How does Pew Research Center collect and share data on how citizens are feeling about pressing issues around the world?

By Jim James,

Founder EASTWEST PR and Host of the SPEAK|pr Podcast

Dan Morrison is the Vice President of Communications at the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan American think tank that shares information on relevant issues around the world. He has also been at the nexus of journalism, technology, and international affairs for the last 25 years.

Dan Morrison (Photo from Pew Research Center)


Communication is key

One thing Dan has been working towards is harnessing cognitive diversity in the workplace. He has had the privilege, as a communicator, of working with people very much unlike himself at IBM when working with technologists, at the OECD working with economists, and now at the Pew Research Center working with researchers. He likes to live by the saying from George Bernard Shaw that the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. This talks about cadence, messaging, and the moments where you think you have communicated, but you realise you haven’t, in some way. Everyone needs prompts in communication, especially now with the coronavirus and the inability sometimes to see a face on the other end. Even when you do see a face, you don’t get those facial prompts, making it hard to communicate.

When it comes to communication, Dan emphasizes taking into account the other person, whether it’s someone sitting across the table, someone on the other end of the phone, or someone on the other end of the website, as deeply understanding that audience will dictate the manner of communication. One can’t say they’ve really done their homework unless they know the audience they’re trying to appeal to. Another tip from Dan is to imagine yourself in their shoes. What’s going on in their lives? What are the hindrances they see in the message you’re trying to deliver to them? Why is that not going through for some reason? 

Scale is about audience and growing it. That’s true across any discipline, be it the private sector, the public sector, or nonprofit. Aside from understanding the target market, another element of that is writing down in the strategic plan who that audience is and who that audience isn’t. For the Pew Research Center, their audience tends to be decision makers, journalists, and the informed public. Internally, determining the audience is just as important, because it will save time and avoid problems of people speaking in a way that isn’t relevant to the people listening. If the audience or current strategy of the company are in sync, a diplomatic and productive way to have that conversation is to suggest postponing an activity or plan until the vision and the target audience are aligned.

How Pew Research Center gathers information

Photo from Pew Research Center

To better understand their audience, the Pew Research Center does a lot of data essays. They find it to be a compelling way to share data across a set of audiences, and when assessing different technologies, they discipline themselves when there are new products or when new technological developments are on the horizon. They assess first whether those technologies are good for the organisation, because what may work for one organisation may not work for another. They also don’t diminish or cast aside existing technology, because it can still be used in a different way. 

One thing they’ve experimented with at the Pew Research Center is something called an email mini course, where they quiz people on their knowledge of a particular subject with information coming from their existing resources. So far, topics they’ve covered include immigration in the United States, how much people actually know about the US census and what it’s trying to achieve, and facts and figures about Muslims and Islam. They’ve taken an old technology, email, and added a different capability to it, and they find it rewarding as they’ve received positive feedback on it, one of the reasons being that it gives the respondents the freedom to do it in their own time. Through this, they’re able to share their brand and share knowledge, which is the goal in their business of providing data about what citizens are thinking and feeling around top issues of the day.

Face-to-face used to be one of the main methods for gathering data and information, but now with the coronavirus, one of the challenges faced by Dan and his team was having to find other ways to collect data from citizens. They’ve had to pivot along the way, not to mention the fact that they’re on a global scale in terms of communication. In the long run, it comes down to knowing the audience and being conscious that what is said in one part of the world needs to be consistent with what is said in another part of the world yet specific to each locale. Back then, the assumption was you say different things in different places when communicating, but it doesn’t work that way anymore in a globalized world. Cultural sensibility plays a major role in the way questions are asked, and the message needs to be global but explained in the local context, which can be quite challenging.

Storytelling and Dan telling his own story with his son

Storytelling has two sides to it: the actual narrating and then the listening, and people often forget the significance of the latter. For organisations aiming to tell a story, they must take into account global as well as local headlines and how those two may overlap. In the way that people are getting their information from the news, there’s sometimes a heightened expectation on the part of the reader or listener to understand where those messages are coming from and to understand how it is relevant to their own lives. It actually serves as homework for them as consumers of information, which is new, as it didn’t used to be that way. Not so long ago, major networks produced news that people would consume, and it was delivered in a way that was nationalized. But now with the emergence of the internet, people are getting their news in many different ways, and the onus is on the reader to understand and filter through that where the information is coming from, what it means for them, and then tie those strings together.

In other news, Dan and his teenage son have written a book entitled Backpacks and Baguettes: Coloring the World through Young Eyes, the premise of which is understanding the world through a child’s eyes. Dan explains that the formula for each chapter begins with his son’s impressions of a place, their food, and then the children in these different places. Dan believes his son’s youth makes him hypersensitive to what’s going on in the lives of the children in the cities they’ve been to, and his son was very attuned to that possibly in a way that adults aren’t. One realization that came out of writing this book together was that children, or people in general, are the same and yet different. People are essentially the same everywhere around the world. They speak different languages and approach their lives in different ways, but there’s a lot of commonality there, and understanding that is one of the main points of this book, making it a worthwhile read. 

The best way to reach out to Dan is on LinkedIn, and the best place to buy his book Backpacks and Baguettes co-written by his son is on Amazon. Dan sharing about international communications and his experience on the need to really listen and be sensitive to the people on the other side can hopefully help more business owners communicate more efficiently and get their message across to the appropriate audience. Keeping the audience in mind is paramount, because for them to understand a business, the business needs to understand them first.

This article is based on a transcript from my Podcast SPEAK|pr, you can listen here.

Cover Photo from ONA18

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