Philip Ellis
PR, AMEC Summit
Politics And PR Both Need To Figure Out Data

Day 2 of the AMEC Summit is all about removing ego and bias from the equation when it comes to data and how we interpret it. Marion McDonald, Chief Strategy Officer of Ogilvy PR Asia-Pacific, states that all too easily egos can come into play from all sides, especially at the reporting stage. Requests will appear for certain statistics or negative comments to be removed, clients might get upset at the implications of research, and data can be used as a weapon.

In PR especially, McDonald warns against leaning on vanity metrics; plenty of brands like to preen over their social media follower count, but is this a measure with any real meaning? According to Professor Mark Ritson of Melbourne Business School, no. He looked at the top ten brands in Australia, and compared their social followers to their actual number of customers. While customers numbered in their millions, less than 8% of them connected with the brand on social. So stats which appear impressive at first actually hold little significance to the brand.

Speaking to senior PR leaders across the industry, McDonald tapped into one of the reasons behind this dataphobia and fear of being measured. “We take away their candy,” she says. “Every measure that marketers cling to: likes, clicks, fans, measurement experts come in and say ‘not good enough.’”

With mega-platforms like Facebook holding their hands up and admitting that as little as 3% of published content on their site is ever actually seen, it’s time to re-examine the great myth of online measures. “We all know the reality of impressions; they’re completely meaningless,” says McDonald. “Up to 40% of online measures are garbage. They’re generated by bots. In China, you can create your own bot, generate millions of views for your content, and boost your vanity metrics.”

Another reason PRs hate measurement is because, quite simply, it’s uncomfortable. It’s been thrust upon them as a requirement, and it’s used almost entirely to prove success. Very rarely are they using it to find out where they went wrong, or to identify the warning signs for failure.

In another AMEC session, Jim McNamara, Professor of Public Communication at the University of Technology Sydney, identifies the same core evaluation issues in the communications surrounding the advent of Trump and Brexit. All of the information out there told us that the UK would vote overwhelmingly to remain in the EU, and that Hillary Clinton would win the US presidential election.

Obviously, neither of those outcomes actually happened. How and why did we get it so wrong? It wasn’t a small, skint PR agency doing this research; £142 million went into the EU Referendum, including communications. But while the polls may have misrepresented the sentiment of the public, the evidence for a Leave result was there, claims McNamara. In fact, the widespread desire for a sweeping disruption of the status quo was present long before Brexit.

These signs, though, were missed or ignored. The same is true of the US presidential election; it wasn’t simply enough to poll people on who they would vote for, but why. A vote for Trump could be interpreted not as a vote for his policies, but a vote against the traditional machinations of Washington. It was all there plain as day, but has only been noticed in hindsight.

“What we’re missing is good formative research,” says McNamara. “Evaluation starts with context, long before you plan a campaign.” Rather than relying on summative methods which only look at the key factors when it’s too late to change anything, he posits that we should get to grips with the data that’s already out there at the very beginning. We need to understand the before, the during, and the after.

“It really needs to shift from backward looking, to being able to predict the future,” adds McDonald. “The more I can do to shape a better campaign next time, or next year, the more comfortable I am getting insights that help us improve, rather than just tell us what we got wrong in the past.”

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