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Using polls in your media work: Making Polling Work for You

Dec 3, 2018
Our five top tips for using polls to advance your communications strategy.

Throughout this series, we’ve been looking at a lot of polls. And let me tell you from my own experience as not-a-data person, after a certain point, polls tend to become just another series of numbers—either bereft of meaning, or confusing and contradictory. One of our challenges as media professionals is figuring out how to carve away the excess and uncover the compelling narrative embedded in the numbers. Our task is to take those raw numbers, that polling data, and sculpt them into a good, human-centered story. So how do we do that, you ask?

Here are five tips for using polls to advance your communications strategy:

1. Hire pollsters  

One very straightforward way to make polling work for you is to hire pollsters (or algorithms!) to test messaging, investigate your hypotheses, and get a more specific sense of the opinion landscape relevant to your issues. Use tools like SurveyMonkey to develop research-derived and test-driven messaging. A caveat—depending on the size and makeup of the audience you want to test, it can quickly get pricey, but online surveys are a great tool in your toolbox.

2. Lend authority to your narrative

The media relies on public opinion as much as it shapes it. When you’re drafting an op-ed, see if you can find a poll to back up your argument—it may provide a solid foundation upon which to communicate a compelling, aspirational message. This is good to keep in mind when pitching reporters and assembling editorial packets on virtually any issue. The data could be the hook or the headline, but if it doesn’t speak to a vivid new trend or stunning insight into people’s lives, it won’t make a compelling story.

3.  Humanize the data

Consider two ways to make sure you’re properly highlighting the narrative, not the numbers. The first is to translate the data into human terms wherever possible—say seven in ten, rather than 70%. The second: pair the numbers with a compelling spokesperson who can put a friendly or compelling face on the numbers, charts, and graphs. Solid polling data might just prove to be a crucial component of your next pitch that catches the editor’s eye, leading to a favorable opinion piece.

4. Hold the Media Accountable 

Now that you know how to correctly read and contextualize polling data, use that knowledge in your media accountability work! Occasionally journalists cite flawed polls without understanding the problematic methodology behind them, or without placing them in their proper context. Armed with the information from the last few blog posts, you’re now equipped to identify and point out those instances, as our Media and Opinion Analysis director, Eva, did after coming across an article by Scott Clement in the Washington Post that compared a bunch of polls on the Iran Deal, but excluding a few major ones that had found majority support for the Deal.



5. Create FOMO

The concept of social norming is central to how we think and talk about public opinion. It’s based on the theory that people are more likely to support ideas that already enjoy widespread approval and popularity. We want to move people inside the winning circle, and by citing polling data showing them that there are already plenty of folks in there who agree, we can convince them to come on in, and join our side!



Last, a brief word of caution: this same social desirability bias can lead people to report they’ve participated in certain social behaviors—like voting—even if they’ve not actually done so. In national surveys, particularly those conducted right after big elections, more people will report that they voted, and they’re more likely to report that they voted for the winning candidates. Social desirability bias makes people want to be on the winning team.

And that’s a wrap! Whether you’re planning to use polling to test messages, lend authority to your talking points, hold the media accountable, or create FOMO, always remember to tell a compelling story.

Do you employ any other tactics that use polling data to tell stories? Let us know by tweeting @rethink_media or dropping us a line!

Image source: Nick Youngson