social business & big data: keys to the strategic positioning of PR?

The Public Relations industry has long argued for a place at the top table. We’ve been held back in this ambition by the perception that we become useful only at the tail end of the corporate value chain and by our lack of rigour with regards to measurement. Social Business and Big Data offer PR the opportunity to reposition itself at the strategic heart of the businesses and organisations we serve.

Communication: Central to the Human Experience Yet Organisationally Siloed

Communication, not as a siloed organisational function but as a human behaviour, has always been central to how organisations and brands, from political bodies to major industrial manufacturers, organise themselves and progress – creatively, politically and economically.

Humans identify, through communication, a need or market to address. We establish partnerships around shared objectives and build alliances of shared meaning. Communication allows us to nurture advocates and embrace diversity. In the commercial realm, this isn’t something we see only within more collaborative, horizontally organised businesses – even the military, probably the most top down, command and control of all organisations, is communication-centric: orders are given, targets identified, firing authorised, seize-fires negotiatiated, and amnesties granted.

Communications the business function, however, nearly always exists within a silo with defined boundaries somewhere close to the nexus of a brand’s aspirations, how it communicates this to stakeholders, and the actual experience of those who engage with the brand or it’s offering. [See FleishmanHillard’s award winning Authenticity Gap research for insight into how the gap between expectations and actual experience impacts brands.]

Part of the problem is that PR Professionals are often only called in after the fact:

* once a strategic decision is made, we communicate it’s necessity
* once a campaign is defined, we are asked to extend it’s reach and build engagement
* once a product or service has been devised, we’re brought in to communicate it’s usefulness
* once an industrial mishap has occurred, we’re called in to contain the reputational damage

Yet the good news is that Communications does have a privileged perspective within most organisations of any scale, with visibility across operations, strategy, outcomes and, yes, risks, that few outside the closed doors of the board or C-Suite have awareness of.

Social Business – A Magic Pill?

Social business is a human-centric, insights-led approach to the development and implementation of strategic programmes that bring stakeholders, both internal and external, closer to business critical processes in ways that generate shared value.

Social Business is the lever that agencies, and their functionally ring-fenced clients, can activate to break out of our box to become the facilitators of communication and connectivity, helping create richer human experiences and strategic progress. Doing this – being the connector, listener, valued collaborator and thoughtful advisors we can be – catapults us, Communicators, to the centre of organisational strategy.

A Model Social Business Programme

Usually, it starts with an indepth insights gathering process where methodologies borrowed from ethnography, user experience design and management consulting are leveraged to identify and prioritise strategic objectives, stake holder motivations, existing processes and workflows.

Social business practitioners also look for obstructions such as lack of employee engagement, unnecessary constraints upon collaboration, poorly thought out infrastructure and, for lack of a more revealing description, competing egos. We conduct workshops and stakeholder interviews, interrogate data from a variety of digital and social media listening and analytics tools, undertake desk research, and ask tough questions about our  client’s business strategy. The same methodology can and should be deployed to gain insights from both internal and external stakeholders.

We then map the two views so as to identify commonalities and connections between objectives, people, processes and platforms. The final step is to build participatory frameworks that drive collaborative action and strategic progress.

It sounds easy, but it requires an extraordinary depth of immersion within a client’s corporate culture and the context in which it operates to fully realise. I’ve been involved in social business programmes that last a month or two, and several that have taken as long as 18 months to complete.

Staffing for Social Business

If the PR industry is to claim Social Business as an approach, we must recruit, nurture and deploy the right kind of people: those with a strategic mindset, intellectual curiosity, willingness to challenge assumptions, appropriate levels of empathy, and a knack for coalition building. A Social Business strategist is an ethnographer, a journalist, a management consultant, a user experience strategist and a communicator.

I’ve worked with many people in our industry with some or all of these characteristics. Being “good at social media” is not a prerequisite, although understanding how technology can enable processes and workflows can come in useful.

Can PR survive in a results focused, Big Data, World?

The crumb trail of data meanders through the functions of our clients businesses. The Communications industry has been lazy about tracking down the data that demonstrates our value and, instead, often relies upon fuzzy metrics including the counting of outputs and questionable correlations. I strongly believe that PR can contribute to the good fortunes of our clients, but we need to get better at supporting this thesis and Big Data is our opportunity to do exactly that.

There is a strong connection, in my view, between social business and big data. Social business is about connecting the dots between people and processes important to strategic success, big data is about measuring, understanding and acting upon the signals that those people and processes generate.

Social Business sees no firewalls – in fact, it purposely permeates them – nor does big data. We can, with big data, go well beyond measuring reach, engagement and perception:

  • How many new connections are made amongst geographically distant members of the workforce or across functional silos? Has this led to new business wins that otherwise wouldn’t be possible?
  • Was a software bug in a consumer product fixed before the next batch of 100,000 products were pushed out the door because the software engineer had early visibility of the issue through the social media monitoring of customers and, if so, how much customer care resource has this refinement saved?
  • Did a new product or service idea emerge faster due to a conversation with a customer and, if so, did this reduce time to market or R&D costs?
  • Was an aerospace engineer who graduated from Michigan State able to recruit a high value hire from that same university who hadn’t been interested when initially approached by a generalist in recruitment?
  • Was repetitive spending on software licenses procured by different departments identified and reigned in once those departments started working more closely together?

To join up the crumb trail of data, we must first join up our client’s organisations: the social business chicken needs to come before the big data egg. We must share functional objectives and make our activities and the data they generate visible to colleagues more broadly, regardless of who commissions or owns them organisationally. We must learn to share success broadly, giving credit to all those who contribute. It’s a new way of organisational thinking, but one that a social business programme can help embed. Communication is at it’s core, even if the above bullet points of the type of measurable outcomes a social business programme might generate don’t, on the face of it, look like the traditional responsibilities of PR.

Communication is Central To Everything Social. Business Too.

It’s difficult to think of any aspect of our social lives – the way we perceive, interact and engage with individuals, groups, communities organisations and brands around us – that isn’t centred upon communication.

History, it is often argued, defines us yet communication of our shared history is essential for that statement to hold any truth. Economics is the root of all power, yet without the communication of the reality that others have more, or less, there is no supply and demand, no poll tax riots, no Occupy movement, no feminism. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, yet beholders communicate their likes and dislikes and when enough of them do so it results in a fashion trend. Emigres returning home to communicate new ideas leads both to diversification – new experiences, such as NY loft inspired cafes in Krakow or the launch of a Swedish fusion restaurant, Casa Miglas, in Havana – whilst, at the same time, chipping away at the distinct differences between Havana and Stockholm, Krakow and New York.

Communication simplifies and complicates. It brings together and tears apart. It both diversifies and chips away at diversity. It is a force for stability and for change…

Communication is central to our entire experience of being human, including the businesses we create, work for, purchase from or otherwise engage with. Social Business is a methodology that puts communication, in all it’s guises, at the center of a more collaborative – more human – approach to creating profitable and sustainable businesses. Big Data can guide iterative evolution of our strategies and tactics, and help us understand when, where and how our activities have contributed to success. The strategic heart of business is – with a bit of help from Social Business and Big Data – a natural space for the Communications to claim as it’s own.

[Disclaimer: The views expressed in this post are my own and may not reflect those of my employer.]

Update: This article about Social Business on Microsoft’s Business Re-imagined website is worth a read: