begin from the impact that globalization, the explosion of diversities, and of the Internet (each very much related to the others) are having on how individuals form opinions, and when, and if, these opinions become actual behaviours, decisions and consumptions.
I don’t know about you, but my idea is that this process has vastly changed and that we still do not understand it.
It is, shall we say?, fuzzy…therefore unpredictable and often unconscious.
Once, you could more or less confide that, if you had succeeded in creating effective and sufficient push, published and personal opinions would be influenced, and that these opinions would eventually turn into behaviours.
Was it then only a convention, or was it true?
In my opinion it was at least in part true.
But today? Not necessarily so….

Whichever perspective you choose to take, this earthquake begs for a discussion on the traditional paradigms deriving from the many theories of publics and, specifically for us, public relators, those subjects (now often called stakeholders) with whom we strive to develop relationships on behalf of our employers or clients.

2. is segmentation gone?
Existing approaches to segmentation, even the most advanced and sophisticated, are only in part convincing….
And this calls into question the very concept of the representative sample.
Whether you look at a social, political or market research; whether this is qualitative, quantitative, or both; whether its aim is to allow the organization to better understand stakeholder expectations to improve the quality of its own decisions (in our case the strategic reflexive function); to develop more convincing narratives of self representation; or to assess, evaluate or measure the efficiency and effectiveness of the former or the latter (in our case, our managerial and technical functions)..little matters.

This earthquake demands a quiet but intense interdisciplinary revision of our approaches and practices beginning from the new (?!) paradigm that any effective communication process necessarily incorporates serious and not lip-service listening competencies and these in turn require, at least in part, a continual use of innovative and differentiated research methodologies.

3. a return to creative chaos?
This revision should not only involve what is obvious: an in depth and not episodic analysis of socio cultural changes in a given territory, but is also mandated by different technical evidences:
a) an enormous growth in refusals of individuals to be interviewed (in Italy it has gone from 30% of ten years ago, up to 70% today!);
b) a significant part of the population is untraceable (in Italy this now reaches 10%) and impoverishes the formation of representative samples. This is mostly due to clandestine or non resident new migrants and to accelerating mobility behaviours which baffle statisticians;
c) aware and intelligent professional interviewers find it hard to explain the increasing fuzziness of individuals they interview, who appear to belong to plural and overlapping, never certain, economic, cultural, social and political profiles.
d) what is more, and even more baffling, is their change of attitude: while once they seemed eager to cooperate and project a coherent profile of themselves now, and with a highly impoverished language, they privilege a primary approach to reality, more emotional and less organized, with no attention to coherence…like a return to creative chaos.

4. and what about demand?
From a demand perspective one seems to detect a prevalent use of research (social, political, market) to confirm opinions and decisions (of the researcher, of the marketer, of the public relator, of the client)…with an increasing appeasement of all the former to the latter, and a consequent decline of intellectual and professional autonomy.
Inevitably, such an instrumental demand from dominant coalitions considers research as a commodity (and paid as such), useful for one or more confirming power points to satisfy board meeting egos in support of decisions which have already been taken.
And this, in turn, causes a careful elimination of ex-ante (self censure) questions and of ex-post (hetero-censure) answers which do not go in the desired directions…
The client wishes to pay as little as possible, does not care about any added value, and leaves the selection of the supplier to a bidding process which, in the best of circumstances, privileges monetary offers.
In fact, users suffer pressures of time which, focussed on short term results, do not allow reflections nor any authentic process of understanding.
It has become a twitter-market.
Data are needed hic-et-nunc (here and now), no matter how coherent or contextualized.
It is really impressive to see the blatant contrast between procurement, public relations and marketing departments who pay so much lip service in touting their responsible supply chain behaviour and, at the same time, continually deprive their own organization of the added value which suppliers (consultants) can bring, if only used responsibly….

If individuals are always more liquid; publics appear and disappear in an eye-blick; and researchers, analysts, marketing and public relations professionals only search confirmations to the opinions or decisions of clients… the whole essential (at least this is what we preach..) concept of ‘listening’, based on data collection, understanding and careful interpretation gets…. lost in translation…

5.
So what?

– we must avoid simplification: nobody has the magic formula and, by definition, complexity cannot be simply described nor, what is more important, understood and interpreted.
Simple and thin research efforts are moneys thrown away and see reality through deforming lenses;

– we must strive for authenticity: organizations must elaborate serious questions to ask and accept the real costs of any reliable knowledge process; while researchers must return to professional behaviour which is, by definition, critical and aware;

– the interdisciplinary approach is the only real new paradigm: a multiplicity of instruments and tools and disciplines must focus on the issue from different perspectives and the buyer must be capable of drawing conclusions;

– the integrated quali-quantitative approach is always essential for the effectiveness of any research effort;

– researchers, analysts and public relators must be open and eager to accept the fatigue of constant change;

– we must promote experimentation as a constant compromise: using traditional methods –yes- but also experiencing new tools, methods and approaches.

To be sure, traditional research processes are based on solid, scientific grounds.
But they can be optimized and shortened, being fully aware that there are, nonetheless, limits that may not be passed otherwise results become necessarily wrong.
New tools are certainly faulty in their linearity, they are less consequential, less controlled, do not allow inferences if not in a horizontal and long term readings; but they also very much gain in flexibility, interactivity, ability to quickly capture and return soft, feeble and weak signals which definitely represent another perspective to see things differently.

I am not sure if these observations bear any relevance and prove capable to stimulate a discussion.
I hope so.

2 COMMENTS

  1. You make some accurrate observations, Toni. I particularly liked this one: “aware and intelligent professional interviewers find it hard to explain the increasing fuzziness of individuals they interview, who appear to belong to plural and overlapping, never certain, economic, cultural, social and political profiles.” — a strange phenomenon, no? I agree that increasing globalization plays a certain role. In a world where I can reach news from China, Russia, Austrailia, etc. with one click of a mouse, what has evolved through the proliferation of the internet is a world-wide creole culture. I don’t know you any more than I know the Prime Minister, yet you and I share a similar view and this platform instantly provides us with the option to connect.
    What social media, in particular, has done is allow for authorities and novices alike to merge opinions in creative spaces. At no other time in our history has the inexperienced “professional” held so much influential power. And this phenomenon you have identified, I think, is the expression of the shift in influential power.
    As a newly graduated communicator looking to make a mark, this is good news for me. Be it not for platforms like this blog, being heard otherwise might be a little like trying to talk over a crowd of booming voices.
    Still, it is a little unsettling to know that this shift of power has resulted in a general ‘fuzziness’ of opinion. Could this fuzziness be the result of the power of subconscious market influences? (Branding comes to mind)

  2. I wonder, Carlos…
    If by ‘subconscious market influences’ you intend market in its broadest definition (what we europeans call the public sphere…. prof. Habermas please bear…!)then you might be correct.
    Branding is today also a horizontal and pervasive phenomenon which clearly extends its traditional meaning (you don’t read italian I guess, but there is a very good book, called Branding, by Carlo Alberto Pratesi published last year by McGrawHill Italy which brilliantly describes this new conceptualization of the term).
    Also it would be relevant to undersatnd if you use subconscious in its Freudian (and in our case Bernaysian)interpretation.
    Even language, as you see, has becom very ‘fuzzy’ and conversations, such as ours, can be exciting, intriguing but also frustrating (and this is the best part…always putting yourself and your thoughts ‘up for grabs’…).
    In my view the core issue is not so much the shift in influential power, but the shift of the power of derived influence on actual behaviours of an individual.
    We would immediately lose the sense and the public usefukness and therefore legitimacy of our profession should it become clear that opinions no longer necessarily have a direct correlation with behaviours. And we would not be the only ones.
    Hopefully you and other visitors here might be willing to shed some light on this dilemma.
    thanks for your comment.

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