PR tip # 435 Select your case study well

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The wrong choice of case study hurts campaigns.

A recent 7.30 report about the insufficiency of the Newstart Allowance was a major national media hit, adding further momentum to the push to significantly increase the benefit.

Find the story here; scroll down the selection on the right and look for Unemployment Benefits.

This story didn’t happen by accident – a nonprofit pushed it to reporter Stephen Long.

7.30 is always a great hit to get and like so many stories, it revolves around a case study  bolstered by various experts. Experts are easy to find – what gets you more success more often is a compelling, case study. They are vital. Supply good case studies and you can befriend many a journo.

A good case study truly personifies a circumstance. It wraps up a complex problem and represents it to the public in a simpler, sympathetic light.

Maria is not such a case study. Maria is simply not a sympathetic, nor particularly representative case study. She is a poor selection.

Let us be clear – this is not a comment on Maria or her circumstances or the issue. This is a comment from a campaigner’s perspective on how smart a choice she was by the publicist behind the pitch. This is a judgement on how she serves the campaign as a whole.

Maria is being forced to move from the Carers Payment which she has been on for over a decade and on to Newstart at a loss to her of $200 per fortnight. She will be expected to actively look for work like any other jobseeker.

Naturally Maria is unhappy but many viewers will not be particularly moved by Maria’s claim that she cannot work due because of her age (62) or her poor English skills (she migrated here in 1976). Her knee injury is not demonstrated.

Moreover Maria doesn’t want to work and as such is A) more difficult to like B) fails to represent a sizeable percentage of those on Newstart who do want to work C) reinforces every stereotype about CALD and unemployed people on benefits. 

Imagine being on miserly Newstart and genuinely not being able to find work despite your best efforts – would you have been happy with this representation?

That said; the story is remarkably sympathetic. In fact the reporter was entirely derelict in his efforts counterbalance the debate. (It’s also poorly edited as we get a line repeated but we digress.)

We hear little about solutions to help these people find work from experts. It’s just a case of raising the Newstart benefit which opponents will hear as: “More money, more taxes, more money, more taxes!” It comes across as very welfare, very 70s, very charity, very whingy

A much more constructive case study would have been an individual who actually WANTS to work but cannot due to a lack of training options, disability employment services, a sympathetic employer, age or gender discrimination. Anyone who actually genuinely wants to work but genuinely can’t would have been better. A sense of entitlement rarely wins over swinging voters on any issue.

Good case studies:

Must be slam dunks; giving no fuel to your opponents.

Personify a situation.

Don’t need to be experts in the issue.

Can fully articulate their own particular experience.

Want the same outcome that you do.

Are vital to getting story ideas over the line.

Are happy to be restricted to offering a personal perspective.

Will appeal to the ‘swinging voter’ not just those who are sympathetic.

Meets a negative perception of your audience head on. 

Are sympathetic people – not just nice people. There’s a difference.


8 Responses to PR tip # 435 Select your case study well

  1. Agree with your critique on this Newstart story.We sourced 20 jobs in Laverton for young long term unemployed, so keen to work, yet no public transport to get there. Cant afford a car. Some were going to catch a bus with a bicycle, then a train, then ride a bike the rest of the way, just to get work. At least 19% of our welfare recipients are homeless in the north. They are hungry, cold, and trying hard to do what is asked of them and more. Need to put our very best cases up and leave no room for criticism that we know is our there.

  2. Nando Perez says:

    I watched the ABC 7.30 Newstart story and couldn’t disagree with you more that Maria is not a good case study. The point here is why should a 62yr old women who’s just lost her husband after caring for him for the past 15years, and clearly has limited work skills, poor English, and a knee injury be forced onto the Newstart allowance and have to struggle to exist on just $35 a day? Even if we accept that she could be forced to take up English classes and training programs, even at her age, given her many years of contribution as a carer, I think it’s cruel in the extreme to expect her to have to work or be condemned to poverty. I think your analysis is insensitive and bordering on demeaning. And thank god for the ABC to be fair when covering such stories, one can only imagine how ACA or Today Tonight would’ve treated the same story. Maria doesn’t come across to me as your stereotypical dole bludger, her story does challenge the negative perception of people on income support and is a good barometer of just how hardline we’ve become, as emphasised by you unfortunate critique.

    • Brett says:

      You must not have read the paragraph we write explaining that our post has nothing to do with our feeling twoards the issue or the case study as an individual. Here it is again:

      Let us be clear – this is not a comment on Maria or her circumstances or the issue. This is a comment from a campaigner’s perspective on how smart a choice she was by the publicist behind the pitch. This is a judgement on how she serves the campaign as a whole.

      Oh well.

