Helen Ellis

By

Helen Ellis

Published on

October 18, 2018

Tags

public relations

Opinion has long been the cornerstone of PR. I believe it is one of the reasons that PR professionals often struggle to get a seat at the top table. This, coupled with uncertainty, the lack of guarantees that a story will fly, and the holy grail of demonstrating ROI continues to make selling PR ideas and expertise a challenge.


I’m not going to talk about measurement and evaluation, which to this day is still where most conversations about analytics start and end when it comes to PR. Instead, I’m covering the role data and analytics plays in planning, strategy and creative ideation, and what that means for opinion-based PR programs.

“If we have data, let’s look at data. If all we have are opinions, let’s go with mine.” – Jim Barksdale

This sums up the power of data versus opinion. It’s difficult to argue with data. As someone who’s spent years using data and analytics to identify how media and influencers are talking about a particular topic, what competitor companies are doing that’s resonating and what’s not working, I can report that using data also takes the emotion out of most review and planning meetings. Clients want to understand how their PR program is working (or not working) and they appreciate when you can show them that, honestly, with data to back it up. They also frequently share this data and insights with their senior leadership team.

Sometimes an absence of data is just as compelling as tons of it. For example, it’s much easier to convince stakeholders that product announcements don’t generate much interest in the majority of UK B2B tech publications when you can show them how little coverage their competitors’ announcements achieved. And then make the case for tying their announcement to x, y, z issue or activation.

Strategic Creativity

I believe data and analytics have a role to play in every stage of the PR process. During planning, a rigorous, data-driven approach to understanding audience, market and media landscapes provides much greater potential to unearth new, useful observations and insights than someone’s opinion about a sector based on preconceptions and a quick scan of articles on Google.

The strategic thinking borne out of data-driven observations and insights is much more likely to be sound, current and deliver differentiation, than thinking borne out of decades of experience alone.

And finally, data empowers strategic creativity. Over the years it’s sometimes been suggested that you can’t be analytical and creative. But in a world where there’s never been more data available and no-one bats an eye-lid at testing, measuring, optimising and informing advertising and marketing programs with data, I wonder why anyone wouldn’t use data and analytics to inform creative output. Even if it’s simply to check if the idea you’ve just had has been done a hundred times before.

So, what about opinion and gut instinct? Does data-driven PR mean that the role for experience and intuition is dead? Absolutely not.

Instinct & Experience

A few years ago, I read Daniel Kahneman’s ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’. One anecdote has stayed with me. Kahneman looks at whether judgement calls based on System 1 (slow, often difficult thinking that requires more effort and deliberation) are more accurate than those based on System 2 thinking (instantaneous, gut reactions and responses to a situation) through the story of a firefighter.

“The psychologist Gary Klein tells the story of a team of firefighters that entered a house in which the kitchen was on fire. Soon after they started hosing down the kitchen, the commander heard himself shout, “Let’s get out of here!” without realizing why. The floor collapsed almost immediately after the firefighters escaped. Only after the fact did the commander realize that the fire had been unusually quiet and that his ears had been unusually hot. Together, these impressions prompted what he called a “sixth sense of danger.” He had no idea what was wrong, but he knew something was wrong. It turned out that the heart of the fire had not been in the kitchen but in the basement beneath where the men had stood.” *

Kahneman goes on to explain that expert intuition is in fact believed to be ‘recognition of familiar elements in a new situation’. However, this does not mean that all professional intuition is based on real-life expertise.

When it comes to analytics I think there is a critical role for instinct and experience: questioning. Without a certain degree of knowledge and expertise, you can’t ask the right questions when gathering and examining data. Without questions, it is possible to waste a vast amount of time fishing for enlightenment.

Not only that, but the observations and insights you can gain are only as good as the sources of data you’re looking at. If something is surprising or doesn’t ring true (thoughts that initially arise out of instinct), then it’s worth looking at the data and questioning it or looking for an additional source to back up what the data is telling you.

Having an open-mind when looking at data is important, but so is using your instinct and not blindly trusting in what the data, or the person who’s interpreted it, is telling you. So, whilst I firmly believe that data and analytics – not opinion – should be the cornerstone of PR, instinct still has a critical role to play.
 
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*Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman

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