A major software company is getting set to expand its marketing strategy to an African nation while also setting up a manufacturing facility there. The company understands that in some respects, it is blind in this new area, has a great need for varied forms of information. To support the sales strategy, they need to know about market saturation, sales channels, price points and trends in consumer interest and usage. That is business intelligence.

The company also has many essential questions to ask about prospective partners and vendors – such as, are they corrupt or do they have links to government officials? The firm will also have to size up its local competition. That is also business intelligence. But how can a client make informed decisions about what they need if the business intelligence sector itself is less than clear about what it offers? And how can a public relations firm play the role of strategic advisor in this circumstance?

The Holmes Report’s assessments of how the public relations industry must adjust and align itself to address the challenges and opportunities imposed by the rapidly evolving 21st century communications realm lean quite decidedly toward processes, capabilities and services designed to enhance the PR-industry-specific concept of “insight.” Insight, of course, can mean many things to a practitioner of the arts of opinion and influence, but at its most basic, “insight,” is the combination of sought-after essential knowledge and educated analysis, all specifically crafted in service of a client’s greatest aims.

In the much wider world, set apart from the demands and nuances of the PR field, the discipline of acquiring sought-after information, and of analyzing that information to transform it into ‘knowledge,’ is recognized as “intelligence.”

The two concepts are not wholly equal, however, most especially in regard to the demands of the PR field.

Insight, for instance, may be applied to enhance an agency’s creative processes. Intelligence, on the other hand, when applied to the demands of our industry, must be regarded as much more of a decisive commodity. So decisive, in fact, that its quality must be so thorough and unimpeachable that it aids clients in making their most difficult or monumental decisions.

An agency desirous of lending its clients the “decision advantage” of proprietary intelligence has a few choices of its own to make. The model 21st Century PR agency may strive to add its own internal capabilities or to outsource such work to established organizations, but there are certain understandings to be attained before doing so. One of these is a grasp on the concept of the term “business intelligence” as understood by the proponents of the “big data” concept -- versus the definition preferred by former practitioners in government intelligence programs, investigations firms and investigative journalism.

In essence, the differences between the two understandings of “business intelligence” could not be more stark. To make it a bit less academic, it helps to view the distinctions in the context of government-on-government intelligence gathering.

With news of government data collection so prevalent in international headlines these last few years, most specifically starting with the Wikileaks saga of 2010-2011, and the more recent National Security Agency (NSA) revelations, one might understandably have come to the conclusion that most of what the US Government does is collect telephone ‘meta-data’ and listen to the private calls of foreign leaders.

But one can learn only so much from telephone meta-data or even from a photo taken from a spy satellite.

The real value of intelligence, both inside and outside of government, comes from the ultimate understanding of human intention, and from a nuanced perception of the context in which decisions are made. For governments, that critical element tends to come from human intelligence – or “HUMINT,” in insider parlance. The same holds true for the investigative journalist, though you’d be hard-pressed to find one who would readily admit his source work and techniques are so closely aligned with the practices of the intelligence community.

But in both instances, the news story or intelligence gained are the direct end-products of human interactions -- the intelligence officer handling an asset overseas, or the reporter meeting a nervous whistleblower in a dark parking garage.

Business, without question, has the same need for specified intelligence for its own purposes, but the vast majority of companies do not have access to expensive satellites or multi-lateral intelligence sharing relationships.

Instead, depending on their requirements and goals, companies rely on vendors of the varied degrees of business intelligence described above.

One distinct camp, the “big data” camp, focuses on the analysis of large quantities of data to develop analytical products. Huge reams of data are swept up by “bots” and crunched by any variety of software applications to provide products such as benchmarking, targeted reporting, data and text mining, performance measures, prescriptive or predictive analysis, statistical modeling, operational assessments and the like. Think, for instance, of a major beverage company researching the advertising purchasing patterns of a competitor to try to divine where that rival is focusing its growth strategy. 

Public opinion polling too factors into this camp’s work as a means of making sense of the attitudes of large or specifically identified demographics.

When polls and data analytics are cross-referenced, a company or client may gain a greater context for understanding and operating within their market. When the term ‘intelligence’ is applied to this approach, it is often in terms of ‘market intelligence’ and the ‘intelligence’ in question is akin to what the NSA does when they look for patterns and linkages amongst huge volumes of communications meta-data.

The other camp in the BI space tends to be less academic and more tactical in its focus. These are the “HUMINT” practitioners – those who apply techniques of investigative journalism and gumshoe, on-the-ground intelligence gathering, married up to the appropriate use of electronically gathered data. These practitioners are searching for the kind of unique and otherwise unattainable insight that only human-on-human interaction can offer.

For example, a company that is entering a new, overseas market might discover quite quickly that it is in need of due diligence on prospective partners, an understanding of which government officials might be corrupt, or insight into which competitors have an inside track based on their professional, familial, or social relationships with political leaders. For this kind of knowledge, a company must turn to a vendor that has experience in the collection of this kind of rarified information first, and just as importantly, the analytical skills to make sense of disparate pieces of newly attained information that will have to be woven into a single, reliably accurate mosaic.

A client who is seeking this type of insight will not be impressed or served by any volume of electronic information that has been crunched on their behalf. They are instead looking for that one nugget of information to help them decide whether they have chosen the right partner, if they are facing down some kind of liability under strictly enforced US anti-bribery laws, or if their organization or product has come under attack by a third-party that is working very hard to shield its identity. 

Business Intelligence practitioners of this variety not only have networks that enable them trusted access to information in a variety of geographic regions and across various industries, but they also are knowledgeable, experienced and specialized enough to put an individual client challenge into proper context.

Imagine, just by way of example, that you were the first person to receive an email from a purported Nigerian bureaucrat offering to share $5M if only you can front him some cash to help expedite the bank transfer. These “419 scams” are all-too-familiar to those who routinely look at international fraud issues, but the scammers are often savvy enough to target individuals who have no experience with such matters, and therefore may be easy marks. A properly positioned and experienced business intelligence practitioner has seen all manner of corporate, government, and individual malfeasance, and will be able to not only unmask the scam, but also share options that have worked for others and dissuade a client from making mistakes.

A business intelligence project, whether proactive or in response to an existing conflict, starts by gaining an understanding of a client’s problem. What is the issue they need to decide most imminently, and what is the context for this decision?

By understanding that, a business intelligence firm is able to peel back the layers of the proverbial onion, starting with Internet and media searches that do not incur cost and can help to establish a baseline of what is known before a collection plan is devised. Efforts can then become more and more focused, often incurring costs to access proprietary databases, paid information services, and other resources that are not broadly known or accessible to people who do not do such work on a regular basis.

Depending on the circumstances, projects can then get to a point where exploitation of a human source (or several) is required. This is where the real art of intelligence comes to the fore, and where the difference between the aforementioned ‘big data’ approach and the HUMINT approach becomes stark.

Each approach has its intrinsic value.

An established company with a broad market that is looking for trend analysis, public opinion sentiments, or other forms of long-lead data crunching is well-served by big data. A company that is involved in a developing competitive situation with short deadlines and tactical choices is much more in need of the HUMINT-focused form of business intelligence. Understanding the difference in the midst of marketing spin, flashy resumes and talk about concepts and paradigms is how a client is best served in this space.

Eric Lebson and Ian Christopher McCaleb are business intelligence practitioners at Washington, DC, public affairs and crisis communications for Levick.