Fueled by advances in digital tools and artificial intelligence (AI), public relations is transforming into a data-driven practice. Communicators must curate, analyze, and draw insight from disparate streams of data to inform decisions relevant to organizations and society. This rapid evolution demands an equally quick adaptation from communicators, who have indicated they want more training and development in this increasingly complex space.

Dr. Emily Kinsky, Professor Michele Ewing, and I recently conducted research to examine how senior communicators are adapting to and leading teams in this data revolution. We conducted 28 in-depth interviews with communication practitioners with data and analytics experience. Participants worked at a wide variety of organizations. Many participants were members of the Institute for Public Relations Measurement Commission and International Association for Measurement and Evaluation of Communication (AMEC), and they reported an average of 20 years of experience in communication.

As highlighted below, participants described how they are leading their teams, including efforts to (1) foster a culture that enables risk taking, creativity, and curiosity, (2) create and enable diverse team structures, and (3) support and champion employees.

How to Foster a Culture of Risk Taking, Creativity and Curiosity

Suggestions from Participants

How to Facilitate

Create a safe environment that allows for data interpretation failure

Encourage risk taking by creating awards such as “mistake of the month” or the “biggest flop” (p. 6 of study)

Give employees the time to thoughtfully analyze

Give employees time to ideate and to look for connections between online and offline sources of data. Don’t overburden employees with constant deadlines that leave little room for innovative problem solving and discovery

Encourage diverse data interpretations

Facilitate a show and tell environment of data interpretations so employees can build upon one another’s thoughts to help an interpretation evolve from good to great

Champion curiosity

Teach employees to ask good questions and to be a contrarian

Prioritize honesty in data interpretations

Remind employees to share honest interpretations, even when results indicate a failure by the organization or client

How to Create and Enable Diverse Team Structures

Suggestions from participants

Why to facilitate

Recruit employees who are innately curious

Degree is less important than whether an applicant is inquisitive

Encourage employees from different departments, experiences, and viewpoints to work together when examining data

Doing so helps organizations avoid silos and to engender a more holistic interpretation

How to Champion Support and Champion Employees

Suggestions from participants

How to facilitate

Support and affirm self-learning of employees

Give employees the time to do online training courses or to attend conferences

Empower employees to support one another

Create a brownbag show-and-tell lunch or a sandbox environment for exploration

Mentor employees individually on how to work with data and analytics

Coach employees in one-on-one sessions to dig deep in their analysis and to gain confidence

Cultivate a passion for data and analytics as a career path

Make data interpretation fun at work and helps employees to map out a career path in this space

Respondents also mentioned using data to help their teams be more efficient. Data allowed them to demonstrate the impact of their strategies and tactics on organizational outcomes. They explained the importance of using data to identify and understand their audiences, construct stories, and motivate and amplify stakeholders. According to participants, three skills comprise the trifecta of data leadership in public relations practice: strategic counseling, storytelling, and data expertise.

In summary, our research provides examples of how communicators can create or adapt an analytics-led, insight-driven culture among teams and to use to use data to elevate their status and the industry.

The authors thank the Commission on Public Relations Education for championing this work and the Bob Schieffer College of Communication of Texas Christian University for sponsoring the research. The authors also thank the many IPR and AMEC members for sharing their insight and experiences.

References: O’Neil, J., Kinsky, E., & Ewing, M.  Insights from senior communicators: Navigating obstacles, leveraging opportunities, and leading teams to capitalize on data and analytics. Public Relations Review, 49(4), 1-10. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2023.102362

Dr. Julie O’Neil is a Professor and Associate Dean for Graduate Studies and Administration
Strategic Communication at Texas Christian University. Her areas of focus are public relations, internal communication, corporate social responsibility, measuring and evaluating communication programs and public relationships.

Dr. Emily Kinsky is a Professor of Media Communication at West Texas A&M University. Her research interests include PR education, crisis communication, social media, and media depictions, including the portrayal of public relations and journalism in the media.

Michele Ewing, APR, Fellow PRSA, is a professor at Kent State University with more than 30 years of experience in agency and corporate public relations and public relations education. 

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