Charting the future of public relations
Why Qualitative Thinking Matters
Holmes Report
Holmes Report
News and insights from the global PR industry

Why Qualitative Thinking Matters

Holmes Report

[quote]The paradox is that whilst we hone in on the role of metrics, many of the answers to our clients’ thorniest dilemmas lie in smart qualitative insight. [/quote] By Graeme Trayner Analytics has been heralded as the future of communications, and from social media evaluation through to more sophisticated ‘big data’ applications, we’re witnessing the shift from a traditional gut instinct approach to a more insight-led method of designing campaigns.  In an information space where currents of influence have become more diffuse, and where the amount of consumer-generated content results in an avalanche of tweets, posts and videos every day, understanding people’s attitudes through data mining is now rightly part of the modern communicator’s toolkit. [caption id="attachment_2990" align="alignright" width="150"]Graeme Trayner Graeme Trayner[/caption] But in our clamor to ground communications in insight, we are in danger of focusing on only one side of how to understand motivations and behavior, and ceding ground to other advisors around the table. Advertising planner Robin Hafitz has talked of how market research is bifurcating into either ‘high tech’ or ‘high touch’ approaches. As an industry, we are obsessing – quite rightly at times – about how we apply the latest thinking around data to communications, but in our rush to do so we risk neglecting the more human, qualitative and linguistic side. When we use the term ‘qualitative’, we tend to think of the trusted focus group. But qualitative research now encompasses a broad range of methodologies and techniques, from ethnography to cultural trend analysis and creative workshops – all designed to gain a deep understanding of how people talk and feel, and how they locate topics within the context of their lives, aspirations and priorities. As corporate anthropologists Christian Madjesberg and Mikkel Rasmussen put it in their book ‘The Moment of Clarity’, it’s about unearthing the meaning people attach to things, and how they are experienced in culture. It’s about spotting not what is in the foreground, but what is in the background. The paradox is that whilst we hone in on the role of metrics, many of the answers to our clients’ thorniest dilemmas lie in smart qualitative insight.    Take for example how companies need to deal with a public information space that is often emotionally charged. A media landscape that rewards the shrill over the considered, the charged rush over the reasoned take, means brands can get drawn into panics over a range of issues, whether that  is data privacy,  inappropriate marketing or supply chain integrity. Tied to this, they can be pulled into wider ‘culture wars’ over value sets – witness retail brands taking stances, voluntary or otherwise, on issues including gun control and gay marriage.  Understanding consumer anxiety requires an understanding of what drives concern, and how that can be assuaged. More and more the role of the corporate communicator will be to bridge the chasm between private expertise and public understanding.   Many of today’s policy challenges – from working out our energy mix, to the use of biotechnology, and the role of the capital markets – require high levels of technical knowledge to fully comprehend. As FT writer Gillian Tett has highlighted, much innovation in business can be impenetrable to outsiders who don’t get the jargon – think hedge funds, biosimilars or net neutrality.  Qualitative research is suited to firstly understanding how people are currently accessing an issue, and also how best to pivot from private know-how to public support. We also need to locate the role of qualitative thinking within the wider context of huge developments in understanding of how attitudes are formed.   Whether it’s from the perspective of behavioral economics, social psychology or political science, academic thinking has shown that providing information alone tends not be enough to change opinions. What is often more critical is for a case or stance to strike a chord with people’s deep seated values. Identifying how to appeal to hearts as well as minds, and how to best frame a choice or argument, is where qualitative methods are incredibly valuable – understanding where people are now, and where they could be. Qualitative approaches enable us to tease out the competing tensions or paradoxes in people’s views of brands and issues. If we think of how we act as a consistent set of attitudes and behaviours, then we are sadly fooled. The flaw with many reputation indices and brand barometers is they rely on the comforting illusion of people having a single and uniform persona. Something I’ve seen in my work is a tension between the views we may express as a citizen vs. how we think and act as a consumer – we may say we don’t trust Wall Street, but we trust our bank not to siphon off cash from our checking account. We want data privacy, but we also want our search browser to know that we’re looking for a dry cleaner in our neighborhood, not on the other side of the country. But above all, this is about public relations and communications returning to its roots. Communications and insight pioneer Edward Bernays talked of PR being in effect ‘applied social science’, and saw the value of applying thinking from the then nascent field of psychotherapy to communications. Bernays was guilty at times of shocking overclaim, but his insight into the value of deep understanding remains. It’s why our peers in advertising focus as much on ‘high touch’ research as metrics and data. And as we seek to place insight at the heart of communications, we too need to remember the personal and the human and not always assume the answer lies in a set of scores. Graeme Trayner is vice-president at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, where he leads the firm’s international corporate practice.
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