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Boris, Brexit and the death of the statistic: a cautionary tale

June is here. The office is warm, perhaps too warm; the office fridge is stuffed with virtuous salads; and we’re a few games into another football tournament and are therefore braced for the inevitable high of misplaced hope followed by the dull ache of inevitable disappointment when our team is eliminated in a blaze of tabloid fury after one heavy loss and two of the dullest of scoreless draws you’ll ever see.

So far, so normal.

However, it won’t have escaped your notice that there’s something a little different in the air in June 2016. Usually by this point in the year, the political classes are packing their cases and preparing for a summer on the beach but not this year: this year our elected representatives are all over the airwaves engaged in an unprecedented volley of mutually aggressive nose-thumbing and name-slinging.

The EU referendum is approaching and, for some, it can’t come quickly enough.  I for one have had my fill of politicians battering each other in what Boris Johnson stomach-troublingly described as “blue on blue action.”

In amongst the predictable scaremongering and reductionist tactics employed by both sides of the debate, one weapon has been discharged more frequently than any other: the statistic. You’ve not been able to move for figures during this past month: statistics that ‘prove’ why Brexit (in itself a terrible word) would be disastrous for the UK countered by statistics that ‘prove’ the opposite.

Clearly in PR we know the value of a good statistic and employed wisely they can bring insight and substance to a story; however, when they are used simply to strafe an unwilling audience, they become not so much like throwing mud at a wall in the hope that some will stick but rather knocking the wall down with a high pressure number jet fired from an agricultural muck-spreader. When this occurs statistics are rendered meaningless, leaving all of us like contemporary Mark Twains, bemoaning their “damn lies.”

Once the referendum vote has taken place and the sound of the inevitable back-slapping amongst the victors begins to fade then all of us in PR would be well advised to learn some of the lessons of this protracted, noisy campaign.

We can and should be better than this. It’s time for our industry to work both together and with our clients to rehabilitate the statistic. Good research, intelligent analysis, clarity of source and method are all important elements of this process as well as understanding that those that shout the loudest are usually not even close to being persuasive, they’re often just irritating.

The careless, reckless use of statistics results in nothing more than a collective shrug; a number-deafness that helps no one at all.

And I think 86.6 per cent of my colleagues would agree with me.