Moneyball Public Affairs

This piece is a follow-up to an initial piece entitled Is Public Opinion Polling Data Obsolete?

“Thirty years ago, stockbrokers used to buy stock strictly by feel. Let’s put it this way: Anyone in the game with a 401(k) has a choice. They can choose a fund manager who manages their retirement by gut instinct, or one who chooses by research and analysis. I know which way I’d choose.” – Billy Beane via Howard Bryant, ESPN

Public affairs executives and political strategists could make far better use of data than we currently do. We’ve got more behavioral and public opinion data at our fingertips than ever before but still base our counsel on personal experience and anecdote. What gives? Why haven’t we adopted a Billy Beane approach?

As once was the case in baseball, the public affairs industry is dominated by old-school consultants who base their counsel on gut instinct or trade on relationships. A recommendation that client engagements should be built on a foundation of data is often met with blank stares. “What could a poll tell us that we don’t already know about a client’s situation?” But without evidence, how do you know your advice is sound?

Mary Meeker points out what might be an explanation for this outdated approach in the Internet Trends 2015 slide below. The government, regulatory and policy sectors have resisted the impact of the Internet — and innovation — more than any other sector of the U.S. economy or society. The old approach to public affairs persists, but we think it’s ripe for disruption.

Other industries have been more willing to embrace change — especially those dealing with consumers. A company called ZestFinance, which provides low-cost credit to Americans who do not qualify for standard loans, uses big data to take into account a far wider range of variables than do traditional underwriters. Netflix uses viewer activity data to predict the movies and TV shows that will interest you. And hospital networks are starting to look at consumer data to predict patients’ health habits and the most efficient means of modifying behavior.

When it comes to politics, the Obama campaign famously used similarpredictive statistical techniques to target persuadable voters who were likely to vote, but the use of data in public affairs is still not widespread. Here are a few ways in which we struggle to modernize our industry.

  1. Over-reliance on anecdote. We’ve seen political consultants dismiss a data-informed campaign strategy in favor of an anecdotal insight drawn from a previous election. Never mind the facts that the candidate is different, the political climate has changed and there is a new set of issues to address.

  2. The impact of snake oil. In many cases, these same consultants quickly build businesses in the aftermath of an election to capitalize on their campaign experience and relationships with political appointees. These snake oil firms offer limited value, are built on a weak foundation and diminish the industry.

  3. Strategically useless data. Every advertising, political or communications professional uses a dashboard that shows how its organization or campaign is performing online. 5,000 click-throughs. 250 retweets. 5 million impressions. But what does this mean? Consultants and agencies confusingly refer to the delivery of this information as “analytics,” though no meaningful analysis is involved. If metrics aren’t tied to strategic goals and you aren’t asking the right research questions, the data doesn’t actually tell you anything. Data should inform your understanding of the target audience. What causes people to click through to an article or retweet a comment? What behavioral data will predict how a campaign performs on social media platforms? That’s the information public affairs professionals should be using to inform strategic recommendations.

  4. Skills gap. Our ranks are full of campaign managers, grassroots organizers and journalists, but too few executives are trained in quantitative analysis. Our point here is not that the industry should be led by data scientists, but public affairs professionals who fear math and statistics can’t interpret or make recommendations based on evidence and data.

Needless to say we are part of this industry. We share responsibility for its state and are keen to lead a disruptive upgrade. What does Moneyball public affairs look like? More on that soon.

Andrew Sullivan, H+K Strategies and Amber Ott, Research+Data Insights

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