December 18, 2020

Clyde Group Managing Director on how PR is evolving

GUESTS

Aubrey Quinn,

Partner,
The Clyde Group

Paul Quigley,

CEO and Co-Founder,
NewsWhip

Topics

Expanding how we think about PR and knowing how to thoughtfully incorporate data has led the Clyde Group to experience success and growth, even throughout the Covid pandemic. Embracing a new era in communications, Aubrey says Clyde Group developing its POWER Score based on precise, measurable data has led to its campaigns making a deeper impact on changing outcomes, both in public perception and behavior.

Guest

Aubrey Quinn is a partner and managing director at Clyde Group, responsible for guiding the agency through its rapid growth ever since joining as the firm’s first senior hire in 2016. She currently oversees the communications strategy for Clyde Group’s largest corporate communications and strategic communications accounts, working with clients across the healthcare, DE&I, financial services, technology, government and non-profit spaces. She is especially drawn to opportunities to guide initiatives and communications campaigns at the intersection of these industry areas, and is the lead strategist behind many of the firm’s award winning projects. You can follow Aubrey on Twitter at @aubreyquinn.

Note: This transcript has been modified for clarity and brevity.

Paul Quigley: [Starts at 1:41] Can you tell us a little bit about the Clyde Group and why it had such a remarkable year in 2020?

Aubrey Quinn: Yeah, I’m happy to. It really is a special thing to be talking about having a remarkable year in 2020 because in March and April, I think Clyde Group, like many other communications agencies and organizations, was nervous about what the year was going to look like and what it was going to bring. So it’s nice to be here in December and have the perspectives that our commitment to our values and our mission really paid off this year, especially as we’ve doubled down on client service.

So for those who don’t know, Clyde Group is a DC-based public relations and a public affairs agency. Our work is focused primarily on corporate communications, public affairs, non-profit and issue advocacy. Because we’re all a little bit of masochists crisis communications, we’re a new year firm. We’re just five years old and so we’ve had to think a lot about differentiation as a new firm in a crowded space because we’re ambitious and we want to compete with the major players. So we’ve differentiated ourselves around recommendations driven by data and insights. We’ve also positioned ourselves as both true strategic advisors as well as boots-on-the-ground tactical executioners. You can get both when you work with Clyde Group. Finally, we are hyper-focused on client service and being true partners to all of our clients. Like I said, I truly believe it’s those three elements that contributed to Clyde Group’s success this year.

Paul: If we look at the recognition that you received this year as an innovator with PRovoke, the PRNEWS 100 Agency Elite, PRNEWS Top Places to Work, can you tell us a little bit more about why all those recognitions have been coming your way?

Aubrey: Yeah. The recognition really has been a bright spot in what has, otherwise, been a very challenging year, so we’re very proud of it. It’s proud and exciting to celebrate those things along the way. These are cool milestones. Our founder wanted to build a firm that was truly the best agency to work for the best agency to work with. That’s been our vision from the beginning and it remains our vision today. We don’t do anything without thinking about what that means for our employees, but also how it will benefit all of our client partners.

You and I were talking about this a little earlier this week, Paul, but I’ve been surprised that we’re able to differentiate ourselves on being nice. We are a genuinely nice group of people. We talk about it with potential clients that when you’re in the communications trenches, you want to like the people and trust the people that you’re there with. I think that’s really, really true with Clyde Group. But also we’ve made some early and big investments in data products and services and they just allow us to be more strategic.

Paul: Let’s drill in on that because that’s very linked with why you’ve been recognized as an innovator and feels like a real engine underneath the business. Can you tell us a bit about how you think about data and tools and why you think Clyde Group is doing that a bit differently?

Aubrey: Yeah, for sure. So everyone on this call knows that the industry is changing so quickly. We communicate so differently than we did even two decades ago when I started my career. I am obsessed with data and metrics and part of that might be because I come from the era of literally having to manually track and cut clips and newspapers and dub TV clips onto VHS tapes. So my business partner knows that I would be much happier in a dark corner with raw data tables or a spreadsheet than almost anywhere else. I truly think it’s because there’s so much information at our fingertips and I just simply did not have access to it when I started my career. So much of communications is putting together a puzzle, right? We have all these different challenges or, “How are we going to reach a new audience? How do we communicate this new product?” Data gives us access to more pieces of the puzzle. It lets us see the big picture faster and I’m all about getting to the answers and solving the puzzles quicker and faster if we can.

