Holmes Report Blog

The Holmes Report blog focuses on news and issues of interest to public relations professionals. Our main site can be found at www.holmesreport.com.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Damned Lies and Statistics: For the ten millionth time, a survey has shown that ethical companies enjoy a major advantage in the marketplace. “Seventy-two percent of respondents said they preferred to purchase products and services from a company with ethical business practices and higher prices, rather than from one with questionable business practices and lower prices,” says a press release from LRN, a provider of legal, compliance, ethics management and corporate governance solutions. “Only 18 percent indicated they preferred the opposite.”

In case you are questioning my citation of 10,000,000 in the opening sentence, I can tell you that as numbers go, it’s more meaningful than any of the numbers in LRN’s press release. I don’t know if the firm is being disingenuous. Does its CEO, quoted extensively in the release, really believe that the survey findings justify the assertion that “ethical reputations have a clear impact on the purchasing and investment decisions of Americans.”

If so, how does he explain ExxonMobil’s recent $36 billion profit?

Seriously, though, this survey is a waste of money—at least it is if it was designed to provide meaningful, actionable data. If it was designed to serve as the basis of a press release that might be picked up by a handful of gullible reporters and a few dozen self-serving academics, then it might be a good investment.

If you ask people whether they would pay more for ethical products, the majority of them are going to say yes, because that answer makes them feel better about themselves and look better to the stranger asking the question. But guess what: people lie. (I stole that line from House, the TV doctor played by Hugh Laurie, who knows whereof he speaks.) Their self-reported behavior sometimes differs from their actual behavior, which usually involves picking the cheapest, most readily accessible product off the shelf regardless of whether its made by a candidate for canonization or a rapacious pillager of natural resources.

Offering advice to executives based on this kind of flimsy “research” is intellectually dishonest and—ironically, given the nature of the survey—unethical.

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