Technology data

Lenox Lizwi Mhlanga

At the Innovation Summit (In2Summit) that took place in New York recently, chief communication officers (CCOs) were asked how they were using data to work more effectively. In this second serious look at the effect of changes in technology in the profession I hold dear, we examine the impact of data to Public Relations.

The discussion at the summit was around The Speed of Change — CCOs On Tomorrow’s Challenges deliberating on the impact that technology has had on communicators and the media upon which we so depend.

Last week, we looked at the role of communicators in building trust with their stakeholders. The Holmes Report’s In2Summit is a global network of events that explore the innovation, disruption and evolution that has and continues to, redefine influence and engagement in the public relations industry.

Technology is a weak area among Zimbabwean communicators who, grounded as we are in the social sciences, are “naturally averse” to figures. I have struggled with anything mathematical most of my school life and have avoided figures like the plague!

But the reality among PR practitioners and others in similar fields has been the demand to measure their performance and effectiveness. In the past, it was about counting the numbers of stories published (as newspaper clips) or the apparent success of an event. Nowadays it’s about metrics and this is where the “mining” of relevant data becomes critical.

There are many online services available that translate coverage, traction and views into graphic metrics. Data can describe in figures whether one has been successfully deploying tactics and resources. This is sure to make the finance department guys happy. It’s more about demonstrating value or a return on investment in a language they understand best; in figures.

Data technology covers the aptitudes and apparatus used to compose, secure, store and recover information. Data administration technology encompasses an extensive variety of techniques and database frameworks utilised for overseeing information and apportioning access both inside of a business and between elements.

“We have a very data-driven grassroots programme, building a database of thought leaders who understand our business and support us on issues. We’re also working to get meaningful insight from our employees that we can deliver to the CEO, so we can see early warning

signs of potential problems,” said General Electric (GE) Chief Communications Officer, Deirdre Latour.

The recurring theme throughout the second AfricaIn2Summit held in Johannesburg last April, besides concerns about talent, was the way in which technology was changing all aspects of communications.

Not only has the mobile phone effectively leapfrogged desktop technology, the media itself is also grappling with a crisis of relevance, prompted by typical concerns over shrinking revenues and algorithm-inspired fake news.

At the New York summit, Frank Shaw, Corporate Communications Vice presidentat Microsoft, when addressing participants, said improved access to data had changed how his team approached measurement.

“We’re trying to move from a communications scorecard to understanding what insights we have derived from our output.”

“So, we found, for example, that we were not getting strong results outside the US from US-based news events compared to our peers. One reason was that we were finishing our presentation the night before, which meant there was no time for translation or training people in the rest of the world, so they could provide context,”Shaw said.

This should be a lesson for the one-size-fits-all approach typical among Zimbabwean communicators, that assumes that audiences are a homogenous construct when in fact, data can peel away the differences in demographics, behaviour and perceptions.

At the 2017 Africa In2Summit, Microsoft advertising head Eugene Chetty noted that there remained an unwillingness among senior leadership to invest in the tools which would demonstrate whether a company’s communications content is really working from a commercial perspective.

“Are (PR agencies) setting ourselves up for failure by telling brands we can measure from content to commerce?” asked Webfluential’s Kirsty Sharman. When asked whether their content was effectively measured, just as worryingly, not a single person from the audience agreed.

Regardless, there was the belief that the tools were out there, but required a more tech-savvy approach from clients and agencies. That goes for the data underpinning reputation management too, explained Magna Carta analyst Katherine du Plessis.

But as University of Johannesburg Professor Bheki Twala has pointed out, were companies ready to analyse big data and find out things that might disturb their cosy assumptions about their brands? This points to the need for local communicators (and their bosses) to invest in data tools that are proliferating online, backed by solid training on the same. Here lies the point of convergence between IT experts and communicators for communication campaigns to be effective and successful.

At the New York summit, Torod Neptune, worldwide Vice President and Chief Communications Officer at Lenovo Neptune, said that data had led to an insight that Lenovo was not getting credit for the innovation that went into new products.

“We found relatively little appreciation among consumers about innovation. We started to spend a lot more time engaging product design people in the process, helping us understand the innovation that went into these new products. It helped us drive more focus on innovation.”

How can we employ big data in dissecting the various ways in which Zimbabwean companies were able to improvise in the face of sanctions? It’s a rich story of endurance and survival that can be incorporated into the business literature on how organisations can survive in an unpredictable economic environment. It begs to be told.

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