PR Debate: Big Data vs. Big Intuition

Has all the focus on Big Data steered smart and experienced PR people away from one of our greatest strengths – our intuition? This will be just one of the big issues tackled at the Council of PR Firms Annual Critical Issues Forum in New York on October 23.  The speaker, Teddy Goff, Partner, Precision Strategies, led the digital strategy team that helped get President Obama elected twice by connecting the people to the politician online. His team was responsible for President Obama’s massive online presence and he is part of a consulting firm that seeks to do the same for others.

We don’t have the “data” on Goff’s talk yet, but we can “intuit” that it will address some of the following burning questions:

How to harness Big Data. Even the name is overwhelming! If you have a “small” client, can they benefit from Big Data too? We’d like to see some concrete examples of actionable use of truly large data in real-world PR campaigns, like using information to help determine social influencers; further segmenting campaigns; performing A/B campaign testing; and evaluating media and social channels. Determining what you’re after will help you decide what data to start tracking.

How to interpret it once you get it. Are there tricks of the trade to make terabytes less terrifying or minutiae more manageable? We’d like someone to explain the tools that are out there to process the information in a way that is palatable to what we actually do not jargon-filled gibberish.

The Yin and Yang of it. There must be a balance between mining this data, cold and analytical, but often brilliant and precise, along with PR wisdom, experience, and gut feelings, however warm and fuzzy.

The Forum, sponsored by CPRF, the association comprised of America’s 100 leading public relations firms, will explore how we can move brands past “disruption” to engage more fully in people’s lives. We’re proud to be a member of CPRF, and we hope to see you there. If you can’t attend, we’ll update you, or you can follow the action at hashtag: #PRGenome

Is "Big Data" In PR's DNA?

“Back then, I was a geek. Now all of a sudden I have a sexy job.” – Claudia Perlich, Chief Data Scientist at Dstillery and panelist at the upcoming Council of PR Firms Critical Issues Forum

The rise of digital media and availability of ever-more granular data about how we use it have transformed marketing, but public relations has been a laggard in the data revolution. Yes, we know about data-driven marketing, most of us have promoted clients with a “Big Data” angle, but many of us remain in a state that a former client used to call DRIP (Data-Rich, Insight-Poor.) Public relations has an opportunity to take advantage of the democratization of data, but how? Is data really in our DNA?

The data debate will be part of The Council of PR Firms Critical Issues Forum, “The PR Genome Project,” on October 23, and not a moment too soon. As the lines between PR, advertising, and digital marketing blur, most communications professionals use data in our daily work, but we’re not even close to leveraging its full potential. In our view, here are just a few of the promising areas for PR practitioners.

Web analytics. Most PR pros are comfortable with social analytics tools and conversion as an important metric for measuring the impact of earned media placements, so it’s an excellent starting point. But a social dashboard or site traffic report doesn’t inform strategy.

Defining our audience. This is where harnessing and interpreting the vast amounts of available consumer data can offer insights that define the people we’re trying to reach and enable more precise messaging. As Perlich, the data scientist, told Mediapost, “I am not a generic 35-45 year old soccer mom and as such, should not be targeted with baking products. I am much more than that.” The old demographic segments are dead. We’re all much more than that.

Influencer research. As with the customers we’re trying to engage, we often tap influencers through a mix of social web search and intuition. But deeper data can glean insights that will help focus the spend of time and energy on those that really pay off.

Crisis preparation. Analysis of data from customer service calls, social media complaints, and online chatter can pinpoint customer dissatisfaction in advance of a full-blown crisis situation or identify pain points before they become serious.

For our industry, the promise of data is not just in the insights it offers and the validation of measurement tools and standards, but in how it can help elevate the role of corporate communications.  Data-driven insights that result in true strategic counsel for the company, in a way that cuts across marketing, reputation, and internal communications, can change the essence of what we do and drive the skills and insights that shape future programs. And there’s no more critical issue for PR than that.