Paul: As, I suppose, a company that’s focused on providing these kinds of insights and this kind of data, we find it’s so invigorating when people put it to use and also frustrating when people don’t. What do you think is the difference? Why do you think Clyde Group and you personally have the aptitude or disposition to put data to work in your pitches and your price as measured across your work?

Aubrey: Yeah. Again, I think part of it is that I didn’t have it for so long, and I know what it’s like even to try to create clipping reports for clients using Google. It’s nice that it’s there, but it takes longer. It’s not as thorough. It’s not as complete and comprehensive. I’d rather have the information and because Clyde Group is so new, we’ve built this into our foundation. It’s almost like a part of our culture. We rely on this data early when we’re talking to prospective clients, when we’re delivering things to clients. One thing that I think a lot of communicators enjoy about their career and their chosen profession is that no two [inaudible 00:06:54] but there are some consistencies across the days. One of them, at Clyde Group at least, is the use of data and it’s looking at information available to us through products like NewsWhip Spike, shameless plug for you, Paul.

Aubrey: But that was one of the first products that Clyde Group brought on and we don’t go into any new business conversation without first looking at the data available across NewsWhip Spike and the other suite of services that we use. We share those insights with our clients and we also use it to form our strategic recommendations. I can’t imagine going into new business conversations blind. I think it always really impresses new clients that we go to that level of the research, that we’ve analyzed what people are saying about them, what their reactions are, what engagement looks like on social. Clyde Group actually has a really interesting relationship with Ipsos, which is one of the big global research powerhouses. We often field proprietary research for prospective clients and clients and I think that immediately sets the tone that Clyde Group takes their work and their industry as seriously as they do.

Paul: Have you seen on the clients side, it’s very interesting and it shows if you’re a firm that’s willing to really engage with data and real insights about the market instead of vanity metrics and if clients on the other side of the table, if that’s what they want to see, that’s going to explain quite a lot of the success that you’ve had and why you’ve taken that strategy. Do you think there’s been a change client-side? There’s more attention being paid to, “Is this agency going to give me some vanity metrics supporting back?” Or are they engaged with reality? Has there been a change?

Aubrey: Yeah. I think it still depends on the organization, but I think it’s critical that communicators have a seat at the table as organizations are making decisions. But increasingly, the table is where we’re talking about results and outcomes and that’s measured by data. We get that for sales, we get it for marketing. For too long, PR has had to use really wooly metrics like impressions or ad value equivalency and with the acceleration of digital marketing and adopting that into communication strategies, we now often have instantaneous results and insights. If other departments’ units are bringing that to the table, I think there is an expectation and a demand on public relations and communicators to do the same.

I love insights because it’s such a broad term and it means so many things. So research ahead of time lets us understand opinions. It lets us test the effectiveness of messaging. Internal communications can be measured now by video views, social engagement, town hall participation, so I think it’s really important that we as communicators look at what problem are we trying to solve. What is the outcome? Then what are all those measurable KPIs we can build in along the way? Because it makes us seem like we are taking our work as seriously as other departments and now there are more opportunities to share insights. I don’t think we have to use such nebulous metrics anymore.

Paul: They’re very big numbers, so they’re hard things for people to turn away from.

Aubrey: How many times, Paul, in my career have I pulled together unique monthly visitor metrics or impressions and the numbers are in the billions on an earned media story because Yahoo! ran it? We know that billions of people did not read this one article on Yahoo! and I think we have to hold ourselves to a higher standard.

Paul: I was recently on the judging panel of some PR industry awards and I think about 80% of the entries would have used impressions and always in the hundreds of millions, often in the billions. Then when I Googled the event, the thing that is being talked about and I get a Business Wire top link, a PR press release distribution, Yahoo! Finance picks it up because a robot published it, and then something else sometimes, but then you question where those billions came from.

Aubrey: Yes, that is exactly right. I think when we do that, we, the “general we”, as communicators do that we sit down with the marketing experts, you have real tangible metrics and we come in with our fluffy hundreds of millions, 2 billion impressions, we damage our own credibility. We are better than that and there are so many tools and resources at our disposal to talk about actual impact. That’s what’s really exciting about our profession is we can make actual impact. So I never want to damage our credibility by using fluff, using wooly numbers.

