Meet PR's best friend: Data - a roundtable hosted by Zignal Labs

Chicago was the site as 11 comms leaders gathered to discuss how new tools and tactics are helping ensure their brands stay strong

Photos courtesy of Tina Smothers

-Dan Cohen, senior director, PR and social media, Beam Suntory
-Geoff Curtis, SVP, corporate affairs and CCO, Horizon Pharma
-Virginia Devlin, founder and president, Current
-Lanie Friedman, senior director, brand comms, Conagra
-Paul Gerrard, VP, strategic comms, Blue Cross Blue Shield
-Kathleen Henson, founder and CEO, Agency H5
-Pete Marino, chief public affairs and comms officer, MillerCoors
-Katie Norris, manager, corporate comms, Grubhub
-Jeff Olson, EVP, Olson Engage
-Ginger Porter, president, Midwest, Golin
-Therese Van Ryne, head of global PR, Zebra Technologies

Data is an incredibly powerful tool in the hands of a savvy communicator – one that provides ammunition in every possible situation. It leads to better understanding of consumer sentiment. It offers insights that can bolster storytelling. And in times of crisis, PR pros could not ask for a better friend than data.

No communicator would disagree with the above statements in theory. But are PR pros using all the new tools at their disposal? If so, to what degree? If they aren’t, why not? Seeking answers to these questions was at the heart of the revealing Brand Health Survey, conducted in May 2018 by Zignal Labs in partnership with PRWeek.

Results from that study are revealed in this feature, but to bring the conversation into a real-world context, PRWeek and Zignal Labs convened 11 Windy City comms leaders to discuss how data, AI, and various other new tools and tactics are reshaping the way they and their teams work – both internally and with partners. Below we share each participant’s top thoughts:

Randy Brasche, VP of marketing at Zignal Labs, highlights real-time data's value to comms in everything from dealing with crises to proving its worth to the C-suite

Dan Cohen, Beam Suntory:
AI allows PR pros to operate with the strengths that set them apart – being expert storytellers and relationship-builders. It enables our gut intuition and the art of what we do to shine through. Let the machines do the analytics and we can focus on being great at what we’re really best at doing.

Geoff Curtis, Horizon Pharma:
One of the best paths to brand safety is nurturing authenticity. In the pediatric rare disease space, your primary stakeholder group – patients, parents, caregivers – might be small, but they expect you to be not only the ultimate expert, not only transparent, but authentic. You must be diligent in that pursuit, as it absolutely bubbles up to your corporate brand.

Virginia Devlin, Current:
Clients can easily find themselves at the forefront of a crisis that’s out of their control. You have to be relentlessly proactive in the face of such adversity and in shaping the image of those brands. And oftentimes, a clever, creative, and even fun campaign can do wonders to keep brands on the positive side of the news.

Lanie Friedman, Conagra:
Brands that have a true purpose and have spent time developing a rapport with customers where they understand that purpose, they have a lot more right to participate in certain conversations than other brands that have no clear purpose. It’s vital for your brand to stand for something – and for you to always stay true to those brand values.

Paul Gerrard, Blue Cross Blue Shield:
Communications professionals have an obligation, more so than almost any other function, to think outside of our organizations and understand the world in which we operate. When thinking of AI, it’s not just about how it benefits our comms function, but how it's impacting our sectors and what those implications are for our corporations.

Kathleen Henson, Agency H5:
Part of the responsibility of investing in AI is having the right people analyze the data. More and more PR firms will need individuals who focus solely on crunching numbers. You very well might find yourself hiring someone with an engineering degree, not a PR degree. It’s also imperative for clients and agencies to share data in order for everyone to have the best picture of a brand’s health.

Pete Marino, MillerCoors:
The court of law and court of public opinion can be very different. As such, it’s so helpful for brands that the comms department have a peer-to-peer relationship with important constituents, such as HR, labor relations, and legal. Without that, response during a crisis is slowed considerably, which can amplify problems. With it, though, you can respond quickly, with a stronger message, and in turn mitigate a lot of potential damage.

Katie Norris, Grubhub:
What has changed so much recently is not only the scale of how quickly misinformation can get out there, but how far it can travel. Data tells you that certain outlets get picked up by myriad other sites, so that misinformation can now be found in exponentially more places. When we find ourselves in crisis scenarios, managing that has become among our bigger challenges.

Jeff Olson, Olson Engage:
Communications is the one function that can serve as a thread through an organization and help each other department solve problems. Whether it’s a marketing issue stemming from a YouTube video, an operational problem with an event, or a cyber-security issue the tech team is facing, comms can help solve it, or at least offer vital support to deal with it. Communications should be viewed as the consigliere of the C-suite.

Ginger Porter, Golin:
With all the data at our disposal, I’m seeing a huge uptick in brands wanting to do more scenario training and planning than ever before. It used to feel as if we were sometimes selling life insurance to a healthy person when we would talk to brands about being prepared. Now it’s a no-brainer and we're seeing different variations of scenario training – 10, even 20 different types of situations.

Therese Van Ryne, Zebra Technologies:
Crisis management has changed so much in recent years. Ten, 12 years ago, we were very reactive, developing responses on the fly to crisis scenarios as they popped up. Today, thanks to all the new tools we have, we're far more proactive in preparing responses to situations that might come up. We’re also far more able to take an integrated approach, bringing in different minds from throughout our business to get their point of view.

This was the second of four such roundtables being convened by Zignal Labs and PRWeek. The first one took place in New York City. The next one convenes in Atlanta in mid-September. Stay tuned to for coverage of all gatherings.

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