Are you a data-literate PR practitioner?

Are you a data-literate PR practitioner?

Chances are that very few of us would have asked ourselves this question. Surely we’re PR professionals, not analysts, right?

Well, it’s time we realised the difference that data analysis skills can make in our careers.

All over the world, public relations and marketing teams try hard to garner a greater share of senior management attention. In most cases, marketing fares better as it is viewed as broader in scope and directly impacting business outcomes (read sales) whereas PR’s scope is labelled as media relations. Many CEOs (who usually hail from a sales background) believe that while marketing leads the charge, PR continues in the background coming to the fore during instances such as crisis communications.

So where did PR lose the plot?

To put it simply, armed with customer data and insights, marketers have done a fairly good job at marketing themselves within the company (and more power to them) but alas, PR practitioners have done a terrible job in shaping their own perception.

Let’s take a common scenario – the management asks marketing and PR teams to present proposals on how to position and launch the company’s first consumer product or service offering in a new market segment.

The marketing team is likely to undertake a consumer segmentation study to understand the behavioural patterns of the various consumer segments. Based on the data from study findings, key differentiators would be identified that would appeal to an existing or latent need of key customer segments.

The PR team’s approach would be to conduct a media audit and competition coverage analysis and present some top comments as media perception of industry and competitors.

When each of the teams presents its strategy to the senior management, does the PR approach even stand a chance? It’s not surprising that behind their backs, many PR teams get mocked at for the shallowness of their customer and stakeholder understanding. The outcome would be that the PR team would be asked to toe the marketing line and revise its tactics according to the marketing plan.

What made the difference?

The audience and competitor insights gained through research can make up to 50% of the marketing proposal whereas the best research a PR plan would have is a few slides on media perception and environment audit, usually based on secondary research.

Advertising firms realised the need for an account planning department early on, with the primary function of finding consumer insights that help the creative teams to produce highly relevant and engaging campaigns in the marketplace. The account planner spends time observing the consumer's path to purchase, by using research such as ethnographies, focus groups or quantitative/social studies among others.

In comparison, the research undertaken and insights presented by PR teams is laughable. Most of them would not even know how to frame appropriate questions for a consumer survey in a manner that brings out the desired insights.

The key to changing the PR approach is to inculcate analytical skills among PR practitioners. If it means that PR firms and in-house PR teams need to hire account planners, analysts and statistics graduates, so be it.

The consolidation among advertising firms provides an excellent opportunity to hire account planners and marketing research experts. Many global PR firms have already begun setting up data analytics departments and imparting such skills to the larger teams. However, the model is still being tested at a hub level without having penetrated into markets.

Unless PR practitioners begin to actively seek and generate data (by commissioning surveys if necessary), understand data analysis and develop the ability to derive stakeholder insights, they will find it increasingly difficult to enhance their own perception with clients, in general and client senior management, in particular.   

 So, for the PR practitioners, the takeaways are:

  • Don’t be overwhelmed by data. Identify the relevant pieces that validate one’s perspective/ opinion. And the same ‘boring’ data can be represented visually through an infographic which could make a press release more appealing. Be on the lookout for creative ways to represent data.
  • Being data literate is only the first step to developing analytical skills; another key step is to read, read and read in order to gather various perspectives and understand macro-level trends. Then build one’s own perspective based on trusted data source/s. One’s assessment should reflect in documents such as story pitches, opinion articles and in every form of client counsel. Analytical skills can truly position a PR practitioner as a consultant to the client.
  • Before conversing with a CEO, be armed with data-driven insights that help decipher relevant trends; without hard data, no arguments can convince a CEO.
  • Don’t be misled into believing that analytical skills will inevitably come with experience or with an MBA degree; the ability to decipher data needs to be cultivated on the job and preferably early in the career.

If PR has to become a management function, it must learn to make sound data understanding its bedrock. So, next time you come across a piece of data, try to see if there exists an underlying trend relevant to your client. We’ve often been told to read between the lines, it’s now time to read between the data points.

Tarun Nagrani, Account Director, Edelman India  

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