PR by numbers?

I was pleased last week to be a speaker and panelist at an excellent PR Moment session on big data. This post is based on my research, talk and interactions.

When I first heard the topic I was kinda surprised – prior to a PR agency I worked in politics where research and analytics were a core currency. Been there, done that. But the more I talk with clients and PR practitioners, the more I look at PR industry evolution and talk to the (often woefully underprepared) PR people of tomorrow, the more one grasps the scale of the data & information avalanche, the more I see this discussion is live and urgent. Hence, post Cannes, a timely issue for PR Moment to tackle.

So here goes….

CAN YOU DO PR BY THE NUMBERS?

Like many other phenomena from the digital revolution, the emergence of big data is often described in a plethora of big statistics and ‘blimey!’ gee-whiz facts that illustrate its incredible growth. For example, KPMG reckons the total volume of business data in the world increased by 30% between 2010 and 2011.

Eric Schmidt of Google claims that every two days we produce as much information as had been created since the dawn of time and 2003. We also heard scary stats like the fact that 48 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube every second. Likewise 100,000 tweets generated. Etc etc.

The growth of mass information has been a catalyst for, if not the source of, a degree of introspection and self-doubt, if not occasional blind panic, within the PR industry. There are some legitimate fears. How we best incorporate data and data scientists into our industry, an industry not widely known in the recent past for a hunger for numbers?

How do we measure and sift this mass of data and where are the industry standards that measure this information? These are some of the big issues perplexing PR industry thinkers and leaders. Despite all this, a recent survey by Ragan showed that 54 percent of public relations professionals didn’t really know what big data is, let alone what to do with it.

SCIENCE & ART IN HARMONY

If data is the ‘science’ and creativity the ‘art’, we have to get the right balance between the two – they are mutually supportive, not at odds. Using data to create efficiently targeted ads that inspire no one is not progress, and neither is a piece of zany creative designed just to win an award as opposed to truly engaging people. Our clients are not in the Gutter Bar – they want our help to look at the stars (sorry, been wanting to use that gag for ages).

Big data should be an opportunity for us to improve our offering, not a threat to our creative instincts. In the words of my chief creative officer Gabriela Lungu: “Creativity is not the fruit of lucky inspiration or a one-off stroke of creative genius, but rather the result of an entire operating system; this is how we make sure we deliver creative, innovative ideas, fuelled by deep insight and analysis, over and over again”.

It’s an attitude that my firm Weber Shandwick, which has always focused on engagement, has long fostered within the business.

This was part of the thinking behind the development of our Science of Engagement brand health tracker tool. Using sophisticated research gathered from experts in the field of psychology, neurology and anthropology, the Science of Engagement offering gives brands the opportunity to explore how effectively they are engaging with their customers and the wider world, through understanding behaviours and analysing the numbers.

In advertising, data and concrete evaluation methods – along with creativity – have always been at the heart of the business. The only real restriction on a firm operating in an environment with so much data is its capacity to collect and analyse that information effectively.

But it is not just a matter of asking more questions. It is about asking the right questions. As the economist Ronald Coase once said “torture the data, and it will confess to anything.”. An over-reliance on data, gathering the wrong data, or twisting it to suit your objectives can be disastrous for a brand, company or organisation.

As I stressed in a previous post clients look to us for creative bravery. You can do PR by the numbers but the results are likely to be thoroughly disinteresting. At the core of what we do are our “incites” – the original creative thought and call to action at the heart of a campaign, based on deep and thoughtful insights.

Science + Art.

Image: Jackmalcolm.com