This is the first of a three-part series on the topic of PR and predictive analytics. 

Less than a decade ago, some PR practitioners were concerned that data would dethrone the creative instincts that have traditionally driven the industry. Much has changed, however, since those early days when the promise of data was seen as both a threat and a cure-all. When the hype of predictive analytics failed to materialize the promised clairvoyance, the entire industry seemed to recalibrate its thinking and positioning around analytics and data.

The ramifications of over-indexing on analytics continue to ripple through the industry. Gartner forecasts that by 2023, 60% of CMOs will slash their marketing analytics departments by 50% because of “a failure to realize promised investments.” Yet marketing heads continue to hire talent that can distill the vast amounts of collected data into actionable insights and Gartner also anticipates in the near future content creators will produce more than 30% of their digital content with artificial intelligence.

The Evolution of PR Analytics

Ultimately, predictive analytics is really just forecasting future performance or behavior based on past analysis. Five years ago, the industry didn’t have a critical mass of data to make reliable projections — but today, it does.

“It’s important to talk through the evolution of our function,” says Dave Samson, GM of public affairs at Chevron. “We started to look at predictive capability some time ago. In the past you could track someone’s opinion or stated intent, but you couldn’t track their behaviors. Today you can see how they behave and the actions they take. That allows you to build predictive ability."

Brands can now match social media profiles to web browsing habits and more. For instance, Samson explains, if someone says they are willing to buy more efficient appliances or vehicles, it’s possible to determine whether they have donated to environmental causes and actually make green choices presently. “Now I can see if your actions don’t match what you say. I can predict despite what you say that your actions in the future probably aren’t going to align with that.” This is transforming public relations from advocacy to an engine that fuels favorable actions for their organizations and interests.

“To me, that’s a game-changer,” Samson says.

Where Things Are

Sam Whitmore, owner of Media Survey, an organization that counsels agencies, has noticed that many agencies are shy about using the word “predictive” these days, even if that’s what they’re doing. For instance, picking up on trends “year to year, quarter to quarter. You can observe those sorts of results and say things are moving in a particular direction. To that extent they’re predictive.”

Geeta Patel, head of analytics at Golin, says the amount of data available to public relations professionals has significantly increased over the last five years, yet making this data predictive remains tricky.

“As long as we’re being more prescriptive with our analysis, we should be able to predict our outcomes,” Patel says. “We should be able to say if we do this again with our tweets, we can expect these outcomes. That’s where predictive analytics is right now.”

Increasingly, clients expect agencies to come armed with data-driven strategies, both for planning campaign but also to anticipate how a particular plan will perform. At Golin, the analytics team uses NewsWhip to identify when an article or topic is picking up velocity, in addition to some internal tools. The team then evaluates how articles are performing and whether they need to be recalibrated. Data is also allowing public relations to be more active in the customer journey and graduate beyond its traditional focus on awareness. 

“We have the data available to say: this is how much awareness we’ve created through website visits,” Patel says. “We can also determine whether people are moving from awareness to consideration: Did they click on websites? Did they engage with the article? We can see PR’s impact on the business now, measured against the customer journey. That’s been a huge goal the last two years.”

Michael Brito, EVP of digital and analytics at the Zeno Group, says that rather than focusing on the predictive element of data, the opportunity sits with real-time.

“The market changes so quickly that if you change something for next year or next month, it’s probably not going to happen or it’s going to be irrelevant” he says. “The way I like to think about this is real-time analytics, this is how the market looks right now, here’s what the media is writing about right now, what customers and audience is sharing and talking about in social media now.”

The Next Data Frontier

Paul Quigley, CEO and co-founder of NewsWhip, agrees that while technology — like social listening and data visualization tools — have become integral to public relations, predictive analytics hasn’t delivered in the same way yet. But the availability of granular, real-time data is changing the equation and expectations around predictive analytics.

“I believe rich and useful predictive analytics are as logical and inevitable as a good mechanical watch or the mathematical modeling that puts satellites into orbit,” he says. “However, to date, predictive analytics has been more of a marketing buzzword than something tangible. If we’re serious about it, it has to be useful, it has to be applied to the fields where data-informed models can be accurate. As we get more and more rich data about media consumption and effects, we start moving toward true predictive analytics for the space.”

For some communications professionals, this represents a massive change on how they’ve engaged with technologies. Previously, technology was used for information storage, conducting relatively thin research queries, and streamlining communications. But now, with more sophisticated data gathering and structuring across web content, data is informing content strategy, planning and crisis management in far deeper ways.

“Alongside this, I believe the world has become harder for brands to navigate, as people are politicized by what they see on social networks, and by content, and filter bubbles,” Quigley adds. “That increases the importance of good decision making by communications professionals. In turn, that increases the market demand for data to support those decisions.”

Chevron’s Samson points out that data has moved communications from being a two-way  pathway into an omnidirectional one, moving in many different directions. The evolution has taken the industry from broadcasting information to narrowcasting and, now, microcasting and geofencing. Companies can also take content directly to end-users and evaluate whether it’s working — and, if it is, scale it with paid support.

“I can go to the space the size of a phone booth if I want — an individual,” he adds. And the field is becoming complicated as distinguishing between real and fake data is becoming harder and, increasingly, communities are forming not around demographic attributes but other shared beliefs and interests.

Samson, who is also on the board of trustees for the Arthur W. Page Society, points out the professional association is currently exploring a communications technology. (Cision earlier this year ambitiously positioned itself around this concept.) 

“In my world, if we can marry the best of what consumer product companies have done with  our stakeholders and marry that with the best of the political world, where they know how to activate people to take action, that’s a game changer for us,” Samson says.

Additional reporting by Mark Henricks.