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PR Genome Project Explores How Influence, Data and Storytelling Impact the Future of PR

Mike Santoro

Last week, I joined global leaders in PR to discuss how our industry has evolved and where we are going in the future. Hosted by the Council of Public Relations Firms, the PR Genome Project was a must-attend event that featured sessions with the best and brightest in our field.

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The program kicked off with a fascinating session led by event chair and Ogilvy PR CEO Chris Graves, who examined the history of PR starting with Edward Bernays, the father of modern public relations. Bernays’ famous campaign for Lucky Strike cigarettes in the 1920s made headlines and helped break the taboo against women smoking in public by positioning cigarettes as “torches of freedom” for a group of women’s rights marchers at the New York City parade.

Graves also explored the groundbreaking research by Paul Lazarsfeld and Elihu Katz in their book, Personal Influence, published in 1955. Their model explains how ideas flow from the mass media to opinion influencers and the wider population. This theory introduced the notion that most of the general population does not consume news directly from the media, but rather from personal influencers who intervene and relay the content to others. Evolving the thoughts employed in Bernays’ Lucky Strike campaign, the study helped our industry better understand and predict audience behavior and campaign effectiveness.

Many of the following sessions throughout the event explored these foundational themes and elaborated on the challenges and future of our industry. While all of the speakers and content presented throughout the program were exceptional, three sessions in particular stood out for their relevant and valuable perspectives on several critical questions that will define the future of PR.

1. Do We Really Know How Influence Works?

Duncan Watts, principal researcher at Microsoft Research, discussed the differences between popular and viral campaigns. So many of us mistakenly focus on going viral, but we may not be even using the term correctly. Most of the events we consider viral are actually just popular.

There’s a big difference between being popular and going viral. Think of a viral disease; it starts with patient zero and spreads directly from there. But most campaigns do not progress like this. Take the Superbowl, for example. Although millions of people share and discuss the event online, it is not the result of one patient-zero source.

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Most campaigns and events do not go viral. This is because a huge amount of luck and rare conditions cause something to go viral. No one credits a strong match for starting a forest fire. It’s a combination of several circumstances, including dry weather, wind, steep terrain and high concentrations of trees. It’s largely due to chance when content, videos or campaigns go viral, so aiming for this notion is a shot in the dark with lower odds of success than winning the lottery.

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Savvy communications and marketing professionals focus on popularity and leveraging influencers to create compelling campaigns—just as Lazarsfeld and Katz hypothesized. The only component that has changed since the 1950s is the gatekeepers to information. Back then, televisions, radio and magazines dominated the mass media. Now, new forms of influencers have emerged via social media and other digital channels, such as YouTube and blogs.

2. How Does Data and Intuition Affect Our Industry?

Next up was Teddy Goff, a partner at Precision Strategies, who discussed the importance of email testing and audience data during President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. To capture voters and drive donations, campaign strategists used clever and engaging emails. Every email campaign Goff’s team created had 6 different body options, and 3 different subject lines. They would then test these 18 iterations in small groups to see what was most effective and use the most impactful one.

This strategy paid off. He showed one email that generated $2.4 million for the campaign, but had they not tested they could have just as easily sent an email from the test group that was only 22 percent as effective. That’s a difference of almost $2 million.

So does all that time you spend crafting the perfect email and subject line really matter? Absolutely, as long as you are testing.

He also explored how to use positive and negative messaging. According to Goff, negative, fear-based messaging resonates more with people in the privacy of their own homes. This means that in email and TV campaigns, negative messaging is most effective. However, in social situations and on social media, positive messaging works better because people do not want to be perceived as downers or pessimists. This was the reasoning behind the campaign’s decision to share positive content on social media, such as photos of the President, his family and Bo the dog, while sending more negative email campaigns with subject lines such as, “I will be outspent”.

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3. How Can We Tell Better Stories Using Visual Communication?

We wrapped up the day with an informative session by Emma Whitehead, managing director at Graphic, who highlighted the lack of visual storytelling in the PR industry. Although our industry excels at telling compelling stories through words, we often fail to present our information in a visually appealing way.

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Visual storytelling goes beyond a stock image or beautiful photo. Whitehead outlined three must-haves for effective visual storytelling. First, you must reveal an insight that is difficult to understand without seeing it. This can be a table or other visual representation of an idea or data. For example, it’s difficult to wrap your head around what “billions of dollars” actually means. By representing it visually, it will resonate more with your audience.

Next, your visual must captivate an audience that normally wouldn’t be interested in the material. While complex corporate balance sheets are appropriate for an audience of accountants, they will not appeal to a general population of consumers. You must construct a simple, easy-to-understand graphic that interests general audiences when discussing complex financial data.

Finally, the purpose of the visual must be obvious without further text or explanations. If you have to explain the visual to your audience, it will not work.

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Overall, the strategies discussed throughout PR Genome Forum help us take a more data-driven approach to public relations and challenge ourselves to take a hard look at how we can continue to raise the bar. I’m happy for the opportunity to convene with my peers and discuss these important issues. At Walker Sands, we love learning about and experimenting with new tactics and approaches that move our industry forward.

Where do you think the PR industry is going over the next decade? How has our industry evolved over the last 65 years? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments!