I asked Ashley where we can learn more about her, and she provided these links: "I blog and tweet under the Burson-Marsteller name. If you don’t mind receiving other company news, you can hear about the research I do @BMGlobalNews. Some studies I published this year which may be of interest include The PR Effect, which provides evidence for the effectiveness of PR programs; The Message Gap Analysis, which explores the 'gap' between a company’s messages and what ultimately appears in the media; and Fortune 100 Global Social Media Study, which uncovers evidence about how Fortune 100 companies are using social media."
The Five Questions.
#1. What got you interested in evidence?
I’m a natural-born psychologist who is always trying to understand why people think what they think, and why they do what they do. Thus, I’m compelled to uncover the root cause of people’s beliefs and actions, which instinctively leads to gathering evidence. I’m also interested in business, so I have an MBA and I’ve spend the last 15 years in marketing/PR, gathering evidence to understand what drives consumers’ brand perceptions, what influences their purchases, what drives corporate reputation, etc.
My father was also a psychology professor who did extensive experimenting on the chemistry of the human brain, so research about people and their motivations must run in my blood.
What types of evidence do you work with most often (medical, business research, statistics, social science, etc.)?
My job title, “Director of Evidence-Based Communications,” is kind of fancy name for market researcher, which is what I actually do. The evidence I collect as a researcher is a combination of social science and business, and the evidence drives two specific goals: 1) to develop PR programs that will influence stakeholders perceptions and behaviors and 2) to measure the impact of the PR programs.
For example, maybe I have a client who wants to encourage citizens to recycle. For the first goal, I would collect evidence to understand why citizens are not recycling (i.e., maybe they don’t know which items are recyclable, maybe they don’t know where to bring their recyclables, maybe they’re just lazy). Then we use that evidence to develop a PR program targeted at the issues preventing citizens from recycling. For the second goal, I identify measurement techniques to collect evidence about whether or not citizens’ recycling behavior has been influenced by the program.
What is your involvement with evidence: applying it, advocating its use, researching/developing it, synthesizing/explaining/translating it, communicating it?
I do all of the above. In addition to applying evidence to client work as I described above, I also design thought leadership studies to promote Burson-Marsteller’s communications services. Within the company, I am responsible for educating my colleagues about what evidence is available and to apply it to their client work. I also communicate and promote the Evidence-Based thought leadership we do throughout the PR community.
Where do you go looking for evidence, and what types of sources do you prefer? (formally published stuff such as journals, or something less formalized?)
The evidence for my industry is published in PR/marketing industry trades/websites such as PR Week, Advertising Age, the Center for Media Research and eMarketer. I always try to understand the methodologies used – and often email the researcher if I can to get a better sense of how the research was conducted – because the quality of research varies greatly. I also read some academic research about consumer behavior, which is often more methodologically sound but unfortunately cannot always be applied to real-life PR in a practical way.
#2. On a scale of 1 to 10, where 10= ‘It’s crystal clear.’ and 1=’We have no idea why things are happening.’, how would you describe the overall “state of the evidence” in your primary field?
Sorry to give a cop-out answer, but I would say “5.” (As a researcher, I always prefer 1s and 10s!) Traditionally, “evidence for success” in PR meant getting coverage for a client in a major newspaper, instead of whether or not you were really changing people’s perceptions and behaviors. Public relations is genuinely hard to measure, which I could explain in more depth except it would consume this entire interview. However, clients are starting to demand more evidence to prove that PR programs have an impact on the business’s bottom line, so people like me are developing tools to do just that. And, because so much of PR is becoming digital (including social media), it is getting easier and easier to gather evidence to demonstrate impact.
Which of these situations is most common in your field?
a) Much of the evidence we need doesn’t yet exist.
b) People don't know about the evidence that is available.
c) People don't understand the evidence well enough to apply it.
d) People don’t follow the evidence because it's not the expectation.
“C” I just described above that PR has a problem with “A” because there is a lack of evidence prove the impact of PR, but I believe that a lack of understanding about how to apply evidence is a bigger problem. PR professionals are extremely creative and excellent at coming up with big ideas, but they are not trained to apply and generate evidence. This is quickly changing though, and it is the driving force behind the Evidence-Based Communications program at Burson-Marsteller – to help encourage professionals in the PR industry to use evidence to be more effective.
#3. Imagine a world where people can get the evidence they need, and exchange it easily and transparently. What barriers do you believe are preventing that world from becoming a reality?
I think the barriers to an evidence-based world are that people do not always want to believe the evidence. For example, 18% of Americans still believe President Obama is a Muslim despite mountains of evidence and media to prove that he is not. People tend to support evidence that is already aligned with what they want to believe, regardless of whether it is scientific evidence, social science evidence, etc. Evidence will always be open to interpretation, and new evidence will make us realize that the “old evidence” was completely wrong. I believe these are the most limiting factors.
Where do you see technology making things better?
Technology makes things better because we can collect evidence more thoroughly and accurately, and I believe this is true for both social science and medical/natural science. However, technology and free survey tools such as surveymonkey and zoomerang – which are fabulous in many ways, and I find them extremely useful for my work – also enable people who are not properly trained to write biased survey questions and to collect, analyze and publish data with erroneous conclusions. And, technology allows for these erroneous conclusions to spread even more rapidly through digital/social media, which I find concerning. Even as a trained professional, sometimes I find it hard to determine which data I read are valid and which are not.
#4. How do you prefer to share evidence with people, and explain it to them? Do you have a systematic way of doing it, or is there a format that you follow?
I like to develop a dialogue with people so we can have a conversation about the evidence I’ve collected. When I talk with clients, colleagues, or media about evidence, they all begin the conversation with different assumptions about what the data means, and unless I get them talking about how they interpret the data, I won’t be able to correct their misinterpretations. So I always begin by presenting the data, but then I take an organic approach to learn the best way to get my message across to each unique audience.
What mistakes do you see people making when they explain evidence?
Researchers often present evidence, but they don’t offer ways to apply the evidence in an actionable way. They don’t tie all the data points together to create a story. The evidence has to be woven into a meaningful story with implications in order for someone else to make use of it.
#5. What do you want your legacy to be?
I’d like to be remembered for helping colleagues and clients recognize that evidence drives creativity. Many of my colleagues worry that data and evidence kill the creative PR process, but I want them to see that evidence inspires it.
Amen to that. Thanks for sharing your insights, Ashley.
Chime in. Would you like to be interviewed, or do you have someone to recommend? Drop me a note at tracy AT evidencesoup DOT com.