Can you talk first about how COVID-19 is affecting your clients?
Our roots are in public affairs, managing crises, managing issues, advocacy. In the current environment, we’ve found tools we’ve always applied to a crisis situation with a client are even more applicable now. Every business is enduring some type of crisis, whether it’s internal communications, realigning business operations, discussing re-opening or navigating reputation. In more normal times, we would get called upon to use the PR tools at our disposal to evaluate a “crisis,” and we often found that when you put an event in context, it wasn’t a real crisis after all. In these times, you are usually seeing the opposite – you are hearing real alarm bells ringing more often than the pre-COVID era.
How do you think about the tools in your tech stack?
I spend a lot of time working with the different vendors that we have. I think we have a great sense, not only of the capabilities, but also of the limitations of each tool. Someone in my position is investing a limited amount of resources. We’re not a big, oligarchical agency that can have a tech stack that sits there unused. We’re one of the largest independent firms, but we are independent. The benefit is that it allows us to be nimble, but also very scrupulous about how we spend resources.
When I work with a vendor, I’m trying to think about how we can negotiate our roles so that we’re not just having a simple customer relationship. I’m not just logging in and using the tool anonymously; I want us to have context for each other and to evolve alongside one another. One company that has been a great partner in this way is Newswhip.
Can you give me an example of how you use these tools to confront a potential crisis?
One client we work with is an energy company. Although they weren’t actually named in the piece, The New York Times did an investigative report last year on an environmental issue. We tried to understand the traction of the story and whether it impacted the audiences our client cared about.
We used Newswhip to understand the trajectory of the story, whether it was picking up steam or flattening out. In this case, it was slowing. Newswhip has an algorithm based on topic, outlet and the people who share it, and it’s used to predict the traction the story will get, based on similar stories in the past.
After we understand the trajectory, we use other tools to look at which influencers have engaged with the story and whether they’re sharing it. In this case, we were able to see that among the people sharing it were people who are never going to really be on the side of an energy company. It was comforting, in a way, to see that the traction of the story was being driven by opponents who we would never win over.
What solutions could you deploy to respond, if you considered a response necessary?
In this case, we used a tool called Affinio, which showed who was engaging with the story on Twitter at a segmentation level by looking at their common interests. What we found was that the engaged segments were, politically and by profession, not in the demographics an energy company would try to convince.
In effect, we had dodged the bullet and by trying to engage in a fact-check campaign, or respond to the story, would kick up more dust. We started to become convinced that the audience we cared about was not being exposed to the piece, and that we could sit it out and not even run a campaign. That was the decision that was made.
But using Affinio, we would be able to export an audience segment we did want to reach as a custom audience on Twitter, such as an engaged news audience, and just talk to them.
Can you summarize the importance of a PR tech stack like the one you have?
In our business, it’s all about the movement of news. You need to have an understanding of the environment around you that informs the best campaign to be pursued. That campaign might be to amplify a positive message, it might be to mitigate bad news or a lot of times you might not take any action at all.
The approach that I think really differentiates us is that we can take steps before the news breaks, or steps immediately following, similar to what I just walked you through. But we can be sure that, even in a dynamic environment in which we don’t control the story or when it hits, we have an infrastructure in place to assess the environment, understand our audience, and be able to couple whatever campaign should come next with that kind of insight.