We recently had the chance to sit down with Darika Ahrens, who is the Digital Director at ENGINE MHP. In a wide-ranging conversation, we talked about the use of data as part of the day-to-day operations of an agency, and how agencies should think about their tech stack. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Paul: Darika, thanks for speaking with me today. You’re Digital Director at ENGINE MHP Can you tell us about the business, especially the areas of special competence that the agency has?
Darika: MHP + Mischief brings together more than 200 strategic communications professionals with expertise spanning areas from consumer and corporate comms to financial PR, health communications, policy and crisis. When it comes to our digital work, we excel in complex and hard-to-reach audiences.
For example, one client in the healthcare arena said, “We know cardiologists are walking around with screens with them all day – but what is our digital strategy to reach them?” And we got to work on an answer and strategy for that. Those are frequently the types of campaigns we work on but not necessarily the ones that win a lot of attention or awards in the world of digital comms.
Paul: How does MHP approach deciding what data and insights to bring in, and does the firm have a “tech stack”?
Darika: We do – and we have adopted that terminology as well. We need a tech stack to do everything from planning to campaign tracking, measurement and analysis, and developing insight and learnings. As much as our FD would probably love one tool to rule them all, modern comms needs a suite of products.
Paul: Do you find that data from your tech stack makes it easier to predict which stories the public will engage with, and how to frame stories to win engagement?
Darika: Definitely. For example, within the business, we have a media unit staffed with former national news journalists. They have an amazing gut sense of what’s going to work but now we can give them more insight via tools like NewsWhip and help them back up recommendations to clients.
Another thing we see is that there might be a legacy issue we think needs addressing before we can start a new comms campaign. The organization might already be perceived in one way, even negatively, and we can’t just launch a new narrative on top. This is particularly true on digital channels where the impact of old media articles in search engines or user-generated content like blogs and Wikipedia may not have moved on from a previous issue and could impact future media coverage.
Paul: In terms of using data to support day to day work, where have insights or data from NewsWhip or other platforms been most helpful?
Darika: During a crisis can be a stressful and time-pressured moment. To be able to say to a client, “We recommend that you respond or don’t respond”, and to be able to show them the real-time data behind that recommendation has been really, really helpful. Even just having real-time data to share with clients helps manage concerns and inform decision making
For media work and campaigning we start with our experience of the media. Then we can use NewsWhip to test our assumptions and say to the client – ‘we know the most interesting angle will be this and here’s why.’ We’ve seen these stories get the most traction online and identified the most influential journalists covering these types of stories to set up briefings.
Paul: Can you share any concrete examples?
Darika: During the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting lockdown, the crisis and risk team needed to monitor coverage around a large range of clients, sectors, and topics to see how the narrative was evolving. We used NewsWhip to be able to quickly identify the stories that we should share with clients, and it provided us with data to underpin our recommendations. The platform allowed us to see how articles performed, how many pieces were written on an outbreak within a given production facility for example, and how the stories evolved over time which gave us insights to substantiate our strategy recommendations for clients.
In other situations, NewsWhip has now formed part of two on-site “war rooms” we’ve set up on a client’s premises on the day of a possible controversial announcement. NewsWhip has helped us track the potential social media activism we had seen was part of previous related announcements. It also enabled us to triage the top ‘trending’ articles so we could see where the media narrative would focus, provide our spokespeople with regularly updating messaging, and even prioritise media requests depending on which publications were leading the debate.
Paul: Could you speak about that and how do you think agencies should think about adopting tools and technology and doing it well and getting adoption of the tools?
Darika: It’s hard. Various comms tools have different access levels for Enterprise organisations which drives me mad – “Who has our login for X product?” can be a huge barrier to adoption, a new tool can fail on the logistics alone.
In the industry there’s a lot of debate around whether digital should sit with a central team, or whether digital specialists should be embedded in each team. We think it should be a hybrid model. Although we have digital specialists centrally, we also run what we call a digital champions program. Sector specialists, early on in their career, volunteer to take on additional training and use tools on behalf of their teams – so they can work out specifically how a tool supports their area of consultancy be it public affairs, pharmaceutical, financial services or so on.
These digital champions have additional training and become the go-to person for their team to make recommendations around what tools are available and what they can use, and then the digital champions undertake work, or they send it in as a brief to the central team. And that’s working well. In fact, people have joined the business and very quickly flag “I want to be part of that program.”
Paul: There are big political and social issues dominating the news right now – coronavirus and Black Lives Matter. Can you use insights and data to help stakeholders understand those situations and to get buy-in for a response?
Darika: Yeah, definitely. Everyone lives in their own bubble so data, which should by its very nature lack bias, is important. Often, senior execs, are not using a lot of digital channel themselves. You tell them something is trending on Twitter; they’ll think it’s not important because it’s not mainstream media or “It’ll go away”. But if you can really show them, “Look at this issue in comparison to another issue which you were worried about – and this is bigger”, the data can help bridge the knowledge gap.
We recently had a conversation with a public affairs client. Their role is solely public affairs, not PR, but we wanted to recommend the importance of a complementary media strategy to help them manage their reputation around some key issues. Just being able to show them the interplay between MP’s on social media and news stories – and which news stories MPS are sharing, changes that perception. They were thinking: “I just want to reach MP’s.” But we could show them: “Yeah, but the media is reaching MP’s and influencing their opinions before you can even engage with them.”
Paul: MHP has created a great explanatory framework for unpacking the interactions between media, influencers and the public, called “The Networked Age”, built on psychological as well as digital insights. Are you applying the network age to your day to day work in MHP?
Darika: Definitely. We find it very useful for explaining what’s happening in the world to our clients and helping develop effective campaigns.
The recent story about the footballer Marcus Rashford campaigning for a policy reversal on free school meal vouchers in the summer holidays is a great example. The influence of the right messenger applying the right pressure, via the right channels, was rapidly successful.
Everyone’s aware that public affairs and communications is not just about influencing MPs direct or getting newspapers to cover your story. There’s lots of levers and ‘new rules of influence’. The Networked Age explains those new rules and helps us drive behavioural or perception change.
Paul: That’s really good – I love that framework. Thanks for joining me today, Darika.
Darika: Thank you!