The ‘Moneyball’ approach to public relations: Using analytics to build better programs

November 9, 2012

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures
Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

I asked Jessica, the budding researcher in our group,  what she thought of the measurement and analytics training that we instituted for Ketchum employees. 

“The emphasis on big data and analytics was a bit of a surprise,” she said. “I had no idea this is such a critical part of the future of public relations.”

In some ways, you could say public relations is going through an evolution similar to what the Oakland A’s experienced in the book “Moneyball,” which Columbia Pictures adapted into a film starring Brad Pitt.

In that story, Oakland general manager Billy Beane makes the switch from picking baseball players for a team based on intuition, to using statistics on the key things that matter to winning a game — in particular, how often someone gets on base, no matter how.  It may not be as sexy to hire a player based on how often he gets walked versus hitting the huge home run once in a while, but it helps win more games.

PR pros can now use analytics to be much more precise in how we build communications programs. It used to be that we applied the statistical approach at the end of a program to demonstrate a return on investment. Now, analytics plays a key role in many of the parts of PR strategy development. It allows you to be much more predictive on how a program is going to work, rather than relying on a gut feel.

Data driven

According to IDC, a global market intelligence firm, the amount of data available to understand consumers and markets is doubling every two years. The trick is figuring out how to mine it to make communications programs more effective. For example, we wanted to better understand a major hospital system’s prospective patients who would travel to this facility for the fantastic care and patient outcomes they provide. We used data from syndicated sources about health choice motivators, psychographics of the types of patients they attract and key media sources. We were able to not only target our messages better, but to also select the best specific cities, towns and media outlets to reach them.

Often, surveys are collected for one reason, but you can use the data for making other decisions as well.  For example, data from a brand tracking survey sometimes has information about how consumers choose a product, and in turn, how to best communicate with them.

Sometimes an organization has a lot of data but is not clear on how to best use it. For example, we recently worked with a nonprofit who had data on how much volunteers were spending on communications activities in markets around the United States.

Using that, we developed a predictive model to show what would happen if one were to move marketing spend between the channels. From that, we could project the changes in the number of volunteers by concentrating the organization’s messages in different places.

Not many people took a job in our profession because they loved math. However, data, analytics and statistics are increasingly necessary to do public relations well in today’s market.

David B. Rockland, Ph.D.

David B. Rockland, Ph.D., retired as CEO of KGRA in 2017, but continues as part-time chairman. He and his wife, Sarah Dutton, who recently retired from CBS News, have also started their own research and consulting firm to work with Ketchum and other clients at


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