Building the bridge between infrastructure and data-driven media intelligence: Zach Silber and Kivvit
Infrastructure is a pillar of today’s society but it is also a major topic at the center of policy and public debate. In this session, we will hear from the Chief Innovation Officer at Kivvit, Zach Silber, who built an award-winning insights team advising clients spanning the energy, utilities, natural resources, and transportation sectors. Zach joins NewsWhip’s President and Chief Revenue Officer, Brett Lofgren, to discuss anticipating the needs of clients in infrastructure, including news coverage and social conversation trends in this space.
A pioneer in the strategic communications field, Zach Silber works across Kivvit’s offices to lead the firm’s Insights and Innovation practice — an award-winning team of technologists and data strategists charged with analyzing news, social media, advertising, and audience trends and integrating cutting-edge data tools and technologies throughout Kivvit’s work.
- Agency of the future | Jump to text
- Partnerships with technology | Jump to text
- Navigating the politics of infrastructure | Jump to text
- Geopolitical risk identification framework | Jump to text
- Partisan news: Geopolitical risk is in everything | Jump to text
- Understanding the audience | Jump to text
- Social listening tools | Jump to text
- News is the headline | Jump to text
- Real-time versus longer term data | Jump to text
- Infrastructure segments from data centers to cannabis | Jump to text
- Zach’s favorite examples of infrastructure projects | Jump to text
- Infrastructure in 5 years from now | Jump to text
- Infrastructure in election platforms | Jump to text
Brett Lofgren: [Starts at 1:45] Let’s get started and kick things off. And Zach, I think it’d be good to learn more about yourself, your role, the insights team at Kivvit, as well as getting a sense really of what his concept of the agency of the future means for you and for Kivvit.
Zach Silber: Yeah, absolutely. I think you read a lot about the agency of the future, but what does it really mean? I think in our mind, our take on it is that it’s really a constant aspiration. You don’t ever just finish the work, cross the finish line and you can say, okay, we’ve arrived in the future. It doesn’t work that way. That would make it too easy. The agency of the future really has to be a constant iterative cycle of innovation. And as a company, what we’ve done at Kivvit is we’ve done a couple of things really important. And the most important thing is the creation of an insights and analytics team that I lead. We’re really committed at Kivvit to adopting the most innovative technologies, data and analytics, and integrating them into our work.
So, this team that we’ve created and that I oversee, we really sit at the intersection of the quantitative data that comes from tools like NewsWhip and the qualitative expertise of the strategists across our different client teams. Our main focus is how do we give a data-driven advantage to every engagement, every situation that we’re in. And to be the agency of the future, we have to be doing that every day, all day, every day, and also making sure that we’re constantly marrying the art and the science, as I said. What the client teams, the strategists, the expertise about client’s situations with the quantitative perspective that we can obtain through different tools and technologies, NewsWhip among them.
Brett: So, I guess is that, when we chatted before, I mean, that’s really the definition of a data-driven public affairs agency, correct?
Zach: Yep. You have to be able to prioritize starting every strategy with insights and analytics. It really has to be at the center of what you do. And it’s almost ironic to talk about agency of the future. I almost viewed the technology as the easier part, because there’s so many great different companies that are available to you and different tools on the market. Sure. It’s challenging to really narrow down and figure out, okay, where am I going to invest my resources? But the technology is relatively there. To make data actionable. That’s really the hard part. The hard part is building a culture that embraces technology that gets people at all different levels and all different corners of the company, excited about how to embrace insights to enhance their work.
And having the operational infrastructure to bring it together. As I mentioned, having our Kivvit insights and analytics team, we sit at the center of the quantitative and the qualitative. That’s a critical component of how we operationalize data and our clients benefit as a result. And to have data and analytics at the center of everything we do, that’s really how we’ve had to structure it. The technology, the operations and the culture that makes it all run.
Brett: So, when you have data and analytics is the central foundation, what do you look for with regards to tools and partners to bring in to extend those capabilities? What are the things that are important to you, important to the culture at Kivvit?
Zach: Yeah. Like an investor, you have to have a thesis that guides where you’re going to direct your resources. It takes money, obviously, but time and energy to really keep abreast at everything that’s going on in the market. It feels like every day there’s some new company cold calling me, emailing me saying, oh, this is a flashy mouse trap that you can buy. And it’s not about just going after all of those, you really have to have a systematic view of what you’re trying to accomplish with data and analytics. For us at Kivvit, We really take what I would call an audience first approach. We’re constantly trying to understand different audiences that are engaging and then beyond just what a technology can do for us. I’ve talked about sort of the intangibles, the qualitative side of this, and it applies to technology companies.
And I would say you get on the other end of our Kivvit partnership and me being on this webinar, it’s pretty indicative of what we look for when we bring on a new tool or technology. It’s about finding partners at the end of the day. The technology is only one part of that equation, but being able to work with people like you and Paul and Jonathan Barnes and other, and Ben and others on the NewsWhip team, this is this constant conversation we’re always having where we’re sharing feedback and ideas. I was thinking when we were first talking about brainstorming, what is now the crisis management feature on Spike. It’s an idea. It’s something that’s pushing the industry forward and then boom, you went out and created it. That’s the relationship that we look for and yes, there’s technology is part of it, but there’s a much more qualitative part of it that defines what we look for in a partner. Fortunately, we have NewsWhip which really emulates the standard.
Brett: I appreciate you saying that. And I’m sure the team is very happy right now back in Dublin. But I think what I’d like to dig in a little bit more on Kivvit is, I mean, you guys have established yourselves as a very successful public affairs firm and given today’s conversation around infrastructure, a lot of your core segments that you’re supporting, energy, transportation, natural resources, utilities. I mean, there’s a lot of politics around this infrastructure bill. And at the end of the day, there’s going to be shovels in the ground and these projects are going to impact the American people. They’re going to feel it. They’re going to see it. They’re going to hear it every day. And there’s an interesting approach in there. So, how do you, as a firm, use data and analytics to support the development of these projects?
Zach: Yeah, that’s exactly right. I mean, infrastructure is like the most local thing and the most global thing that you can imagine all at the same time. It’s local, because it literally becomes part of the world around you. It changes how people move and what people see and feel and it lasts decades. So, it’s essentially permanent. But it’s also a window into global issues. We were looking at just a few weeks ago about the trajectory of the Keystone Pipeline over the lifespan of when that project was proposed before it was just canceled. And you had farmers in Nebraska opposing the pipeline because it affected their grazing lands. It bisected different farms and lands, but more broadly Keystone also represented an international issue. And it encapsulated in this global discussion about who’s really benefiting from the movement of oil, through a country, to a port where it gets exported.
And that’s sort of in a nutshell the challenge of infrastructure, but to use data and analytics, the complexity of infrastructure becomes an opportunity.
Working with my colleagues on the insights team at Kivvit and around our firm. People like my colleague, Jonathan Scharff, who’s one of the smartest people I know and real infrastructure policy expert. We’ve really developed and spearheaded what we’ll call a geopolitical risk identification framework. And it means thinking broadly about all the different facets of infrastructure and all the different intersects and audiences that infrastructure will ultimately impact. And you have to think about the different components of that. So, whether it’s the political, the regulatory, the legal, the community, the media aspect, you have to be thinking about where there’s tools and technology and analytics that line up with each of those segments so that we can really have a comprehensive view of the situation around a particular project.
What I would just point out is I just named five different arenas that you have to be operating in, in order to successfully orient a project for success. Now that’s just broad framework. If you think about a project that big bisect, just a series of town, or go between two counties or two states, or in the case of Keystone two countries, you’re talking about different planning boards, different county departments, state regulators, federal agencies. There are so many different audiences you have to be making your case to before you even get outside and think that, wow, I have to talk to different public constituencies as well. So, being able to use insights and analytics, it really gives you the ability to think broadly, but also narrow down into the specific segments that you’re engaging with. And that’s really that meticulousness is the key that makes it all run. You have to really connect the data to the real life on the ground aspects of what a project means for people.
Brett: Yeah, you mentioned media and media coverage. And I think with something like the infrastructure bill, there’s a lot of partisan coverage that’s out there, a tremendous amount, and there’s going to be even more interesting coverage when these projects finally get built. Then you layer in misinformation. And the impact misinformation is having today is going to continue to have on all the different initiatives that layer up into the bill. How do you monitor that? How do you manage that?
Zach: Yeah, it’s a great question. I think you have to come with the expectation that there’s geopolitical risks really embedded into everything. I mean, we saw this around the colonial pipeline, cyber breach. If you looked at the top influencers talking about that, it wasn’t reporters or cyber security experts, or even energy experts, you were looking at Mike Pompeo and Kevin McCarthy, really trying to frame the entire situation as Biden failing on American energy independence. And that’s what got the most traction. And it was the right wing outlets that you would expect that we’re amplifying that type of message. But using NewsWhip, we saw in our data that that was really what the conversation was about. It wasn’t about the intricacies necessarily of how do we keep infrastructure secure in the cyber age, it was the politicization of the issue.