Insider Tips on Hiring the Right PR Firm

In a previous post, we offered ideas for eliminating roadblocks to successfully partnering with the right PR agency, be it B2B, consumer, tech or professional services.

Once that decision is made, the rest is easy, right? Not so fast. The search for the “ideal” PR firm can be time-consuming and even overwhelming. How do you cut through the hype and achieve something like an apples-to-apples comparison? Here are some tips on how to narrow the field and determine the right PR agency partner.

Get recommendations and referrals. Often this is the easiest way to start. There are many PR firms with different areas of concentration, various sizes, and different work styles. Hearing from a trusted colleague or business associate in a related field who has achieved PR success with an outside firm can help narrow things down.

Consult the industry experts. Over 100 leading PR firms belong to The Council of PR Firms (CFPR), the industry trade association and a terrific source for researching your “short list.” There’s also O’Dwyer’s, which organizes listings of PR firms by geography and specialty. There’s also the Holmes Report which publishes many reports on PR agencies.

Visit agency websites and blogs often. Sure, your team gave it a once-over when you were creating a short list, but make sure to revisit. A stagnant website with an outdated blog and nothing new or fresh may not reflect the vibrant, hard-working agency you want on your business.

Ask for more than client references. Since media relations will likely be a key factor in determining your decision, ask your agency suitors to provide some references at relevant outlets and follow up with them to see if their relationships are legit.

Or, ask for references from clients who fired the agency. Even the best agencies have clients, who, due to reasons of chemistry, politics, or budget, have had to end the relationship. It can be enlightening to speak to those ex-clients, or just to learn how prospective agencies respond to your request.

Research enviable PR coverage. If you see a thoughtful piece on a company president, broadcast coverage of a creative special event or a business story touting a new product, find out who represents the lucky company and track them down! You can sometimes find this information by googling for newswire pickup of agency announcements, or sometimes by simply contacting the company directly.

Get to know the contenders. Even the most detailed response to an RFP or the slickest agency presentation isn’t enough to know if your teams will get along in “the real [workday] world.” Go out for a meal or drinks and ask personal questions about their lives outside the office – often the answers to those questions are more revealing than anything in an RFP!

Want to know more? Download our tipsheet.

PR Pros In A "Content Frenzy" (or "Blurred Lines")

“Content is a shitty business. You listicle-making sheep are following us off the cliff!”
– Jeff Jarvis, BuzzMachine

Despite Jarvis’ colorful warning to the crowd of PR professionals at the Council of PR Firms Critical Issues Forum, dubbed “Content Frenzy,” we PRs came to listen and learn at the feet of the media and content pundits. The forum’s subtitle, “Holy Grail or Spam-a-lot?” pretty well sums up the PR dilemma.

We’ve drunk the content Kool-Aid. No one doubts its potency, nor PR’s ownership claim, given our     storytelling DNA and earned media chops.  But literally every second brings a new flood of the stuff — tips lists, cat videos, white papers, parodies, infographics, you name it. We’re in a frenzy to make our content bigger and stronger, but with so much out there, how to go beyond the listicle? How can we make ourselves and our clients heard?

“Content Frenzy” brought together big names in media, platform technology, corporate communications,  research and analysis. Make no mistake, the listicle has respect. In fact, when BuzzFeed’s Eric Harris recited stats about its astounding success with native ad content, the envy on the podium was palpable. Some of us didn’t realize that BuzzFeed now has more employees than Forbes – itself no slouch in going native.

The audience was made up of professional communicators, but the words “public relations” were rarely mentioned. Far from being a sign of PR’s marginalization, I think that fact signals that the lines between public relations and content marketing are truly blurred.

Here are some of my takeaways from the lively panel discussions.

It’s about the consumer, stupid.

