BIZINFLUENCER: YOU HAD US AT HELLO
DHM Research is known as one of the more solid public opinion research companies in the Northwest. Now change is coming to the firm's leadership. For 40-plus years DHM has worked with businesses, local government agencies and nonprofits to conduct independent research that goes on to shape policy. In its hot, quiet office across the street from Wieden + Kennedy in the Pearl District, nine people develop qualitative and quantitative research and produce reports for such clients as the City of Portland, Prosper Portland,TriMet, the Oregon Health Authority, and Metro. They have also worked with departments of transportation, utilities, healthcare providers, and non-profits across the nation.
For example, DHM runs TriMet's annual Attitude and Awareness survey, to see how the public likes the train and bus service, and the Portland Business Alliance annual economic survey of residents. DHM doesn't do market research into consumer goods. Instead, the firm focuses on issues such as healthcare, natural resources, transportation and livability. The firm also holds a monthly panel of around 2,500 people from across the state who opt to take the online surveys and provide feedback.
DHM was founded in 1977 and is sometimes known as Davis Hibbitts & Midghall. Those names are moving on. With the changing of the guard, the Business Tribune sat down with Michelle Neiss, PhD, who was recently promoted from VP of research to Chief Executive Officer. She talks about tracking public opinion, the dangers of partisan politics, and why you should pick up that call when it's an unknown number.
Business Tribune: Is your firm trying to advance a client's agenda or produce independent research?
Michelle Neiss: As a public opinion firm our goal is to measure and assess what the public really thinks and report that back to the client. And then along the way we provide strategic advice on what those results mean for the goals of the client and the decisions they're about to make. Our ideal client is a decision maker who is trying to have evidence to support in deciding a direction they want to go, or if they are in support of a specific policy how can they tell the story in a way that resonates with the public. We're looking for an objective assessment of what people are believing.
BT: How has the company changed in 40 years?
MN: The decision to not do candidate work was made around 20 years ago. It feels like it's a polarized environment and I think DHM wants to be at the table, not so much pushing a certain political agenda but making decisions for the community. We'd rather be giving voice to everyday people regardless of their political views and not trying to push a particular agenda because of party name behind it.
BT: What are the dangers of doing political or "candidate" work?
MN: Once you become associated with one political party the other political party isn't going to trust you do an equally good job for their person because it's a conflict of interest. People will assume you have a bias and are unable to do as well for them.
BT: How do you reach out to the public?
MN: We use several methods to hear from people: we call them on the phone, we ask them to take surveys online, we bring them in for longer group discussions, or we interview them one-on-one.
BT: What disruptors has your industry faced in the last five years?
MN: Fewer people are willing to answer the phone. Researchers are moving away from phone. The industry has moved to more research online, with professional panels where respondents are incentivized to complete surveys. Some are going back to mailing postcards where respondents may be asked to take the survey online but the initial contact is through mail. Our clients may ask whether they really need to talk to 150 people or is it more important to have good, in depth conversations with, for example, 20 people in a few focus groups? With surveys you can get an idea of what people think but you don't know why. With focus groups, 10 people in a room for 90 minutes, we can really dig deeper. For example, we can ask about why homelessness is their priority, or what would they like to see done and why they think that would work. A richer understanding allows us to go back to policy-makers and say, 'These are the values of the people and this is how they think about the issue.' Sometimes that helps our clients make a decision and take action. Sometimes it shows there's a need for education.
We also find because we're getting more people on cell phones, they interrupt the call much more. Now we say 'We'll wait for you!' But we're paying by the minute. Also, people used to have 20-minute conversations, now that's too much. We tell businesses, 'You'll just have to ask fewer questions.'
BT: Why should the public bother to take such a calls?
MN: Our clients, which are very often public, like the City of Portland or Beaverton, they really want to know what the taxpayers think, or the voters think. And one of the only ways is if they hear from you. So, when we call it reflects an authentic desire to know what you think. As most of us don't have the time to go to the town halls or write to elected officials, these surveys are the opportunity. It takes time out of your day but your opinion really does matter.
