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PR: The data and the drama

Posted by Paula Fifield on 26th September 2016

In the early 1900s, Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays defined PR as the ‘practice of social science’, with PR professionals having ‘competences like that of the industrial engineer, the management engineer or the investment counsellor in their respective fields’. He claimed that successful PRs apply their understanding of behavioural sciences such as anthropology, history, social psychology and sociology.

In 1991, when he turned 100, Bernays was also quoted as saying ‘Public relations today is horrible. Any dope, any nitwit, any idiot can call him or herself a public relations practitioner’. Quite the change of heart, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Nevertheless, this tension between the scientific understanding of PR and less technical approaches continues to dominate many conversations about the future of PR. Indeed, we’ve created our new labs division to explore this question in more depth.

But in asking the question it is perhaps helpful to also think about what businesses want from PR. Should PRs be mirroring marketers’ embracing of data and technology to further the science of PR? Or is PR’s value derived from the art of storytelling?

The science of emotion

The idea that the emotions of the unconscious mind drive human behaviour is rooted in neuroscience and psychology, with emotion – as opposed to reason – being thought to lead to action.

If a brand can persuade someone to take action publicly, a need to justify this behaviour can lead to peer-to-peer brand advocacy – something documented in Robert Cialdini’s book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.

So far, so good. All fairly scientific stuff, right?

Beyond behavioural science, technology advancements are also helping PR to deliver more scientific campaigns by automating many aspects of PR, such as helping to better measure the effects of PR including tracking reputation and attributing sales.

For brands these insights and approaches are still invaluable and are far more reminiscent of Bernays’ original definition of PR.

The value of the human factor

However, while behavioural science theories are all well and good, a huge part of compelling PR is being able to tell a good story. This includes the ability to not only have an excellent grasp on the written word, but to use pictures, metaphors and other tools to get the message across.

To tell a good story, there must be a willingness to have an open mind, a creative flair and an ability to challenge the norm. This doesn’t strike me as particularly scientific, but more like gut instinct.

This definitely appears to be more of an art than a science, though that’s not to say that as PR accountability becomes more evidence-based we won’t find ourselves straying back into the land of science for the proof of success that we need to justify the next campaign.

An observation

For all the talk about creativity and PR as ‘art’, the 2014 Holmes Report into Creativity in PR cited that only 1.5% of all client respondents would rate the quality of creativity in the PR industry as ‘inspirational’ in comparison to 6.5% of agency respondents. Neither stat screams success.

It appears, then, that while clients value more rigorous measurement in PR and can buy technology by the bucket-load, what they really desire is to experience more creativity from the professionals they employ as their PR service providers.

Science can undoubtedly help us to analyse, understand and leverage human behaviour for the purposes of PR. In addition, data and technological sciences can indeed help get the job done to a higher standard. BUT it seems creative skills and storytelling capture the hearts and minds of audiences and, most importantly, it’s what clients are crying out for.

So perhaps rather than focusing purely on making PR more scientific, there is also a case to be made for PRs to be more ambitious in their creativity and their vision for what campaigns can achieve.

Paula Fifield

Paula began working with the agency in 2007 as Business Development Director and was appointed as a board director in 2011. Prior to Wildfire, Paula worked at Sun Microsystems, Orange and Morse Group in a range of marketing, customer relationship management and business development roles.