“Messaging is dead,” says Jarvis. Of course we communicators spend enormous amounts of time on messaging, and we will continue to do so, but the point here is that our content should be driven by its consumers. What do they need? What solves problems? Makes them laugh? It’s about relevance and relationships. Above all, it’s about trust. And don’t even objectify them by calling them an “audience.”  The new world of individualized content calls for a fresh mindset and even a different vocabulary.

Content is visual.

Rebecca Lieb of Altimeter Group, who’s created some excellent white papers on native advertising and other hot topics, noted that pure text content is “flatlining” while multimedia  – videos, photos, images, are rising.  Amy Webb of Webbmediagroup spoke about something called “anticipatory computing” delivered by an app called MindMeld that she believes will transform the very definition of content. I don’t understand it either, but it seems to build on Jarvis’ call for big data to get “smaller” in a more highly individualized path to the consumer’s screen.

Success must be earned.

One of the biggest laugh lines was in response to a client or advertiser asking, “How do we create a viral video?” The answer: “Shut up.” Meaning, there is no surefire formula, and certainly no commercial recipe for creating compulsively shareable content. The panel on humor, “Punked, Parodied, and Brandjacked,” with Funny or Die’s Chris Bruss and satirist Tony Hendra, was a fresh reminder of how risky – and how powerful – humor and entertainment can be in overcoming resistance and even changing perception. Rather than a data scientist, Chris Graves suggested we should all be hiring comedy writers. That’s no joke.

Content = commitment.

Someone pointed out that 2013’s shining example of real-time marketing, the Oreo’s “Dunk in the Dark” Twitter ad (yes, I’m sick of it, too) was actually the 101st piece of content created by Oreo’s content team. The point, I believe, is that it was less lightning in a bottle than a case of a brand that was well prepared for the opportunity due to its prior commitment to creating relevant content well and continuously.

Know your core competencies.

For PR professionals, content creation is natural. Lieb poetically calls it “the marketing of attraction” and gives us communicators points for understanding earned media and storytelling. But there’s a risk here for companies and particularly for agencies. Most seemed to agree with Text 100’s Aedhmar Hynes when she explained her firm’s decision to focus on what it does well, as opposed to hiring software developers or building tools that may be better rented, or obtained through vendors.

So, who’s doing it right?

News Corp’s Raju Narisetti repeatedly mentioned GE as an example of a corporation that gets it, citing its partnership with The Economist in a series of daily journalist-developed editorial pieces that has been called “a marriage of advertising and insight.” Other role models are Red Bull and Coca-Cola, both of whom are actually able to monetize their owned content.

But my biggest takeaway and favorite piece of advice – beyond the listicle sheep warning – was from Anthony Surratt of Time Warner Cable, who pointed out that we communicators have a tendency to overthink things. Maybe we should stop worrying about definitions, metrics and semantics and just focus on customer needs. Surratt was joined by Michael Brenner of SAP, whose advice was simple. Just try to help your customers, and the rest will follow.

For more practical tips on creating content for PR pros, we prepared this tipsheet.


Robert Gibbs On PR, Politics, And Social Media

“Whether or not someone is camped in a park literally, there will always be someone camped in a park, figuratively.”

Nice, tweetable quote from former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. Gibbs spoke yesterday at the Council of PR Firms Critical Issues Forum about the power of social media to mobilize change. As a veteran of policy PR wars, he had plenty to share about PR, politics, and social media in an era of increasing media and attention fragmentation.

Gibbs feels that 2012 will bring “the Twitter election,” remarking that, both as a digital medium and an agent for the advent of social change, the platform has matured in a short period of time. He noted that, just like the brands and companies many of us represent, government (as a brand) must go where the customers are; hence, Obama appearing on Leno, and being heard on Twitter.

But, as astute as Gibbs is, the White House press room probably isn’t a cauldron for early adoption of social media, and his predictions are pretty non-controversial. I was more interested in what Gibbs had to say about how we’ve arrived at this point – where politics is more partisan than ever, the media seem weak and subjective, and trust in our institutions, especially government, is at an all-time low.