BT: But people have time on Facebook to spend whole evenings reading other people's opinions and responding.
MN: That's a different outcome of your time. That might help you form an opinion, and then the public opinion research is your way to share that back to the people who are making decisions. I see them as two different parts of the process.
BT: Can firms like yours use what you read on Facebook and social media?
MN: Our firm doesn't do that, but others do. They might do a Twitter dump, where they get a bunch of tweets in a geographic location or a certain time, and analyze the contents. That's big data but it's very passive. Even with our questionnaires, we're building a story with a series of questions, building that context with understanding, versus a quick view of what people said and did that doesn't necessarily provide you with the context of understanding.
BT: With data sources that are too big to humanly read, how do you avoid only finding what you are looking for?
MN: In our analysis we try to avoid that. If I have 600 responses to a question, our coder will come up with an initial coding and say 'These are the most important themes that I saw.' And I'll look at the first 150 and see if I agree with them. And I'll have conversations with the client. We're not looking at 10,000 pages of documents, we're looking at smaller amounts of data. Part of our role is to meet ideas of validity and reliability. That if someone came in after me and looked at the data they will see the same things that I saw. That's a core principle for our firm. We build in processes that would allow us to gather evidence against our initial perceptions.
BT: Once you have results how do they turn into a message to the public?
MN: We can do the groundwork for messaging: which themes resonate, which words to avoid. Often a communications firm would come in to lead message development. We may work with those firms from the beginning, such as Quinn Thomas, Brink, Barney Worth, Hubbell, Coates Kokes and Gard. Many communication firms have the same challenge, want some evidence to provide directional guidance and ensure messages address the gaps in understanding. We can often have a gut feeling of where the public is, but data from the broader population can validate or challenge those preconceived notions.
BT: How northwest-centric is DHM?
MN: DHM has been in Oregon for 40 years, but we do work all across the nation. Right now, I'm doing work in Delaware and Pennsylvania around road funding issues. Departments of transportation around the country are grappling with the issue of what to do now that funds from gas taxes are going down. Because of that, our need to maintain the roads is not going down. There's a gap. The states, and probably the federal government, are going to decided how to address that situation.
BT: How did you get to work for the Oregon Psilocybin Society which is working to provide access to supervised and regulated psilocybin (magic mushrooms) services in Oregon? (https://shrtm.nu/Yu9R)
MN: They reached out to us because DHM worked several years ago with people who wanted to legalize recreational marijuana. There's a lot of reasons to work through what people know about the issue. There's a lot to understand. A standard ballot test for us is do you support or oppose? And then give some reasons against, some reasons for, and now at the end where do you stand? See what the arguments are and then see who had changed their opinion.
BT: What are your monthly panels?
MN: We have monthly surveys which are a really good way to explore. Sometimes we work with Quinn Thomas who have offices here and in Seattle and we delve into a topic together. One we did was are new residents in Seattle different from old residents? Are they changing our city?
BT: Would you do a newbies survey for Portland?
MN: We were talking to people to get a little bit of help funding that. We sparked a conversation and it ended up going in a different direction.
BT: How is being CEO going to be different from being VP of research?
MN: As CEO it's going to be my job to think more carefully about strategy and vision, how do we want to adapt to those changes and setting the business focus of the company.
BT: What is your management style?
MN: I am incredibly lucky to work with a small team of very talented, very capable people. My management style reflects the trust I have in our team: I try to stay fairly hands off while building in regular check points so that we can collaborate, notice and build on each other's strengths, and provide support for each other when needed.
Michelle Neiss has been with DHM since 2009. She holds a doctorate and master's degree in family studies and human development from the University of Arizona. She received her bachelor's degree in psychology from Stanford University. Neiss was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Southampton where she studied social psychology and then managed a research lab in the Department of Behavioral Neuroscience at Oregon Health & Science University.
Address: 239 N.W. 13th Ave., Suite 205, Portland
DHM mssion statement:
"We give voice to average people on issues that matter to them, and we work with government agencies, communications firms, and nonprofits across the country to plan and develop smarter policies."
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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