Paul: There’s no doubt that communications might be entering into an era where it’s going to be so critical because reputations that we used to be able to build through, broadcast channels now have to be maintained in a world where the public are talking back and the public are very critical and things can come from anywhere. So there’s a huge transition, I think, of power coming, but it’s very hard to measure how perception is of the brand that you’re defending today and to bring those back to metrics. I was heartened by seeing some actuals in there. It can be hard to put actuals when you’re in the earned space, but increasingly used, at least, of number of videos viewed, which can be a hard metric, say, for something uploaded to Facebook or a number of engagements, things like that. But let’s come back to my little theory there. Do you think we are entering that golden era in communications where a more complex media ecosystem means more demand for the kinds of skills that communicators have?

Aubrey: Yes. Listen, the world is changing so quickly, so rapidly. I was thinking about Facebook. We couldn’t even get on it, access it without an edu account until 2006. It didn’t really pick up popularity-wise until a decade ago and now you look at the impact it has. Twitter didn’t exist until 2006 and really didn’t engage and connect until 2009. Instagram is later. TikTok has changed the way we communicate, how children are communicating, new or younger generations and how brands are interacting with them. I think for communicators to evolve as the world continues to evolve is to expand how we think about what we do.

I sit down in too many conversations when people to hear PR, hear public relations and make that immediate jump to media relations. That’s how it works, where the world, the ecosystem of communications, is massive and if we let it, it can touch so many things. You mentioned video and I think it’s increasingly important to think about how we are using video both internally with our own internal communications, as well as externally, whether that’s on social media or through sponsored content or if we placed an earned media story through broadcast, how we push that out and how we amplify it. As we have more digital facing tools, and it’s not just media relations, we have to build in the metric component.

If we are looking ahead of time and setting goals that are hard metrics and measurable metrics and know that’s a part of the program, it helps for judges, right? For the PR awards, you can look and see actual results. More importantly, if you’re internal, you can present to a board of directors. You can present to a C-suite on the results of actual campaigns and you can do it through change in sentiment. You can do it through video views. You can do it through pre- and post- surveys. There are so many tools. It’s not just click-through rate. It’s not just impressions. Being thoughtful about how we incorporate data, I believe, truly believe, it just makes us a stronger communicator.

Paul: As an aside, we’re used a fair bit in UK government agencies and there was one campaign where they were getting people to replace the batteries in smoke detectors. The means of assessing success was sales of 9-volt batteries, the little square ones, because it’s one of the most common uses. They reckoned that if they could achieve a sales bump in those, they could take a pretty accurate guess that a lot of that would be attributed to the smoke detector, change your battery kind of thing.

Aubrey: I love that. I love that. I think it’s so important to think creatively about what does actual success look like, especially if you’re asking people to take an action, right? So if you can, at the end, track, “We were able to shift behaviors,” that’s really powerful stuff, right? It’s a really, really cool industry to be in. I’m too excited. I get so excited to have that ability and I hope that everyone sees it’s bigger than clicks, impressions. It’s buying 9-volt batteries.

Paul: It’s being creative about how you measure. That brings me to the something that you’ve created as well at Clyde Group. I think getting into the measurement business, you’re always approximating, trying to find the most accurate way of measuring impact. You’ve created something that seems, to me, it has a lot of the complex ingredients that you’d really care about called the POWER Score. So can you tell us a little bit about impact and the POWER Score and how you use that for earned media?

Aubrey: Yes. Now, Paul, it’s really important that my children not be listening because I love all three of them dearly, but the POWER Score might be my favorite thing I’ve ever given birth to. It’s a true labor of love and it was developed from my own frustration with earned media. So as I was saying, when I started my career a lifetime ago, like other interns and assistant account executives, I was responsible for media monitoring. I was literally cutting clips, measuring inches, putting together clip books, using fax machines.

Even now, 20 years later, we are offering incredibly vague metrics like impressions and unique monthly views, which as we’ve talked about, aren’t really substantial. It certainly doesn’t get to, “Was this a good story? So that Yahoo! placement, was it a good story? Was it the right story?” So for Clyde Group’s media relations clients, yes, we still share traditional metrics like hard number of earned media placements, X placements this year is X percent more than last year. But we’ve also created our proprietary system called the POWER Score. POWER’s an acronym for five elements of a successful story and it’s weighted on a scale of one to 10. So if a story reaches a nine or a 10 out of 10, we know it was a great story. We know it was a great story because we’re measuring pull through of messaging. We’re measuring it where it was placed.

Was it a priority outlet for that client? Was an expert quoted where our messages hit? This is out of a score of 10 and like I said, if it’s a nine or a 10, it was a great story. It was the right story. So then we’ll often recommend to clients to put paid digital amplification behind it to make sure even more viewers see it. So then we’re laying on, “Here was a hit. Here was its POWER Score.” Now we also have digital metrics like click-through rates and other things provided whether we promote it over LinkedIn or Twitter or even through an Outbrain campaign.