  3. Nando Perez says:

    Hey Jeff, I’m no publicity expert but the story was powerful and sure worked on me and obviously on a lot of people if it was such a ‘major national media hit’ as you say. Having worked in the NFP sector I’m not sure such a sophisticated or orchestrated publicity campaign effort to ‘push’ stories and case studies exists – nor as a journalist do I think experienced reporters like Stephen Long would take kindly to having case studies or stories thrust upon him as you seem to insinuate.By your analysis you did pass comment on Maria and her circumstances as well as people in her situation despite your qualifier to the contrary. I do agree there are many other case studies along the lines that you prospose, and perhaps you are better qualified to deem them more constructive or effective in this supposed nonprofit campaign. However it’s your rejection that Maria’s story is not a good case story to illustrate the idiocy of current government policies in the income support area that I take issue with. It is a good powerful real life case story, and it worked!

    • Brett says:

      Greetings Nando,

      It’s Brett here. I’m glad you’ve contributed – Hootville is a reasonably democratic place which is why we encourage differing views. (Which is more than the 7.30 story did.) No doubt it was a great media hit but I want hits to be as persuasive as possible and I was empathising with people out there in TV land (even ABC) who don’t see things as you do. As someone who has made a living a pushing 200+ nonprofit stories a year for 12 years please rest assured that journos like Stephen Long and co all respond to pitches from nonprofits. They don’t say yes to everything but that’s how issues ‘come to their attention’. Anyhow – thanks for your contributions.

  4. Stephen Long says:

    Hi, Stephen Long, ABC Economics Correspondent here. I was the reporter who did the story. Your analysis of the origins of the report are wrong. A non-profit did not “push”the story to me. On the contrary, I was struck by comments at the tax forum at Parliament House in Canbera by the free market economist Professor Judith Sloan on Newstart. It seemed to me to be newsworthy and interesting that Sloan, far from a bleeding heart and a leading champion of labour market deregulation, should be agreeing with the welfare lobby that the level of unemployment benefits was too low. We chased up with ACOSS for comment and hunted up the case study — not the other way around. I also disagree with your assessment that Maria was not a sympathetic character — I think her plight was very moving and the feedback I got was that it was appalling that a woman in her circumstances was being forced onto the dole, with a poverty level payment. We could have found other examples that may have illustrated the story better with more notice but it was a same day turnaround. I reiterate, this was not sourced from a “pitch by a publicist”. It emerged from genuine debate at a policy forum so your premise is false.

    • Brett says:

      Greetings Stephen,

      Thanks for the comment, which I will publish in full. Through whom did you source Maria? A nonprofit of some sort? If a nonprofit did recommend her I stand by my essential criticism of Maria as a case study.


      Whether I found Maria sympathetic is unimportant but I do think she reinforced some sterotypes for less sympathetic viewers who may not have an inclination to support the unemployed. I got feedback in both directions on Maria. As a publicist I have campaigned for unemployed disabled people who are hungry to work but do not try to find employment because they fear losing their disability support pension benefit. This is similar to Maria not wanting to lose her Carer’s benefit. So when I see a story on national media featuring someone who is unemployed but doesn’t want to work I feel she lets down people with less ability to work but more desire. I hope I’ve explained myself reasonably clearly for this hour. Seriously, if you want to do a story on the mass of unemployed disabled people I could recommend a few great case studies…

      Also – how regularly do you do a story after being pitched to? Honestly. You must have peak bodies and economic think tanks calling you day and night.

      I enjoy your work Stephen and your slightly unusual manner of speaking – it is quite conspiratorial.


      Brett de Hoedt

  5. Heather says:

    As a disclaimer – I work in the social services sector (or the ‘welfare lobby’ if you prefer) in a PR and communications capacity but have also worked in other NFP environments also.

    I have sourced many case studies (like Maria) in my time. This has usually been at the request of the media. In my experience it is less common that NFPs in this space will have a ‘packaged’ case study ready to go to ‘push out’ to a journo at any given time. This is due to the particular circumstances and vulnerabilities of these individuals and a understandable reluctance from case workers to offer up people lest they be ‘exploited’ or ‘misconstrued’. (This isn’t necessarily the case for NFPs outside of social services)

    I also want to acknowledge that finding someone on short notice, who fits the brief all the while being sensitive to their vulnerabilities is a very difficult job! And then making sure they’re on message is a whole new challenge.

    That said, Brett, I agree that the case study should have been more powerful – though I disagree that it is Maria’s personal circumstances that are the problem. Rather I think that her story wasn’t leveraged as well as it could have been, i.e. it didn’t emphasise the most relevant issue facing Maria – that having spent 15 years caring for someone has meant that she doesn’t necessarily have the skills to get back into the workforce, with age being another factor contributing to this. That combined with the ‘poverty level’ payment is challenging.

    The issue isn’t so much that she is being ‘forced’ off the carer’s allowance as this story suggests (she is no longer a carer so this seems like a no-brainer) but that if there is an expectation to work she should be supported to do so.

    In fact Maria would have fit the brief (most of what they discussed related to people over 45) but the case study wasn’t necessarily explored as it could have been.