Fixing a polling system that’s out of sync

Latest Voting Intention

Reading the various reports, narratives and commentaries this weekend about the results of the UK general election that took place on May 7, the overall perspective I’ve formed on all of that is how could the expert commentators, opinion-formers and outcome-predictors have got it all so wrong?

The election result produced a clear win for the Conservatives with a slender majority in the House of Commons (12 seats), and the virtual annihilation of the primary opposition political parties – the leaders of Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Ukip have all quit – that confounded every single opinion poll in the months, weeks and days leading up to May 7, which had all predicted a hung Parliament as the best outcome anyone could expect.

So another coalition government looked a likely election outcome according to those polls – followed perhaps by another election in six months or so – and many column inches and pixels have been spent in offering what-if? scenarios of who might be able to form a government with whom, etc (the BBC’s interactive tool was especially good), much of it based on those opinion poll results.

About the only thing the pollsters did get right was the surging Scottish Nationalist Party which triumphed in Scotland in almost a clean sweep, winning 56 of 59 Scottish seats at Westminster.

Having been in America since May 3 with hardly a moment spare to look at the TV never mind online news, I had been shielded from any mainstream reporting and commentary back home in the run-up to election day last Thursday (our election was unquestionably not a big news item in the US mainstream media). What I did see, though, was plenty of comment and opinion on social media channels, notably Twitter, that presented a view of Labour being well ahead as the likely voting preference of a majority, and reinforced much of the mainstream feeling about a close-run election and a hung Parliament.

Socialist Media - Economist.com

And so I flew back to the UK on Thursday night US time arriving here on Friday morning UK time to the news that took me by surprise as much as it apparently did all those experts I mentioned – not a close-run thing at all but a pretty decisive Conservative victory, nothing like a hung Parliament, and a political landscape that no longer looked familiar with the downfall of the traditional political opposition.

With the nationalists rampant in Scotland and the Conservatives resurgent just about everywhere else outside the large urban centres in England, the former looks alarmingly like a one-party state with the latter arguably close to that territory. Indeed, it doesn’t look like a very United Kingdom at the moment.

But analysis on comment like that is for more knowledgeable subject-matter experts to ponder over.

What interests me mostly now is those opinion polls I mentioned earlier – how could they have got it so wrong?

You can choose from a great deal of opinion on that question, to which I add my two-pence-worth to suggest a combination of factors such as:

1. Reliance on an opinion-polling system that, largely, behaves the same as 50 years ago when few-to-many was the only communication model: the few controlled the news and methods of communication (the mainstream media companies); the many (the great British public) formed opinion based on what they read in the newspapers or heard on the radio (TV was still in its infancy) – their only reliable sources of news and information; and the pollsters formed their predictions based on what the public told them in answer to narrow questions where you read what the newspapers said to help you form opinions.

That’s totally not the picture today where the mainstream media is but one element in an immersive crowded information and communication landscape that enables anyone with an opinion and an internet connection to become a content-creator, news broadcaster and opinion-former.

Anyone with an opinion...

2. Lack of trust in, and engagement by, the political process and politicians themselves: let’s start with the Edelman Trust Barometer 2015 published in January that shows a continuing trend line for lack of trust in governments and politicians on a worldwide level, not only in the UK.

3. Public tiredness and disenchantment with politics in general and this election process in particular: so much partisan opinion and commentary – yes, I do call it propaganda – where it has been tough to filter signal from relentless noise and focus on what you think is credible and trustworthy to warrant your attention and your willingness to believe.

A case in point for me was the Leaders’ Debate on BBC’s Question Time programme on April 30. Debate? Hardly. Prepared sound-bite responses by each leader individually to questions from a carefully-controlled audience. The inauthenticity of it was breath-taking.

(Of course, I should point out that some analysts are saying that this TV event was instrumental in helping many voters decide who to vote for. If that’s true, then I’ll stick to my day job.)

