Friday, July 15, 2011

City Development and Business Ethics Issues Come Calling

I usually participate in telephone polls unless I truly do not have the time to do so. A research geek, I think valid surveys are important. I see little harm in answering a few questions when I’m otherwise free, and I always have the option of ending the call if the questions seem inappropriate or drag on too long. That said, I was infuriated by a telephone survey call I received two days ago. Despite my misgivings, my curiosity motivated me to stay on the line. “Who is behind this survey and what do they want?” I thought. Then, as the answers to those questions became clear, I continued to respond to survey items so as to learn what data being collected.

The survey began with questions about my opinions of politicians. Do I view Barack Obama very unfavorably, unfavorably, favorably, or very favorably? What about Vincent Gray, Kwame Brown, Marion Barry, Yvette Alexander, Harry Thomas Jr., Michael Brown, Vincent Orange, and Tommy Wells? Oddly, the titles mayor and council member were not included as the names were read. Also strange was the list of politicians itself; why were some CMs omitted? I was asked only one more question about DC politics. What single DC political issue, from a list of more than ten items, was most important to me? As the long list was read and my working memory struggled to keep up, I was initially frustrated that I could choose only issue. Then I was struck by the omission of important issues and inclusion of other issues. Where was transportation? Why was illegal immigration on the list, particularly since it so rarely features in city politics? My discomfort rose: Either this poll was incompetently written or the organization behind it designed the questions to support an agenda. After a brief shift into questions about my shopping habits and opinions of locally operating retail chains all of the remaining questions were about …Walmart. Ah, this call was related to Walmart’s plans to open four stores in DC.

This was not a simple survey of public opinion; it was a push poll. After establishing that I knew Walmart planned to open stores in DC and my level of support for these developments, it became immediately clear why I had been asked earlier in the survey to pick the one DC political issue that was most important. (Education is what I selected.) I was asked if I knew that Walmart had given hundreds of thousands of dollars to education efforts in DC and over $100,000 to a local non profit that provides jobs and training for city youths (an organization located in Logan Circle). Following this statement disguised as a question, I was asked If I was “strongly opposed to, opposed to, supportive, or strongly supportive of Walmart?” “Um, based on the information I just received?” I asked. “I can’t elaborate on the question,” the surveyor responded.

All of the remaining survey items began with preambles about the positive virtues of Walmart. Did I know that they employed many people? That they made fresh meat and produce available to areas lacking grocery stores? That DC residents spent millions last year at Maryland and Virginia Walmarts? This “survey” was a read-aloud of press releases and talking points. The only thing not qualifying this call as a one-on-one press conference is that I was asked after each glowing report of Walmart’s saintliness how I felt about the chain coming to my city. Of course, the survey designers did not provide for a “neutral” or “no opinion” response option for these questions.

This survey would be laughably bad if the results were not important. Though I cannot prove that Walmart is behind the call, I think it unlikely that a pro-Walmart citizen group would have the money to engage in such shenanigans or that any DC political group with such cash reserves would risk its credibility by push polling. I have a problem with any corporation calling from home to home to share slanted information about their business operations, but Walmart’s efforts cause me particular concern.

At best, I think that this call was being used to test which of Walmart’s talking points will be well received by DC consumers. At worst, the completely statistically invalid data gathered from these calls will be used to influence politician’s feelings about the proposed Walmart stores. I am vividly imagining a Walmart representative saying to a CM, “the vast majority of District residents support Walmart’s development plans. I have the survey data to prove it.” In fact, in response to Living Wages, Healthy Communities' request that Walmart sign a community benefit agreement, Steve Restivo, a Walmart spokesman said, “Unfortunately, some of the louder voices in this discussion just don't represent the majority opinion of D.C. residents" (The Washington Business Journal). I previously wondered how he could trot out the word “majority” with any confidence.

Commentariat: Have any of you received such calls? If so, how do you feel about it?

I believe that Walmart opening in DC is inevitable, and the point of this post is not to discuss the litany of issues at play there. What is within my control, though, is to draw attention to Walmart's unethical PR efforts. I can also ask the council members who represent me to negotiate with Walmart in a way that preserves the interests of the citizens of the District.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

ZZZZzzzzzZZZ...boring.

Mari said...

Not anymore since we started screening our calls with the answering machine. No more push polls, alumni begging, or PAC begging. Just my mother.
The last survey I participated in clearly had an agenda.

The Brightwoodian said...

Thanks for writing this.

Franz Jantzen said...

Yes, I received the same call yesterday afternoon, with the same questions. The surveyor never said Wal-Mart was behind it, but it seemed patently obvious this was the case when he began asking those questions which began with how great Wal-Mart is and begged to be answered in their favor. Hard as it was, I resisted.

The Brightwoodian said...

Also, if you haven't already, you should email this to every councilmember. dccouncil@dccouncil.us

IMGoph said...

i guess this is the advantage of still having an area code 989 number...

Dan said...

Interesting, thanks.

Anonymous said...

Interesting but totally expected. If I were employed by Wal-Mart I would be doing the same and more. DC is going to be e great market for them and if they can keep from getting themselves shoplifted out of existence they will make a fortune here. If they open one near me I will gladly shop there. BTW - I screen all calls (especially the ones from my mother).

Kevin said...

This is an old Wal-Mart tactic: http://chicagoist.com/2009/07/29/is_wal-mart_push_polling_chicago.php

Justin said...

Next time, ask for their phone number so you can call them back and complete the survey. A legit survey research organization will happily give you a toll-free number.

Anonymous said...

"At best, I think that this call was being used to test which of Walmart’s talking points will be well received by DC consumers."

It may have sounded like a push poll, but I am 99% sure that you participated in a messaging survey. The battery of statements you heard will be ranked in order of how effective they are at fostering positive opinions about the Walmart projects; the polling firm will analyze which messages work best among which audiences and recommend Walmart use message A districtwide, message B among African-Americans, message C for seniors, etc. The favorability and political environment questions at the start also sound fairly standard.

zachynyoga said...

Interesting post...