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How Data is Reshaping the Public Relations Industry

Published on October 2, 2019, at 8:45 p.m.
by Carlyle Ascik.

There is no way to avoid it — data is everywhere. From political campaigns to Instagram advertisements, more data is generated and collected than ever before. According to IBM, individuals produce 2.5 quintillion bytes of data each day. But what is “big data” exactly, and how can we as both consumers and corporations use this information to improve our experiences and relationships?

Photo by Carlos Muza on Unsplash

Public relations professionals, in particular, can reap great benefits from capturing data, and our industry leaders have quickly caught on. Long gone are the days of avoiding the numbers until it’s time to evaluate — quantitative research and results are becoming a necessity in the planning and execution of successful public relations and marketing campaigns.

With the growing trend toward data-driven public relations efforts comes a need for new employees with the proper skills to move into this relatively unknown territory. In early 2018, Nashville communications agency McNeely Piggot & Fox Public Relations transitioned into MP&F Strategic Communications. The purpose of this name change was to represent the variety of services the agency offers besides traditional public relations.

Knight Stivender, director of integrated marketing, came to MP&F after years of experience across the news media and marketing industries. Before Stivender arrived, MP&F had provided integrated marketing services to clients for years, but the work had never fallen under a designated department before. Since its beginning, the department continues to evolve to meet client needs and industry standards.

“We’ve been shifting our thinking from reporting on campaigns after they’re finished to analyzing data in real time so we can optimize campaigns while they’re ongoing. We’ve been trying to do a better job adding context and insight into how we share data with clients and use it to inform our approach,” said Stivender.

Tim Dower joined MP&F earlier this year as a data analyst, but unlike most of the agency’s interns, Dower doesn’t come from a traditional communications background. After graduating with an engineering degree from North Carolina State in 2015, he first went to work as a chemical engineer.

Feeling burnt out and boxed in, he decided to go back to school and received his MBA from Belmont University. During his time at Belmont, his math-driven mind was immediately drawn to the data and analytics aspects of marketing. When he stumbled upon MP&F at a career fair, he landed an internship that would eventually turn in to a full-time job as the agency’s first data analyst.

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Although he served in a traditional public relations role for his first few months at MP&F, there was still a transitional period as both Dower and his colleagues navigated how to effectively balance the science of analytics with the creative nature of the communications industry.

“I had to understand that I am writing reports to people who aren’t experts in analytics and that definitely affects the way I communicate,” explained Dower. “Sometimes less information is more effective — most of the time actually — and that was something I had to learn very early on.”

On a normal day, Dower creates and analyzes various reports to determine what is and is not working for each client’s unique campaign. He partners with advertising, creative and strategy departments to create different plans of action backed by data and market research.

Dower and Stivender agreed that the rise of technology and digital services is changing the scope of the public relations industry. PR professionals can take advantage of data analysis to learn more about their intended publics and better tailor their campaigns. The practice of creating personas around targeted consumers and publics is old as time, but it can now be backed up by fact.

“Data is abundantly available because of the proliferation of digital advertising platforms, marketplaces, location services, voice apps, content studios, etc.,” said Stivender. “There’s so much data out there about all of us, making it easier for businesses to connect with us in ways that make the most sense for both the consumer and the business.”

Analytics also play a role in earned media. Public relations practitioners no longer need to estimate the impact a campaign tactic has on an audience; they can see it firsthand through likes, shares, comments and more. Even more important, these interactions are captured as data and can be presented to clients to prove a campaign’s worth.

“The digital age has made it so that you don’t need to buy a billboard anymore to get your news out there; you can just save a lot of money and run a targeted Facebook campaign or you can build your audience organically and post it on your site for free,” said Dower. “Now people are realizing that we can track this information and put dollar amounts next to the work we are doing for our clients, which is especially beneficial for agencies.”

Data analysts have quickly become an asset in the public relations industry, but that doesn’t mean there is less room in the office for the traditional PR pro. In an ever-changing industry, it is key to stay up to date on the hot topics, and in our current world, data is at the top of that list.

Photo by Campaign Creators on Unsplash

“Join professional organizations in marketing, advertising and data. Attend conferences and workshops in the field. Join client teams with a heavy marketing component. Lowest hanging fruit: Listen to podcasts about data and analytics,” said Stivender when asked how to break into the data side of public relations.

It doesn’t take a specialized degree to become a data whiz. Dower still scrounges the internet for YouTube videos to keep him up to date on the latest developments in analytics.

“It is all available on the internet if you are just willing to take the time and search for it,” said Dower.

And keep in mind, the search is probably worth it, since you will simply be producing more data.

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