Deepshikha Dharmaraj
Guest Article

Unlocking success in PR: The imperative shift towards a data-driven culture

Even after analysing data, an additional layer of human intelligence and empathy is essential.

The founding father of public relations (PR), Edward Bernays famously said that PR is a social science, and by virtue of that, we are practicing scientists. We combine our understanding of behavioral sciences such as anthropology, history, social psychology, and sociology to create narratives and campaigns that deliver impact for our clients. Today, another science plays an important role in this—data science. 

We are not just swimming but practically drowning in a sea of data—a mind-boggling 328 million terabytes daily! Public relations has undergone a radical transformation over the past century. The field that Bernays once pioneered has evolved beyond recognition.

It is no longer about securing media coverage; it is about understanding markets, decoding consumer behaviours, identifying target audiences, and analysing online interactions. Data is now the lifeblood of the digital economy and the secret ingredient behind successful public relations campaigns.

From data to insight

But raw data alone is like an unread book. It needs to be processed, analysed, and interpreted. And that's where artificial intelligence (AI) comes in. AI algorithms turn the unread book of raw data into a gripping narrative, revealing patterns and insights that would otherwise remain hidden.

Once processed, data answers crucial questions: What are the most pressing needs of the target audience, what drives them, what products does a consumer segment prefer, which influencers have the most impact, and how is a brand perceived by its audience? 

From insight to campaign idea

Armed with these insights, public relations professionals can craft compelling campaigns that resonate with their audience. The insights can also inform the messaging. What is the ‘big picture’ of a positive future you want your audience to see to generate the action you want? What are the important ways in which this audience’s agenda will be fulfilled?

And then, the insights can also indicate what will be channels and influential voices to best amplify their message’s reach and manage brand perceptions effectively. In essence, data empowers public relations professionals to make informed decisions and devise strategies that hit the mark.

AI is also helping public relations teams predict the success of future campaigns. Before taking a campaign live, a public relations team can simulate its success using powerful AI tools. These tools can accurately predict the likelihood of a story being believed and going viral, as well as the chance it won't be believed or go viral, and everything in between.

This allows for any necessary adjustments to be made before a campaign is launched. Once campaigns are launched for real, their progress can be tracked in real time to ensure everything is going as planned.

From campaign idea to impact

Measuring the impact of the PR or communications intervention is perhaps where most practitioners start their data analytics journey. The key to get it right, however, is to start with clear, SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound) goals, and work backwards to ensure that all the required data is being collected in a structured fashion right from the outset.

Once that is done, measurement can be collected as output (media results), outcome (behavioural results), and impact (business results). When it comes to measurement, though, it must be done through all the stages of a campaign and not just at the end.

Equipped to handle data?

Clients often expect public relations firms to have unlimited access to data, and consequently, for firms to deliver insightful analysis. But the path to becoming a data-driven public relations firm is fraught with challenges. High costs associated with data collection and processing, clients' reluctance to invest in quality data, and the need for specialised skills are just a few hurdles that public relations firms need to overcome.

Investing in data infrastructure could mean partnering with tech giants like Microsoft and Amazon or setting up proprietary systems. It also means upskilling existing teams or hiring data scientists to work alongside public relations professionals.

The goal is to create a workforce that's adept at making sense of data and extracting meaningful insights from it. When you are part of a large global network like WPP, however, the collective access to these systems makes it easier for the PR and communications firm.

Beyond data

Despite all the buzz around data analytics, technology, and AI, you must remember that all these are tools and not replacement of human intelligence. Data sets can be biased and manipulated, twisted to suit your purpose, or worse, weaponised to cause harm.

And that is where you need to remember that data is just a tool in our hands. How we analyse it and use it is up to us. And even after analysing, we must add a layer of human intelligence and empathy.

This is not an either-or situation, though. In a world where businesses are leveraging data for competitive advantage, public relations firms that don't embrace data risk falling behind. The future belongs to those who invest in data infrastructure and train their teams to decipher data. Fostering a data culture is equally important.

In a data-driven culture, public relations teams are expected to use data to make evidence-based decisions. Incorporating data in client presentations isn't just for show; it is a testament to a firm's commitment to delivering value through data-driven insights.

It is crucial to know that embracing data is not just about staying competitive; it is about unlocking the full potential of public relations. It is about turning the art of public relations into a science, where every decision is backed by data and every strategy is rooted in insights. So, public relations firms should take the plunge, embrace the data revolution, and be ready to transform the future of their industry.

(Our guest author is Deepshikha Dharmaraj, CEO, Burson Group India)

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