The data-day challenges facing many PR firms


Data, data, data.

In PR circles data has become the new black.

Or the new designer drug, depending on which kind of overt cynicism you want to go with.

There has never been a better time to use data as part of a comms strategy, this much is self-evident. After all, who in PR doesn’t get approached from the purveyors of fine analytics tools on a regular basis?

From Radian6 to Brandwatch, from SDL SM2 to Meltwater, and well beyond… there are literally hundreds – possibly thousands – of monitoring tools out there that will track and report back on mentions of you, your clients, their competitors, market trends, hot topics, etc.

I read a post by Danny Whatmough at EML Wildfire in which he talks about this very topic. It’s a good piece that stresses the importance of evidence-based strategies for PR and marketing.

It made me think about some of the challenges I’ve witnessed and experienced in my PR career when it came to PR people using data.

The single biggest problem, or so it has always seemed to me, is the preponderance of data-intolerant people working in PR. I’m not talking about the stereotypical fluffy bunny syndrome. But simply that a lot of smart people in PR are not comfortable around raw numerical data.

There is little to be gained from having an agency-wide desire to do more data-based stuff if the people entrusted with bringing that to life couldn’t be trusted to count time in a marching band (yes, I know that’s a rubbish analogy but I couldn’t think of another one).

For decades now, the education system in the UK (well, England & Wales) has encouraged pupils to choose between arts and sciences at the age of 14/15. We can hope this divisiveness will be less prominent in the future, but that’s not going to affect the make up of our account teams any time soon.

So, here is my advice – given as someone who has run their own PR agency and as someone who has lectured in PR at a university in London.

Start firing those people in your agency who are rubbish at maths.

No, wait… I don’t mean that.

But audit their data-related skills and abilities. Do it methodically and without emotion – this isn’t pass or fail, this is about working out how you can help your people perform better.

Nurture those who have an aptitude for data, help them become better at it.

As for those who find numbers utterly baffling, provide them with coping mechanisms… ways to break it all down and make sense of it. Perhaps you’d never let them loose on a major piece of research. But you’d certainly want them to feel able to understand it, critique it and explain it. Wouldn’t you?

So… go forth and multiply your data-aware account teams.


6 thoughts on “The data-day challenges facing many PR firms

  1. Nice post Sean – and you’re right that the ability to interpret data is vital at a time when we have more social data than ever to interpret.

    For me, part of the data skillset is also knowing how to act on that data to shape and evolve campaigns. How do you run a solid A/B test to decide between two key messages? How do you tell between a significant result and an anomaly/edge case?

    How do you meld a great insight you get from some quant work with a Google Trends graph telling you something different?

    We now have more valuable data at our fingertips than ever before – it would be a shame if we just used it to count mentions!

    1. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment, Kristian. You’re so right…. there are things we can do that we could never do before, thanks to evidence-based decision making. It would be a shame not to.

  2. Amen, Sean! I don’t mean to fire anyone on my team who hates math, but they know it’s at the top of the list of skills they need to acquire and I fully support them in that endeavor. Some of it is through doing, some of it through reading Spin Sucks (required reading, fancy that), and some of it through online education. It’s up to us as leaders to make sure our teams are progressing forward in this area or entire organizations will be left behind.

    1. Thanks so much for leaving a comment, Gini. I really appreciate it. Far too many people in our world are resistant to adopting new ideas and new ways of thinking, even when some it really just means getting back to the basics of being sure your decisions are based on evidence.

      Your team are fortunate that they have you pushing and encouraging them to challenge themselves and to become better at what they do.

  3. Nice piece Sean.

    As someone that hated maths at school, working with data on a daily basis now is actually fun because it is meaningful in the context of the puzzles and stories the data presents.

    I think that data-handling skills and an understanding of the opportunities of data will be a critical skill-set for PR, marketing and beyond, with good reason. Business decisions should not be made on hunches or whim alone.

    For me, social data is one of the most accessible forms of story-telling and for businesses to make sense of what is driving customer behaviours, the social data set is one of the most telling, scalable and interesting from which to gain actionable insights.

    James Ainsworth
    Social Media Manager – SDL Social Intelligence


    1. Thanks James – I agree completely with pretty much everything you said.

      Evidence-based activities are no longer the preserve of the instinctively numerate, or the accounting profession. Thanks to companies like SDL (and others, of course) and the ability to present data in a way that people find interesting – the recent map of where bombs fell in London, for example – there really are increasingly fewer excuses for anyone not to get their hands dirty playing with numbers.

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