The Evolution of Data in PR: From Analysis to Synthesis

Data is no longer a “nice to know” topic – it is now established at the very frontier of PR, and those who truly understand how to use it to drive client programs will be able to succeed by orders of magnitude over those who don’t.

It’s also fair to say that we in PR are simply not yet harnessing data’s full power. But what’s holding us back? I see three core barriers and three key evolutions that communicators must address if we’re going to succeed in the long run.

The Three Core Barriers…

1. Data Noise
The adage “be careful what you wish for” has never seemed more true. There are seemingly more data streams today than we can possibly manage: social data, societal (vs social) data, digital data, retail data, customer (both attitudinal and behavioral) data, media data, messaging data… each with its own agenda, each catering to a different master.

All of this results in a grating cacophony, a massive overload of data that threatens to submerge true strategic thinking and paralyze the decision making process. When there’s so much to process, where do you start? Which data is useful? Which is just noise?

2. Data Intimidation
Here’s a pet peeve: the expression “Big Data.” The expression sounds ominous; it (subliminally) evokes the sense of Big Brother-type surveillance. The problem is compounded by the fact that we now have specialists who seem to speak entirely different languages, belong to their own little clubs, adding to the perception of an insulated system.

I suggest that all this has created a sense of intimidation among the rank and file PR professional. There are a good number of PR pros who seem to have taken the view “leave it to the analysts” without really engaging with data in a meaningful way.

3. Data Hijack
Data has been “hijacked” by the lenses of ROI, metrics and so forth. Of course these are critical elements of what data can do, but data can do lots more. My concern is that if you only view data through the lens of metrics, of post-facto analysis (“did my program work or not?”), you tend to work toward the metric rather than work toward meeting your branding goal, and even more important, your customer’s expectations.

So, what do we do about all this?

The Three Core Evolutions…

1. Data Democracy: From Data Intimidation to Data Demystification
You don’t have to be an analyst to understand data or use data. Ever since I joined PR, I have heard many people say, “I didn’t join PR because I’m good in math.” We just don’t have the luxury to take that stance any more. Data is here to stay and anyone who tells you that you can have an insights discipline without strong grounding in data is lying to you. Specifically, this means:

  • PR leaders must understand that the industry expects them to ask the right questions of data – to lead with the vision and strategy, and challenge analysts to provide the answers
  • In order to do that we must train PR professionals throughout the industry (not just analysts) to understand how individual strands of data, when harnessed and collated, can collectively provide the strongest possible strategies to your clients

2. Data in the DNA: From Data-Driven to Data-Centric
“Data-driven” implies that data is an external force that drives our actions, and hopefully produces results. To me, a much more potent vision of how to realize the full power of data is “Data-Centricity.” This implies an organizational philosophy where data, while being subservient to business objectives, is at the very core of every decision we make, every action we take. This is in absolute contrast to how data is normally used in PR: only in the world of metrics or as the last few slides in a creative presentation. Specifically, this means:

  • Remove the perception that you can build a career in PR without a sharp understanding of data
  • Start (not just end off with) strategy discussions with data
  • Have analysts and strategists in every important meeting with your clients

3. Data Deployed: From Data Analysis to Data Synthesis
Sometimes I feel that the world of data is understood as “Data Analytics” and that is it. Of course analytics is critical: the ability to take things apart and go deeper into the granularity of the data to really understand its component parts and, more than that, also understand how individual components affect each other. But what the industry really needs today is also the discipline of integration and assimilation, not just within individual data streams, but across data streams. The skill set needed here is for someone to be able to answer this simple question, “What does ALL the data mean in a holistic sense?” Specifically, this means:

  • Create a whole new job category within PR: Data Synthesists
  • Integrate the Synthesists into the day-to-day working of your agency
  • The Synthesists’ skill set would be the ability to step back, look at multiple data points coming from different sources and different contexts, then merge them and synthesize the data to tell a story

Did you enjoy my blog post? Completely disagree with every point? Either way, if you’d like to learn more, on May 2 I’ll be hosting a webinar with my friends at AirPR on Data Driven PR Planning & Strategy for Next Gen PR Pros. Click here if you’d like to join us for what’s sure to be a lively discussion.