Is Comcast Running Manipulative “Push Poll” In Response To Philly Customer Service Study?

Earlier this spring, Philadelphia released its Needs Assessment Report regarding Comcast, the city’s primary cable/broadband provider, one of its biggest employers, and the tenant of its tallest tower. The results of the survey were not good, with 99% of the written responses unfavorable to Comcast. At the time, the company said the report was innaccurate and said it would “deliver comprehensive proof” to the city. A new telephone poll being conducted on Comcast’s behalf appears to be in response to the city’s report, but some who’ve taken the survey say the questions being asked are designed to put Comcast in the best possible light.

The first we heard of the survey was after Eric Rosso, Political Director for Pennsylvania Working Families, and no stranger to polling practices, Tweeted that he’d just taken a “ridiculous push poll” from Comcast that was “trying to garner results that favored them as a corporate citizen.”

For those unfamiliar with the term “push poll,” it refers to a manipulative surveying practice where the questions are designed in such a way as to nudge respondents to give a desired response, and/or to put a desired message in the survey respondent’s mind. Push polls are most frequently used in election campaigns, but can be used by companies, especially when public opinion will play a large role in business matters.

We spoke to Rosso, who didn’t record the call but did his best to recall the structure of the survey. He says it began with standard questions about Comcast service, picture quality, Internet speed — the kind of objective questions that fit into the “yes/no” or “rate on a scale of 1 to 4” format and rarely require any sort of additional explanation.

But then, says Rosso, the questions transitioned into more questionable territory. Rather than asking about his opinions and experiences as a Comcast customer, the caller asked him to quantify his feelings on things like Comcast’s Internet Essentials program for low-income consumers.

While that’s a valid topic for a survey, Rosso says the way in which the question was phrased and the way in which he had to answer left no room for a nuanced answer.

According to Rosso, giving a low score to the question about Comcast providing broadband access for some 43,000 low-income Philadelphians would give off the implication that you think such a program is a bad thing. And while consumer advocates have repeatedly criticized Essentials for being too restrictive, most believe that it’s a good but flawed program. You can’t get that sentiment across in a simple “scale of 1-4” response.

Likewise, the question about Comcast’s employment of thousands of Philadelphia-area residents was structured so that a low-scoring response would imply that the company shouldn’t employ as many people, not that there might be concerns about Comcast’s employment practices. And questions about Comcast’s tax contributions to the area left no room for qualifications related to the company’s tax breaks.

Chris Rabb, author of Invisible Capital: How Unseen Forces Shape Entrepreneurial Opportunity and a professor at Temple University’s Fox School of Business, also took part in the phone survey. He tells Consumerist it was one of the most egregious examples of non-electoral push polling he’s seen in decades.

This was particularly true, says Rabb, when the survey transitioned to questions about demands Philadelphia could make of Comcast in the company’s renewed franchise agreement, and how these could increase costs for the company.

“All of the questions related to the franchise agreement were geared around the idea of ‘Do you believe you should have to pay for new expenses that we would tack on to your bill? Do you believe that you should pay for this?'” recalls Rabb. “They tried to make it seem like their profit margin is so thin that they can’t absorb any of the additional cost.”

He notes that it’s telling that the survey never asked if you should think Comcast should eat any of these expenses as a cost of doing business.

The apparent goal of these questions, say both Rosso and Rabb, is to paint Comcast’s corporate citizenship in the best possible light while also stirring up discontent among those who would object to their already-high cable bills increasing further.

Since we have not been called to take part in this survey, and only have Rosso and Rabb’s recollections of the polls to go on, we contacted Comcast to ask if we could obtain the actual list of questions to see if they were indeed this leading or if the customers might be misremembering.

A rep for the company said that providing the questions was not possible at this time but that could change if the survey data was used in the future.

The rep did confirm that “a reputable third party, independent company is fielding a survey for us in Philadelphia,” adding that “Our commitment to Philadelphia is important to us, as are our customers here, and this survey gives us an opportunity to find out more about what’s important to them.”

The company would not confirm or deny that the survey was in direct response to the Philadelphia Needs Assessment report, but did say that while this particular survey is Philadelphia-specific, Comcast frequently polls consumers in its various markets around the country.