Paints on palette

Combining art and science in creative communications

We now live in a society dominated by data. We exist for many companies and public organisations as statistics, which are used to shape services and improve engagement with us. The rise of fake news and our diminishing trust in the media have made many of us question news and PR stories if they are not based upon cold, hard facts.

So what of creativity, which has long underpinned PR content output and influenced the way companies and the media communicate with target audiences? Are we vilifying creativity and placing data too high up the agenda?

These issues were explored at a Cision Gorkana event I attended last week. Opening the discussion was Ruth Yearly, Insight and Strategy Director at Ketchum. Insight, according to Yearly, is based on something we know and are aware of, a common sense truth which is gathered and developed over time. She gave the analogy of a honey bee, with experiences and insights sticking to us like pollen as we explore and experience the world’s garden.

Yet basing campaigns and communications solely on insight seems to have gone out of fashion, with PR creatives now having to support messaging and ideas with extensive research and data. In an era of ‘post-truth’, many agencies and their clients are understandably nervous of anything they can’t be 100% certain of, or which they cannot substantiate with concrete proof or stats.

Championing the importance of data was Paul Hender, Head of Insight at Cision. Hender argued that using data will lead to better decision-making in the PR and comms world, and quoted mathematical physicist and engineer Lord Kelvin; “To measure is to know. If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it.”

Kelvin was born in 1824, but his statement is still extremely relevant today. Whilst our economy 20 years ago was dominated by the top companies in fields like oil and electricity, the landscape is now headed by technology giants. A core part of these businesses is their constant gathering and measuring of data to improve communications and services.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, as the nature of audience and readerships has also changed significantly over the past two decades. The growth of digital platforms and social media as sources of news and communications has fragmented the media environment, dividing audiences into silos which must be targeted and engaged in an ever-more personalised manner. And it’s here that data comes in.

According to Hender, 85% of ad spend now goes to Facebook and Google, as these platforms can deliver data on how to reach a target audience, and subsequently measure their reactions. An interesting example that he used to show the importance of data for comms was Microsoft and the levels of engagement the company was seeing from different media. Typically you’d imagine high engagement levels would stem from tech media, however, the data showed high coverage but low engagement and higher engagement actually came from other media, so the PR team were able to alter their strategy accordingly.

The conclusion from last week’s event, and one that I myself also agree with, is that a balance must be achieved between the two. Raw data is not enough on its own – either as the basis of a PR campaign or as a means of informing communications – and must be combined with insight and creativity. A straightforward, quick-fix approach to a data-heavy press release, for example, would be to use language which reminds the audience that respondents from a survey are human and not just numbers on a spreadsheet: use ‘these people’ rather than ‘this sample’, Hender suggested.

Unifying data and creativity has delivered some great PR campaigns from the likes of Spotify, Kleenex and Hemnet. Any and all PR agencies and organisations should remember that using data alone, without insight, will always be less engaging and interesting. The two can co-exist, and in order to effectively communicate and make sure the right message is heard by the right audience, data should always be approached and delivered creatively.

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