Tip Sheet: PR’s Crystal Ball: Embracing Predictive Analytics

The turn of events came mid-semester, when a gangly teen was called to the front of our music theory class. Asked to compose a short classical piece, he instead created an algorithm that instructed his computer to do the work. While the result was pleasant to the ear, it was also a bit unsettling. Soul had been replaced by science.

Had I not been witness to this, I may have gone on to earn my engineering degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Instead, I transferred out and began studying communications across the Charles River at Boston University.

Since then, I’ve been asked the question time and time again. Can the data-centric, logic-based sensibilities of an engineer coexist with the non-linear creativity of a PR professional? For our industry to prosper, there is only one answer. There is no longer an “either/or” option. Data skills must go hand-in-hand with creative skills.


We’ve all seen the standard PR metrics dashboards. Outputs running alongside outcomes. Competitive share interspersed with sales impacts. Even the dreaded ad value equivalency.

But, for a moment, put aside the debate on what the “right” metrics are. They’ll vary by organization, by team, by industry and individual. Instead, let’s focus on what those numbers are telling us— or not—as the case may be.

A recent report from Econsultancy and Lynchpin pointed out that despite the explosion of data sources, a majority of marketers believe that less than half of their analytics are useful.

Some say this stems from being blinded by too much information. Let me offer another explanation. These marketers are trying to hurtle forward at top speeds, but with their eyes locked firmly on the rearview mirror. The data which is driving much of the PR industry today is snapshot based—a look at moments frozen in time, without the corresponding analysis as to what that data means for the future.

Edmund Burke famously opined that those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it. Yet those who don’t look where they’re headed are bound to crash.


We may not have a crystal ball, but we’re coming closer.

You’ve undoubtedly heard of the line made famous by money managers looking to manage expectations: past results are not a guarantee of future performance.

Sure, there’s no guarantee, but what’s already transpired is certainly informing future planning. So why not use the same predictive strategy for your PR programs? Here’s how to get started:

Think trends, not snapshots. Looking at any given picture is interesting, but even more intriguing is viewing a series of pictures —of the same subject —shot over time. The change in their faces and environments tells a more compelling story. Similarly, pull together your data from months gone by to better understand the trends at hand, then project that momentum out another few months.

• Get visual. Some of us can “see” figures coming to life directly from a quantitative report or spreadsheet. If you can’t, convert that data into something more visual.

Start small. Don’t try to boil the ocean by attempting to put all of your data into the mix. Choose a few categories in which you truly understand the intrinsic relationship between what has occurred, and what that means for the future.

Find new applications. Apply predictive modeling to new applications, including highly variable scenarios such as crisis communications. A few months ago, a global brand found itself under attack by an online pundit, leading one of its agencies to immediately begin advocating for a full-blown response. We instead hit the pause button to see how the data played out over the next 90 minutes. Using real-time monitoring, the trend line soon indicated that the issue would run its course in a few hours —an instance where doing nothing trumped a knee-jerk reaction.

• Evangelize. Your greatest challenge in advancing the power of predictive data may be inertia. Make the first move and retire antiquated reports that say little, weigh a lot and barely get read. Replace them with a couple of informed analyses of what’s to come, and watch eyes (and brains) light up.

Over the past several weeks, “Big Data” has leapt onto the scene as a buzzword. Now’s the time to take advantage of the concept. PRN

To learn more about integrating data and measurement strategies, register for PR News' Oct. 2 Social Media Measurement Conference in New York City. 


Mike McDougall, APR, is managing partner of McDougall Travers Collins (McDougallTC.com), Contact him at [email protected].

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