Every PR department has a “tool” and every communications executive has data…usually too much data. With the advent of accessible technology for real-time content streaming and do-it-yourself analytics, more and more professional communicators have evolved beyond the “why measure?” to “what’s the best way to measure?” and “how do I uncover meaningful and actionable insights from the data I generate?” The goal? To provide communicators and executives with the intelligence they need to generate value and drive continuous improvement.

The evolved communicator recognizes the need for more than charts, graphs and data tables. They apply critical thinking and data analysis to add interpretive analysis, uncover actionable insights and enable strategic guidance for better business decision-making.

Many public relations professionals are on the path to fully-realized data-driven communication. Whether you’re beginning or well on your way, here are five suggestions to help you achieve research-based enlightenment:

1) An algorithm is different from an insight. Computers enable people to manage routine tasks with speed and consistency, but they are absolutely literal. Technology does exactly what we tell it to do. This precision offers positives and negatives, since relationship building can be a messy business. While algorithms generate data quickly and inexpensively, they offer no understanding, intuition or context. Technology feeds big data, but humans drive understanding, interpretive analysis and strategy. The ideal combination for the evolved communicator is one that marries category expertise (communications as well as industry sector); statistical acumen and critical thinking; and purposeful technology.

2) “Inquiry-based” research is different from “response-driven” research. Just as one-way “push” communication must evolve, so must the research we use for planning and evaluation. Research should play an important role in shaping PR objectives and strategy in advance of the execution. The inquiry-based research process starts by posing questions, problems or scenarios rather than simply representing the conventional wisdom or the facts as we already know them.

The aim for response-driven research is for communicators to gain and develop their knowledge and inform decision-making by investigating and responding in detail to an issue that’s known, engaging and complex.

What do inquiry-based and response-based research have in common? Using either or both of these methods will help communicators gather information, question and interpret it, and then form their own evidence-based conclusions. In the modern knowledge-based world in which communications operates, the combination of these skills has never been more valuable.

3) Social media are blurring the lines between qualitative and quantitative research. Some traditional modes of market research are threatened in the big data environment. Focus groups provide excellent directional views on marketplace opinions, but they are not representative of the larger population and lack reliability (since the sample is so small). Quantitative approaches may be reliable, representative and projectable, but they are limited by the rigidity of the survey instrument, which can inhibit the type of spontaneous remarks that spark creativity and insight. In our new communications environment, social media is emerging as an approach which is both qualitative (people expressing their opinions in an unstructured format) and quantifiable (unlike a focus group at the mall, some brands generate one million relevant tweets in a month). Using social, one combines qualitative insights with the ability to project to a larger population (but faster and at a much lower cost.

4) “Real time” is different from “right time.” Real time works best for situations where the communications process (and the response) is more formulaic. But, complex reputation issues where stakes are high need more than speed. Consider moving at the speed of decision-making within your organization (even if the communicator makes the decision). The best decision is not the fastest one. In certain situations, “data” may not be enough: Providing the necessary context, insights and directional guidance takes time for the researcher to produce and requires a methodical analysis by the decision-making executive before acting.

5) Your daily public relations activity may be your best research. Smart PR people use data analysis to conduct controlled experiments which drive narrower segmentation and tailored messaging. Every day, our interactions with executives, peers and the media contribute to our collective knowledge. Research enables us to transform these experiences into data and insights to guide better decision-making.

Mark Weiner is Chief Executive Officer of PRIME Research Americas, a Cision company. He is a Trustee for the Institute for Public Relations and a member of the Arthur Page Society. Mark has devoted his career to helping many of the world’s most respected companies and brands to demonstrate and generate a positive return on their public relations investment.

A version of these tips first appeared in PR News and can be found in the PR News PR Measurement Guidebook Volume 9.

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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