4. The remoteness of much of it: so much stuff by people you don’t know, with hashtags on social media like #GE2015 that are tsunamis of opinions you don’t trust because much of it is so clearly partisan; and politicians who sound so patronising with their so-sincere-sounding and constant over-use of phrases like “hard-working families” and “working people” that you eventually tune it all out.

Some or all of this probably contributed to the huge number of “Don’t know” responses when people were asked by pollsters for their voting intentions – 25 percent of voters said they didn’t know who they’d vote for on the day, according to one report I saw.

That meant that the polling organizations, pundits and others were left to predict outcomes based on incomplete data from which to glean credible insights, along with that imperfect methodology for a contemporary society – are those the major factors that let it all be so wrong?

I read of one poll where the organizers predicted the actual election outcome with some clarity (and accuracy as it turned out) but who said they didn’t publish it for fear of being ridiculed: their poll was so totally different to all the others that were predicting a neck-and-neck close race, hung Parliament, etc.

And what was their methodology? Actually talking to voters: ringing them up on the phone and directly asking them relevant questions that they would want to answer.

YouGov’s Antony Wells summarized what he thought of the polling debacle:

[…] there is something genuinely wrong here. For several months before the election the polls were consistently showing Labour and Conservative roughly neck-and-neck. Individual polls exist that showed larger Conservative or Labour leads and some companies tended to show a small Labour lead or small Conservative lead, but no company consistently showed anything even approaching a seven point Conservative lead. The difference between the polls and the result was not just random sample error, something was wrong.

It’s worth taking a look at the 700+ comments to Well’s blog post.

So the current polling system used in this kind of significant national event has suffered a severe setback in how it is regarded from accuracy, trust and credibility perspectives. This has clearly rung a loud alarm bell as the British Polling Council, the trade body for the polling industry, has announced with some understatement that it’s setting up a public enquiry into what went wrong:

The final opinion polls before the election were clearly not as accurate as we would like, and the fact that all the pollsters underestimated the Conservative lead over Labour suggests that the methods that were used should be subject to careful, independent investigation.

The British Polling Council, supported by the Market Research Society, is therefore setting up an independent enquiry to look into the possible causes of this apparent bias, and to make recommendations for future polling.

The focus of the enquiry will be on polling methodology, according to the announcement.

Looking forward to learning what those recommendations are.

Adding a face to the HSBC name could go a long way

HSBC coverage by the Guardian

Reputation is built on trust and, for HSBC Bank, that chain has been well and truly disconnected through the revelations of alleged dirty deeds in its private banking operation in Switzerland that say the bank helped a large number of its private-banking clients evade tax that have been paraded through the mainstream media over the past week.

Whatever the actual facts of the matter, HSBC is being pilloried left, right and centre as a financial institution that helps wealthy people dodge tax – a very popular topic for politicians in the UK at the moment, with a general election on May 7, 2015 (that’s less than 80 days away).

Not only that, the bank faces criminal charges in the US, France, Belgium and Argentina – although not in the UK – resulting from information revealed by whistleblower Herve Falciani, the former HSBC IT contractor who blew the lid on this scandal (and did that some years ago, according to BusinessWeek and Der Spiegel).

The political angle took centre stage mid week with HMRC, the government department responsible for the collection of taxes, robustly and publicly accused of failing its duty to pursue tax dodgers in this case, and tax avoiders – again, a popular topic for politicians.

As the week wore on and negative commentary intensified, there was little substantive word from HSBC about the issue other than reports on the bank saying that it all related to “unacceptable practices” within its Swiss operation that took place some years ago and which don’t reflect the bank’s way of doing business today.

Many newspapers have been publishing reports and other content that analyse the bank and its business practices that go way beyond this current scandal. Take the Guardian, for example, which has extensive coverage as the image at the top illustrates, all of which undoubtedly leave the reader with the strong feeling that HSBC is a secretive bank not to be trusted (at best), and one that is run by, employs, and does business with, people who behave like crooks (at worst).

