Coronavirus Amplifies The Focus on Fake News…and Laughter

[Editor’s Note: In April, our monthly newsletter PRNEWS featured a series of conversations with senior PR pros to gauge their thinking as the pandemic began. In this conversation, Hill + Knowlton (US) SVP for data, John Gillooly, discusses what might carry over from the pandemic and why it's important to laugh periodically, even for data analysts, among other topics. See another interview from this series here.]

PRNEWS: Do you see anything that’s being done now, in measurement and analytics, that likely will carry over after coronavirus levels off?

John Gillooly: Information ingest and fact-checking/verification efforts are going to stick around. The proliferation of fake news is nothing new, but this moment has really amplified the amount of information circulating. How do we verify information? How do we summarize it in a way that isn’t crippling?

In addition, how do we identify key topics and themes the public is latching onto, to further identify gaps in understanding or the availability of trusted information?

With so many polls and surveys coming out everyday, are there unanswered questions that remain? Where are audiences turning for answers? Our behavioral science team has been doing a lot of research on many of these questions as well.

PRNEWS: Have your priorities as analytics chief changed with the coronavirus pandemic?

John Gillooly

Gillooly: My top priority is to merge existing research experts, who are well-versed in H+K’s capabilities, with new capabilities in machine learning-enabled capture and to synthesize insights across a multitude of data sources.

Overall, my priorities haven’t shifted [since the coronavirus], but the distribution of focus has changed a bit. H+K is committed to the health and happiness of its staff, and that is something I am very mindful of in this climate.

In general, analytics folks tend to be very happy disappearing into code and pouring through information. As such, they, myself included, might forget the human aspect of our business.

It would be easy for us to be heads down and churn on things that could lead to burn-out. As a team, we need to remember to come up for air, shut off, laugh with co-workers and stay engaged.

I have prioritized to the team that our day is not just writing and QA-ing code, but that it is about maintaining contact with one another in a host of virtual settings.

PRNEWS: What are you counseling brand communicators to be doing at this moment, measurement-wise?

Gillooly: I don’t think my counsel has radically changed. [It has always been] to ask, "What is our null hypothesis?" Or, to use a less academic term, "What is our default action at the moment, and what information will change that?"

There is so much information circulating rapidly every day. Having that core anchor is important.

PRNEWS: We have to ask…for weeks media reports said it was difficult in many countries to get a test for coronavirus. Essentially, we were flying blind. Did this remind you of communicators who choose not to measure?

Gillooly: I don’t know if we were 'flying blind' so much as we were flying with the best map we had. While tests weren’t available, there were rough sets of indicators/symptoms and prediction models based on that information.  As new information became available, we collectively updated our models, whether that was remote working plans, social distancing etc. To me that is the best type of measurement system. Observe and adjust.

NoteA version of this content appeared in the April 2020 edition of PRNEWS. For subscription information, please visit:

Seth Arenstein is editor of PRNEWS. Follow him: @skarenstein