Gibbs has experienced firsthand the polarizing effects of media and the focus on process, or communications around policy, rather than the substance of the policy itself. (Who can forget his masterful takedown of Sean Hannity on the “guilt by association” attacks on candidate Obama?)

One issue seemed to be the disintermediation of traditional press – as the White House began to go talk directly to voters (through social media) about actual campaign strategy, media felt out of the loop and needed to adapt to the changing environment; hence, the rise of cable infotainment.

Gibbs also notes that on the major issues – the healthcare debate, the war in Afghanistan – the preponderance of coverage was about the process, the communications strategies and tactics of either side, the literal politics of the topic, rather than its substance. We’re covering the debate itself instead of the issue.

And he admits that, as both have retired from politics and daily public spotlight, he and a bitter partisan opponent like Karl Rove find areas of commonality or even agreement. But when the camera light goes on, each retreats to his side of the ring and they can literally argue about whether the sky is blue.

I’m editorializing, but he seemed to imply that Twitter, with its 140-character updates, and people virtually camping out in a park, might hold more strength and substance than much of the media we consume every day. Which, if true, might say less about the growth and influence of social communities than it does about the decline of quality journalism.

If PR Is A Woman’s World, Why Do We Earn Less?

The feminization of the PR industry is undeniable, and it’s not a particularly good thing. For one, it hurts diversity. And it’s been widely noted that the domination of any profession by women tends to have a depressing effect on salaries. A recently debated 2007 PRSA study confirmed what we already knew: that men earn up to $30,000 more than women for the same work. Now, that is depressing.

It’s International Women’s Day, and we’re reminded of the enormous challenges faced by women the world over, as well as the stubborn salary inequity here at home. In fact, the big-picture statistics make the PR wage gap seem like small change, and one that’s easily closed. With our advantages, we should be able to catch up quickly in a female-dominated industry, shouldn’t we?

Yet, the gap persists, probably because 80% of senior PR managers are male. But, why? Women take time off to raise children, of course. Yet, even allowing for family leave and “mommy trackers,” the gap is wider than it should be, say the experts.

Some say women just need time, but that doesn’t wash. Females have dominated PR for decades, yet the number of C-level women at large PR firms is static or declining. And, I hate to say it, but just because women are in HR and middle management does not mean that we hire and promote in our own image. On the contrary, the feminization of PR makes qualified men more sought after…and very possibly, better paid.

But there’s another likely reason for the salary gap. Apparently, women don’t ask for what they’re worth, either when starting a new job, or afterwards. A Carnegie Mellon study showed that women ask for raises or promotions 85% less often than male counterparts. The study is rife with discouraging facts, but for my money, the most telling are the metaphors chosen by the participants. While men compare salary negotiations to a sports competition, a majority of women liken them to a visit to the dentist. Ouch.

I think we’re on to something here. It’s hard to catch up if you’re behind at the starting gate. In today’s workplace, you have to negotiate, ideally from a position of confidence and in a spirit of win-win. To do that, you need to believe you’re worth it. I do think women know their worth, but my suspicion is that, in PR, where we’re often trained to promote others while we stay in the background, we wait for recognition. As Professor Karen Pine, a psychology professor and co-author of “Sheconomics,” puts it, “Many women think, ‘As long as I work really, really hard, someone will notice and they will pay me more.’” But they don’t.

Clearly, there are many things at work in the PR business. Women can benefit from better mentoring, more flexible work schedules, smart use of technology, and an “old-girl” network at the top. These and other factors have been noted by PRSA, The Council of PR Firms, and the handful of women who run large agencies.

But, it pays to ask. So, I have a suggestion for every woman out there who thinks she’s underpaid. Behave as if you were promoting your most important client, – yourself. Gather the facts, make the case, take your inspiration, and pitch. And then, keep on pitching. And don’t take no for an answer.