The Economist has a good report on cases in recent years focused on data stolen to expose alleged tax evasion, and a candid assessment of HSBC’s current predicament:

The questions for the bank are whether it reacted quickly enough to tighten compliance with tax laws after governments started to investigate in 2010, and how much pain the scandal will cause.

And now the latest development this weekend – HSBC published a public apology in the form of ads in the national press on Sunday signed by Stuart Gulliver, CEO of HSBC Holdings plc, the UK-based holding company.

He says:

We would like to provide some reassurance and state some of the facts that lie behind the stories. The media focus has been on historical events that show the standards to which we operate today were not universally in place in our Swiss operations 8 years ago. We must show we understand that the societies we serve expect more from us. We therefore offer our sincerest apologies.

You can read the complete statement, embedded below:

HSBC Private Bank Announcement Feb 15, 2015

The document refers to another document the bank has published on an HSBC website entitled Progress Update – January 2015, a four-page report on this affair and some detail explaining what the bank has been doing “to prevent its banking services being used to evade taxes or launder money.”

I know nothing of HSBC’s crisis communication plan that surely is well into execution by now, nor the specific public or investor relations objectives of these documents this weekend.

Yet, I cannot see how two rather dry documents like this – PDFs at that: try reading those on your iPhone or BlackBerry – will do anything meaningful to address the assault on the bank’s reputation and the impending collapse of trust.

I’m reminded of the 2015 Trust Barometer published by Edelman last month, one of the findings in which clearly shows one industry sector where trust has declined for another year, even if by only one percentage point over 2014 – banks (page 16 in the report).

I’m also reminded of a point Edelman has made in almost every Trust Barometer since the first report was published fifteen years ago – the negative outcomes distrust in a company can create (and, in contrast, the benefits trust in a company can generate), as this chart illustrates (page 40 in the report).

2015 Trust Barometer page 40

If you want to really get attention to an apology in a crisis like this – especially one that embroils a company in an industry as reviled as financial services still is – you would want to present a face of humility, humbleness, honesty and authenticity, complemented by assurance, authority and the sense that “I will get things done.”

You may think such attributes come across in both documents. No, they don’t. It means a real face, not PDFs drummed up by the corporate writer which he or she affixes a facsimile of the CEO’s signature to one of them, with the other being wholly anonymous.

I’d like to see a bold move with the CEO on camera delivering the apology along with the plan on what he is doing to fix things, and with a promise to report progress in a similar manner. That means a video, posted on YouTube with open exposure to myriad sharing opportunities across the social web.

HSBC has a YouTube channel.

Even though the 2015 Trust Barometer shows yet again that CEOs generally are not trusted voices for a corporation (page 20 in the report), it’s a lot better than a sterile PDF.

Is there such a thing as a British accent?

British accentThe British accent is the most attractive in the world according to a survey of 11,000 people globally, says a report in yesterday’s print edition of the Telegraph newspaper (and also in the online edition).

The Telegraph’s concise report notes that 27 percent of respondents to the survey rated British as the “sexiest” and “most dateable” accent, way ahead of the American accent in second place with 8.7 percent and Irish in third place with 8.1 percent.

The survey the Telegraph reports on was Time Out magazine’s Global Dating Survey that got a great deal of media attention this week.

What especially caught my eye, though, was the phrase “the British accent.”

What is that, I wondered?

Is it that when people think or talk about a “British accent,” what they’re actually referring to is an English accent, specifically what is defined as Received Pronunciation, and more traditionally known as “the Queen’s English”?

What we might even call “English English” as opposed to “American English”? (Certainly not “British English” as Microsoft would have it.)

Perhaps it’s the legacy of legions of actors from these shores over the past hundred years – most of them English rather than Scots, Welsh or Ulstermen (and women) – whose diction, vocabulary and context in the movies, on the stage and in television have defined the meaning of “British accent” in the minds of many people whose own language isn’t “British.”

