Are you trying to break into the nu-media world of PR, but worried that you might be innumerate? Never fear, because an understanding of elementary mathematics isn't actually necessary. So long as you can cobble together a few shocking conclusions, it isn't important that your statistics have any basis whatsoever in factual reality. Simply publish a few headline-grabbing untruths, then bask in the reflected glory of mega-publicity. I'd like to illustrate this with the aid of a masterpiece published last Friday by the folks at CultureLine - an umbrella body promoting museums along the new East London Line. You might want to have their complete press missive to hand before proceeding further.
Half of north Londoners never cross the river for work or play
Oh that's good. Nothing stirs up London media interest like the good old north/south divide. In particular, anything which makes north Londoners sound like parochial snobbish stay-at-homes, that's perfect. Light the blue touchpaper, and retire.
54% of Londoners living north of the River Thames never venture south for either work or cultural pursuits and south Londoners are twice as likely to cross the river for culture.
See, it's even worse than a half, the figure's actually 54%. Miserable blinkered northerners, the majority of you think so little of the south you never ever visit it. Well done CultureLine for proving this appalling xenophobia beyond any reasonable shadow of a doubt.
That's according to a survey of 300 Londoners from both sides of the river published today (23 July) by CultureLine, a partnership of 10 museums and galleries along the new London Overground East London route.
Excellent. First we skip over the survey's self-selecting unrepresentative sample, which includes only people who could be bothered to do a well-hidden online survey. And then we plug the organisation, big time, because if you haven't done that by the end of sentence number two, you've failed. So far so good. Now let's jump ahead a couple of paragraphs to the proper statistical bit...
80% of south Londoners cross the river at least once a month for cultural pursuits compared to just 41% of Northerners. 48% of north Londoners visit the south of the capital for culture less than once a month and 7% never do this.
Here we can see precisely how CultureLine obtained the 54% percentage (or 'half') which they used in their press release's main headline. They added together the 48% and 7% (and presumably rounded to fit the underlying data). Except, hang on, the 48% refers to north Londoners who sometimes cross the river. And yet the headline blatantly refers to those who never do. I think we'd better look at these figures a bit more carefully. Let me knock up a simple table.
How often do North Londoners cross the river for culture?
At least once a month
Less than once a month
First, please ignore the fact that these percentages don't add up to 100%. Nobody who reads the press release will notice, don't let that put you off. Instead, please concentrate on the percentage of North Londoners who never venture south of the river. It's 7%, not half. So the press release's main headline really ought to have read:
Only 7% of north Londoners never cross the river for work or play
93% of north Londoners sometimes cross the river for work or play
See, there is no blatant north/south divide after all! The survey's findings go completely against the accepted stereotype, producing an outcome which is both heart-warmingly inclusive and geographically life-affirming. Well, that's no good when there's a press release to be written. So (and this is the crucial PR lesson to learn) THE TRUTH MUST BE COMPLETELY IGNORED. Instead, bung an incorrect figure in the headline, and make up a conclusion where there isn't one. Trust me, nobody'll notice.
Finally, all this story needs is a killer quote, and then no media outlet will be able to resist it.
The Mayor of London Boris Johnson said: “North or south, I urge Londoners to cross the great divide and discover the rich cultural treasures, cuisines and dialects to be found on the other side of the river. London Overground is opening up the capital like never before, making it even easier to get to know our trans-Thames neighbours and discover the gems of the city.”
Perfect. Which is how CultureLine's non-story came to be picked up by both the BBC and the Evening Standard and paraded as gospel. They didn't check the facts, they simply skimread the press release and parroted its headlines like sheep. Next time, try a little scepticism first, folks.
So congratulations to Colman Getty, the PR Agency whose masterful work of fiction this is. Their initial survey didn't gather the headline-grabbing results they wanted, so it seems someone misinterpreted the statistics to provide an alternative attention-seeking conclusion instead. North Londoners aren't river-shy at all, but CultureLine have earned shedloads of unwarranted publicity anyway. Watch and learn.
July 28th update: The underlying assumptions in this post are incorrect. Please read Wednesday's post for an apology