In the deeply human art of public affairs, the profusion of data and intelligence techniques has opened new possibilities. But it has also created a surprising challenge.

“Public affairs work is contextual, it’s subtle, intuitive and about applying a deep understanding of human connections and motivations,” says Philip Trippenbach, Client Strategy Lead EMEA at Edelman Data x Intelligence (DXI). “How do you integrate data and intelligence into that work? That’s the real challenge of public affairs work today.”

Speaking at the Public Affairs Council’s flagship conference on digital advocacy and communication #EUDAS21, Trippenbach described the true value of data intelligence for public affairs, and how public affairs practitioners can capitalize on it.

A clear need for data intelligence in public affairs

Public affairs in Brussels has become a crowded space, with the importance of this profession only growing over the past 15 years. Having a data and intelligence edge is necessary to maintain an advantage in this increasingly competitive arena.

At the same time, policy conversations are increasingly happening online. Not only are policymakers active through online channels, but corporate actors, activists, pressure groups, NGOs and others are also increasingly bringing their public affairs and advocacy work online. All of this online activity can provide useful data to feed into strategies for online and offline advocacy activities and open even more avenues for engagement.

But how do we use this data intelligence for public affairs?

Successful public affairs requires having an impactful message – the specific point you want to make – that resonates with your audience. And that message is best delivered when supported by a strong thought leadership infrastructure.

Think of your point, your message, like the jewel in a crown. You want to get that jewel out there, get it seen. But without the crown that supports it, you might as well be hiding that jewel in your pocket. The supporting structure of the crown itself makes the jewel visible to the public.

Thought leadership infrastructure is the crown, which enables a digital advocacy message, the content, to stand out. And creating good thought leadership infrastructure requires public affairs professionals and data and intelligence professionals to work together, face to face, hour by hour.

Three components of thought leadership infrastructure for public affairs

While multiple data and intelligence areas are valuable for public affairs, Trippenbach described three critical ones:

  • Stakeholder analysis & mapping – We are all social primates. We’re influenced by the people around us. The social relationships themselves haven’t changed, but with the increasing move of social relationships to digital, we have access to useful research data to track these relationships and measure stakeholders’ influence.
  • Topic & conversation analysis – What are people saying about a topic? This question historically would have been answered by highly experienced individuals with a connection to the field, but today we can use natural language processing to map those conversations as they happen online and identify the patterns between them. In turn, this offers us valuable insight on what is being said about any given topic – vital context for public advocacy work.
  • Psychometric profiling – Effective communication requires an understanding of the audience. For instance, you won’t successfully engage a risk-averse person with the same language that you would use with a risk-seeking person. Here also, the profusion of online text data offers opportunities. Thanks to computational linguistic analysis and natural language processing techniques, we can determine the emotional content of a conversation, and extract insights about the character, motivations and drives of our target audience. This is invaluable in tailoring the tone and specific language of a campaign.

The distinctive challenge of public affairs

Methods like these can create the foundation – the infrastructure – for strong public affairs messaging. But building that infrastructure poses a unique challenge of integration. (They’re also such powerful tools that we’re looking hard at the ethics of how we should use them.)

The issue here is that these intelligence techniques are complex, requiring specialized analytical skills and interpretation. Furthermore, the way data and intelligence is applied in public affairs is distinct from the way it is used in other fields, such as in B2B or B2C settings. The field of public affairs stands out for its targeted and concentrated nature.

So it’s not enough to get a report from the data and intelligence teams and let the public affairs experts get on with it. Experienced public affairs practitioners bring their deeply contextual, specialized knowledge of the field, but they need to bridge the gap between that art and the scientific insights offered by a data and intelligence team. The practical challenge of getting these two types of people – the artists and the scientists – to work together effectively requires specific attention and effort.

Only then can data and intelligence strategies be integrated with human intelligence, on a day-to-day basis. “This is the critical difference between success and failure,” adds Trippenbach. “You build the crown together. The practical art of getting your data people and your public affairs people around the table and actually talking and understanding each other, trusting each other – that’s how you bring public affairs into the 21st century.”

By Céline Van Den Rul, Data and Intelligence specialist in the Edelman Brussels office.

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