Think of plays, movies and US TV dramas you may have seen starring legendary British thespians that include Laurence Oliver, John Gielgud, Peter O’Toole (who was Irish but with a wonderful display of RP in Lawrence of Arabia), Julie Andrews, Rex Harrison, Alec Guinness, Joanna Lumley, Noel Coward, and Patrick Stewart; and, in more modern times, names such as Emma Watson, Christian Bale, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kiera Knightley, Daniel Craig, Ralph Fiennes, Kate Winslet… just a few examples from a huge list.

Do they each speak with a “British accent”? Correctly, no they don’t. Instead, each speaks a version of English that may be particular to their origin in the part of the British Isles from which they came – and which, for most, is in England, many from the south – as well as the evolution of their speech as they get older, as they learn from new life experiences, and as they evolve their professional behaviours in acting.

Does it really matter? Not really, other than being clear in what we mean. It’s a bit like saying Tom Cruise or Timothy Oliphant each speaks with “an American accent.” I imagine linguists and language geeks – communicators, too, where this has significance in a business communication setting – will have a better idea of the nuances of language, accents and what that indicates or suggests about the speaker, and whether the receiver will understand what he or she is hearing.

For most of us, it matters little. At least we can spot the differences in the spoken word that give us insights into the speaker.

And a final thought – English today is a global language. If native speakers of English are now outnumbered by those who have learned it as a second language, then English now belongs to everyone who speaks it, no matter how they speak it nor where they speak it.

Rays of light amongst the gloom in the 2015 Trust Barometer

2015 Trust BarometerIf you glance through the 2015 Trust Barometer published by the Edelman PR firm on January 20, you’d be forgiven for thinking that things are bad if not dire everywhere.

The report – marking the 15th consecutive year Edelman has been publishing this – contains the results from surveying 33,000 people in 27 countries in order to paint a picture of public trust in business, the media, government and NGOs in those 27 countries and averaging across the world.

The data Edelman gathered from conducting the survey during the final quarter of 2014 enabled them to glean insights and come to some credible conclusions on the general state of trust around the world.

Three headline metrics paint a pretty bleak picture:

  • Trust in institutions drops to the level of the Great Recession (let’s start with the headline of the press release, referring to the global economic downturn that began in 2007/8).
  • Trust in government, business, media and NGOs in the general population is below 50 percent in two-thirds of countries surveyed.
  • Informed public respondents are nearly as distrustful, registering trust levels below 50 percent in half of the countries surveyed.

This picture is well presented in a chart that Edelman calls “The New Trust Deficit” showing that nearly 66 percent of countries are now distrusters among the general online population.

The New Trust Deficit

Each country has its own story to tell that throws some light on individual findings, as Edelman CEO Richard Edelman notes in the introduction to the report’s Executive Summary:

[…] We see an evaporation of trust across all institutions, as if no one has the answers to the unpredictable and unimaginable events of 2014. For the first time, two-thirds of the 27 nations we survey (general population data) fall into the “distruster” category. The horrific spread of Ebola in Western Africa, the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines 370 plus two subsequent major air disasters, the arrests of top Chinese government officials on corruption charges, the foreign exchange rate rigging by six of the world’s largest banks and the constant drumbeat of data breaches, most recently from Sony Pictures, have shaken confidence in all institutions.

In reviewing the 48-page report as well as the shorter summary, I was struck by these findings:

  1. The top three most credible spokespeople for an organization continue to be –
    – Academic or industry expert
    – Company of technical expert
    – “A person like yourself”
  2. There are further declines in CEO credibility as a spokesperson to the extent that this report shows that CEOs are not credible as spokesperson in three-quarters of countries surveyed. That is staggering.
  3. The pace of development and change in business and industry is far too fast for 51 percent of survey respondents, with not enough time spent on development and testing of products before the rush to market.
  4. Drivers of change in business and industry are perceived to be about technology, business growth targets, greed and money, and personal ambition. Improving people’s lives and making the world a better place hardly get a look in, with both factoring below 30 percent.
  5. 51 percent of respondents said the most important role for government in business is to protect consumers and regulate business.
  6. Most countries trust local governments more than federal or central governments. Although the numbers for individual countries vary widely, the global average comes in at 50-50.
  7. Search engines are now the most trusted sources for general news and information – very bad news for the monolithic model of mainstream media – with a 72 percent trust rank.
  8. Search engines are now the first source survey respondents go to for general information, breaking news, and to confirm or validate news. Search engines are way out front as first sources for general information and to confirm/validate news, and equal with television as the first source for breaking news.
  9. Put number 7 another way – for the first time, online search engines are now a more trusted source for general news and information (64 percent) than traditional mainstream media (62 percent).
  10. 63 percent of respondents said they refuse to buy products and services from a company they do not trust, while 58 percent will criticize them to a friend or colleague. Conversely, 80 percent chose to buy products from companies they trusted, with 68 percent recommending those companies to a friend. Such stated behaviour should be of little surprise to anyone in advertising, marketing and PR, although the high percentages in each case might be.

There is much more to digest and consider in this excellent report, available on free download.

And what about the “rays of light” I mentioned in the headline of this post? To me, that’s about some of the ten points above that I see as opportunities for organizations – whether business, media, government or NGOs – who recognize the continuously-changing and -evolving landscape and look upon it as a place to be that builds connections, trust and understanding between people for mutual benefit. Opportunity is knocking.

Finally, Edelman has a short video that will take you on a tour of the 2015 Trust Barometer. Worth two minutes and forty seconds of your time.

The shape of movies to come

The Interview

So The Interview got its public showing on Christmas Day in the United States in spite of hacks on Sony Pictures’ computer systems, angry denials by the North Koreans that they were behind the hacks, and intervention by the US President.

The political comedy film stars Seth Rogen and James Franco as journalists who secure an interview with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (played by Randall Park), and who are then recruited by the CIA and instructed to assassinate him.

In what would have been a farce if the situation hadn’t been so serious, the North Koreans accused the US government of state-sponsored terrorism and said the release of the movie would be an act of war. There were also dire threats by shady online groups during the past few weeks to kill cinema-goers if Sony Pictures did release the R-rated movie.

Well, release it they did in spite of announcing a clear intent in the previous week not to release it at all.

Much of the media reporting I’ve seen focuses on the cinema release – The Interview was showing at 320+ independent cinemas across the United States starting on Christmas Day, with box office takings to date reportedly around $2.8 million.

Yet what I found far more interesting were the other distribution methods Sony Pictures employed to make the movie more widely available. This is how Sony announced the movie’s public availability:

Fans can watch The Interview on several platforms including:

Google Play: the movie is available to buy or rent at play.google.com, and can be watched in the Play Movies & TV app on Android and iOS phones or tablets, or streamed in the living room via Chromecast, Roku or the Nexus Player.

YouTube: the movie is available at youtube.com/movies and can be watched on the web, in the YouTube app, or on select living room devices like Chromecast, Apple TV, PlayStation and Xbox.

Microsoft’s Xbox Video: the movie is available to buy or rent on the Xbox Video app on Xbox One, Xbox 360, Windows 8, Windows Phone 8 and XboxVideo.com.

SeetheInterview.com: In addition, The Interview is available at the dedicated website www.seetheinterview.com, which is sponsored by Sony Pictures and powered by Kernel and with payments through Stripe, a secure payment platform.

In addition to Google Play, YouTube, Microsoft and www.seetheinterview.com, The Interview is also being released in more than 300 United States theaters on December 25th.

It struck me straightaway that digital and online are front and center in the distribution infrastructure, with the physical (cinema) release very much the supporting act. And, releasing a movie this way – enabling people to access and view it through online rental or purchase – is the first time a major studio has done that on the same day of its cinema release.

Although the US box office has produced the lion’s share of viewing sales so far, it’s being speculated that revenues from the movie on the various digital platforms could potentially make this method likelier for movie distribution in the future, if not for the specific reasons surrounding The Interview.