My favorite part of it is that we look at each of the elements, P-O-W-E-R, individually and so we can see across the board from a diagnostic perspective, if we’re having a problem with our subject matter experts being quoted or if our messaging isn’t landing and so then we can refine our stories. So for Clyde Group, for our media relations accounts, we’ll have a set hit target. We want to get X number of stories or this percentage increase from last year, but we also set really ambitious POWER Score goals because quality matters just as much as quantity.

If we got a clip in the New York Times, but we were the last client or organization mentioned in the bottom of that story and there were no quotes and no message pull through and it was just a mention. Impressions give you full credit and the POWER Score lets us know we need to do something differently. Great, if we’re in the New York Times, but our quotes have to be stronger. Our message has to be stronger. The person delivering the message has to be better, so the next time the POWER Score goes up.

Paul: It sounds like the future of how we measure. It’s really compelling and there’s a lot of ingredients. Just to drill into a couple of ingredients, and parents generally don’t mind talking about their children a little bit, I hope we can drill in. Like you said, it’s the right outlet. Do you think the right outlet, then, depends on the audience? It isn’t, “We got this in the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times so everyone should be happy.” Instead, sometimes, and this is something we find interesting because often we see from people that are using NewsWhip, they discover influential outlets with audiences they didn’t know about and they have ammunition to say, “You should care more about is ZDNet or something rather than the New York Times with this audience.” So your POWER Score is dependent on the audience that you want to reach, is it?

Aubrey: Absolutely, and the client that we’re working with. So we have two very different financial institutions that we work with. One is military-facing and so outlets that often aren’t on organizations’ top-tier lists like Military Times, military.com is a top-tier outlet for them. So if we get a placement there, we measure that differently than if we get something in the Wall Street Journal. They aren’t as concerned about those high-end economic reports because it doesn’t really face their audience, who their main day-to-day consumers are.

Another financial outlet we work with is heavily invested in the student loan space. They’re targeting a much younger audience and they’re having a lot different conversations. So something like a BuzzFeed, might be more Scary Mommy even when they’re looking at parenting, is much more important when you’re talking about preparing and saving for college and higher education. So we have completely different priority outlet lists for two very different financial institutions that we work with. I think that’s really important when you’re setting metrics or starting campaigns for clients is understanding who are we trying to reach. What behaviors are we trying to influence? Those key stakeholders and target audiences are usually very different. The POWER Score accounts for that, for sure.

Paul: That’s great. So it’s always subjective to the goal of it’s what we’re trying to do and not some objective, “Hey, we got into the Hall of Fame publisher,” but much more linked to, “We achieved objectives here and we changed perceptions.”

Aubrey: Yeah. It used to be, when I started my career, that the end goal was Oprah. I think we can all agree that if she was still on air, she would be a 10 out of 10, 10 out of 10 times. But since she is not, I don’t know that we have one outlet that is consistent across all of our clients in terms of top tier, just because all our clients are so different.

Paul: Yep. Well, coming back up to, I suppose, the information landscape we’re operating in these days, it’s transformed in the last decade. You’ve really paid attention to performance and metrics. Do you think there’s any other big trends when you look at the macro changes in news, news economics that people in communications really need to pay attention to?

Aubrey: Yes. I fear that this is where our conversation takes a dark turn, so I apologize in advance. Honestly, the one thing that I’m watching the closest and I continue to worry about and wonder how we’re going to address it as communicators is the attack on the credibility of the news and the continued mistrust on our journalists and our government watchdog. It’s a very important part of, certainly, the American social experiment. It makes me nervous to see the credibility of news sources and very strong and important institutions being challenged and threatened. It’s also been heartbreaking watching newsrooms close from an economic perspective and this was pre-COVID, but it’s been accelerated since COVID, but nearly 2000 local newsrooms across the United States closing since 2004, which has created just these dramatic news deserts across the country.

The unfortunate outcome of that is that we have created and replaced these vacuums with echo chambers and we surround ourselves with people, either online through our social channels or our neighbors that we choose to build relationships with, who, they think the same as us. They’re sharing stories that reinforce our beliefs, our misconceptions and I think it’s leading us to a pretty dangerous place. So it’s more important than ever, I feel, to support media, subscribe to your newspaper, pay the subscription fee. We have to not get lazy and greedy in how we’re consuming the news.

Paul: Yep. Our common reality depends on it and, certainly, to the extent communications happens through earned and happens through those channels. The integrity of those channels really matters, right? If everything collapses into Breitbart versus The Huffington Post where can you speak authoritatively or what channels do you want to work and then you’re just speaking maybe to one tribe or another, right?

Aubrey: Oh, Paul, it’s so scary. It really is so scary. I hope people are smart enough to see that it is happening and we can do something about it sooner than later, not unlike climate change. Let’s acknowledge it. Let’s fix it. Let’s not put it off.

Paul: We’re very into it. I think it’s a really hard problem to describe because everyone’s pointing at the other guy and quoting them misinformation right now. So we need to find ways of standing back and saying, “Well, what’s our way of knowing what’s true here is and how do we build trust when we have different values?”

Aubrey: It’s really scary to see it extend beyond news media, which, let’s not pretend like there isn’t a history there of sensationalism and yellow journalism. That is part of the reality in our history, but now we are seeing that distress extend into other important factual-based industries like medicine and science and research. When we are questioning some of those things, especially in the midst of a global pandemic, I don’t think it bodes brightly, unfortunately.

Paul: So it’s on that gloomy note, we’re running out of time. You now have an opportunity to potentially pick up the mood, Aubrey, because I’m going to ask you about your predictions, if any for the 2020s. Danielle has come through with a couple of questions as well. Let’s see if there may be time to get to at least one of those two. But tell me, is there any good news coming?

Aubrey: Well, the changes in recent history are happening at a breathtaking pace, so please don’t call me in 10 years and hold me to any of these. The bad news is, I do think we’re going to see newsrooms to continue to close, which is going to force a more drastic shift to pay-to-play content and editorial, so just communicators prepare for that and budget accordingly. I think what’s going to be really interesting to watch is not just videos and podcasts, but the advancement of AR and VR as it becomes more mainstream. I keep encouraging my clients to look at Esports and video games as a place to communicate as a way to engage with a younger generation.

That might be because I’m a mother of two teenage boys, but I am watching the trend happen in real time and that entire industry grow. So I’d continue to look at more creative ways to communicate and those new platforms like AR, VR, Esports and there’s going to be a continued adoption of social. Kids are going to continue to migrate to new social platforms to get away from their parents. Their parents will follow them. The kids will migrate again. So heaven help us all as we stay in the cycle and need to download new apps.

Paul: I’m reading [The Invention of News: How the World Came to Know About Itself]. It’s a really interesting history of news from the 1400s through the 1800s and the concept of news. We had the stuff that the royalty paid top dollar for, a lot of money. Then we had this free stuff that came up, and there were a lot of similar threats and interesting parallels. It’s just it’s happening every five years now.

Aubrey: Yes, it’s so fast.

Paul: So one question that Danielle put through from audience is, “Can you use data or does data matter when you’re thinking about a crisis before it happens or before a crisis happened? Can it play any role then?”

Aubrey: Yes. So we are big believers in crisis playbooks, trying to anticipate what’s going to happen, building up your brand, reputation, loyalty before the crisis hits, knowing who you are before the crisis hits. I think we saw that really come into play this year. You could tell which brands knew who they were ahead of a pandemic, ahead of racial injustice protest and reactions. So I think in terms of gathering that data, understanding brand perception, knowing where your clients, your customers would want you to be, is all really important, broadly. But from a crisis perspective, you can really lean into that.

Then I’ve been especially thrilled with, again, Paul, plug for you, the NewsWhip Spike tools, especially around crisis because for too long, we were relying on our gut instincts on whether we respond, don’t respond, just monitor a story. Now, thanks to the tools that we have and the resources we’re able to access, we can see how it’s trending online. Even in periphery issue areas or competitors that you may have your eye on, watching how they respond to crisis lets you know and trains you how quickly you should engage, when you should engage. This is information that we just didn’t have before. It was more anecdotal and now we have really good data to help drive those decisions.

Paul: That’s right. I think that’s more like a little bit of change we’re trying to drive. It is about just giving those foundations for decisions and helping people make those decisions with some footing and better understanding of what’s going on outside underneath their feet. Aubrey, we’re at top of the half hour already. Thank you so much for joining us. Shout out to Denise for bringing us together.

Aubrey: Yes. Thank you, Denise.

Paul: I will see you again soon, I hope. I think with the NewsWhip Pulse, we’re going to be back in January. We’re going to have a very interesting early January session on the wonderful topic of misinformation. So please look out on social media channels and we’ll be telling you more about that, Aubrey, thank you so much.

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