And let’s not forget one thing – all of this is available only in the United States (of course there are workarounds if you’re outside the US) and it’s an R-rated movie, restricting the audience potential in cinemas at least.

It’s a big hit with content pirates, too.

In any case, could this be a clear signal on what we are likely to see in future for movie releases, whether by big studios or indie producers? I’d say it’s a sure bet that digital and online will play a much more prominent role if not the leading role in future.

Imagine – you want to watch the latest Hollywood film on your 50+-inch Ultra HD TV in the comfort and privacy of home? You have many choices of the delivery methods (see above). Then imagine services like Netflix joining the streaming distribution party.

Or, you want the IMAX or other big-screen experience with the popcorn and cokes? Head to your nearest multiplex with its digital audio-visual immersion.

And all the choices happen at once – no more staggered releases.

Traditional mainstream movie distribution and marketing focused only on the cinema and subsequent Blu-ray/DVD sales just got turned on its head.

Finally, what about the PR surrounding The Interview? There’s been commentary and opinion galore over recent months suggesting the whole thing is just a huge PR stunt, with others offering opinion to explain why it couldn’t possibly be a PR stunt.

How long?

Whether it was or not, one thing is sure – Sony Pictures has gained publicity for a movie that has been panned by critics yet looks very likely to receive widespread attention as a result of all the publicity about it (and the bigger picture about the extensive hacking of Sony Pictures that extends beyond The Interview).

Will I watch The Interview when it’s available here in the UK? Probably, just to see for myself what all the fuss is about. And especially if I can stream it to my TV or computer rather than go to the cinema.

Good PR result.

[Update Dec 29:] The Interview has managed to rake in $15 million since its online debut on Christmas Day, reports Mashable:

“Through Saturday, December 27, including all of its online distribution platforms, The Interview has been rented or purchased online more than 2 million times,” read a statement from Sony Pictures. “Total consumer spending through Saturday for The Interview online is over $15 million.”

“[A]fter only four days, The Interview already ranks as Sony Pictures #1 online film of all time,” read the statement from Sony Pictures.

Recode reports that Apple has now joined the ranks of distributors:

It took Apple a few days, but it’s joining the club: Starting [Sunday December 28], iTunes users in the U.S. and Canada can rent and purchase “The Interview,” Sony’s controversial comedy.

The movie became available at Apple’s store at 1 pm ET [Sunday].

The Interview was a huge online success, says Quartz – but for Google rather than for Sony:

Sony’s big internet video gamble seems to have paid off: The Interview, which the company offered for online rental and purchase on Christmas Eve, earned more than $15 million during its first four days on the internet. The film was rented or purchased more than 2 million times from Dec. 24-27, making it the studio’s most successful online release ever, while also grossing an additional $2.85 million from 331 independent North American theaters over the four-day holiday weekend.

[…] The film’s online success might be a qualified moral victory for Sony, but it definitely won’t be a financial one—and that’s even before calculating the significant financial fallout from the hacking scandal, which could be as much as $100 million.

Instead, the biggest winners from the weekend are the internet outlets that first streamed The Interview in North America. Google’s two sites—Google Play and YouTube Movies—were responsible for the bulk of sales, and Google also benefitted from exposing its platforms to consumers who regularly choose iTunes, or other VOD platforms that did not carry the film.

Undoubtedly further analysis will come in the following days.

Goodwill 2014

Greater love and understanding...

Greater love and understanding for other people – these aren’t bad sentiments this Christmas 2014 when you consider some of the recent events that have caused such grief and anguish around the world.

“Peace and goodwill to all men,” is a verse in the King James Bible often quoted at this time of year. While there may be precious little going on in the world to encourage belief in  the meaning of that phrase, it only needs each of us to practice its meaning for it to make a difference. As Dilbert does in Scott Adams’ cartoon from December 23, 1990.

That’s 24 years ago. Not much changes, does it?

Merry Christmas!