And that’s the same thing that we’re seeing around the bill itself. How we’re going to fund it, what it’s going to mean, what the definition of infrastructure is. There’s political aspects to all of this discussion.
But if we go back to this idea that all the projects are all local at the same time, well, we need to understand and I think people who are in this space know, is that a project isn’t just like a one page fact sheet. A project is hundreds, if not thousands of pages in permitting, environmental studies before you can even get the go ahead to put a shovel in the ground. Meanwhile, when you have a developer doing the extensive work and research of a thousand pages of a permit application, an opponent and activist or someone who just doesn’t totally understand it because they didn’t read 500 pages of text, they only need 280 characters of a Tweet to generate a 500 word newspaper article.
And you suddenly are on this slippery slope where you’re playing defense and trying to contain a situation. Now, you could never expect everyone’s going to read that permit application, just understand intuitively and be like, yes, I agree. I understand why this project’s happening. But the truth is what gets lost is that this is infrastructure. This is not going out to a camping site where you’re going to pitch a tent, pack it up when you’re done, we’re talking about highly engineered permanent structures. So, you can’t just plop down a hydroelectric plant or a data center just everywhere. There’s very specific conditions of why these projects are located where they are. So, in order to make sure that there’s awareness and acceptance of what the rationale behind your project, you really have to do two things. You have to be, one, proactive in distilling down your story.
Why is this project needed? Who is it going to benefit? Why is it safe? And you need to, two, define that story and get people educated about it. Because if you put a 500 page permit application down cold and just expect people to figure it out on their own, that’s where the misinformation will begin to emanate from. You need to really establish the set of facts rooted in research engineering and science, which infrastructure is, you need to use that to your advantage. And again, distill, define and educate, to be able to make sure that you’re operating and developing a project in a favorable environment, because it’s not going to happen on its own.
So, you have to really take that into your hands and go and do it. And I would just end my answer there by saying that we talk a lot in the analytics space about listening. Usually we’re talking about social listening. Well, listening as a concept is imperative at every stage of a project’s lifespan. And also listening is imperative in all the different arenas and facets of a project that I mentioned. You have to be listening to what the community is saying, what stakeholders are saying, what the media is saying, because you’re going to need to understand and identify those geopolitical risks as fast as possible so that you can make sure that you’re getting your message out and addressing those concerns.
Brett: So, with the listening aspect and managing public perception, stakeholder perception, I mean, there’s a lot of platforms and outlets for people to consume news, to be able to share commentary. What are some of the platforms and I guess you could say tools that you use to really understand what is resonating with the public? Because I think that’s going to be super, super important.
Zach: Yeah. And like anything. And I think we’ve learned this today. There’s not just one tool. There’s not just one arena you play in, there’s not just one platform you can engage on. You have to have a comprehensive strategy and approach. Take, for example, Twitter, Twitter is essential because that’s where elected officials are. That’s where their staffs are. That’s where political candidates are and that’s where media are. So, there’s a strategy for Twitter to really take the echo chamber of stakeholders and be able to monitor and manage there. We work with you, NewsWhip, to be able to understand how different news articles spread through Twitter. We use a social listening tool to be able to identify that as well, and to understand the audiences that are engaging on Twitter, but that’s just one lane.
Facebook is where advocacy takes place. That’s where everyday people, the sort of the more rank and file residents of a community are going to be most likely to find out about a project and sign up to take an action about it. If Twitter is a quarter of Americans, Facebook’s going to be 80% of Americans. So, you need a strategy for Facebook that’s much more oriented towards communicating with the public. And now we will talk about social media.
Factor in news coverage, news articles. And now we’re in the zone of talking about how we use NewsWhip. And what’s interesting is based on our data, I view news in this context of infrastructure as really like the gas that gets poured on a fire. The news is the headline that feeds into social media platforms and gets shared rapidly. And it’s off of that, that you see the comments, the shares, the reactions, the tags, the actions. So, news, you have to be on the cusp of what news is doing because it’s going to fuel those other channels. It’s going to all bleed into each other.
We have data from looking at both NewsWhip, where you can see what gets shared, as well as different first party data insights of what gets read. And when you compare the two, what we’ve often found is that there’s an inverse relationship. The more a headline gets shared, the less it gets read. So, we have to start with an assumption that if those different stakeholders are on Twitter, if the public is on Facebook, they’re all just reading headlines for the most part. So, from an earned media perspective, a strategic communications perspective, like what our teams or Kivvit might do, if we’re getting a quote from a third party validator or for our client in a news story, if it’s not the headline or say the first paragraph, we need to operate with the assumption that people may not be reading it, because it’s getting shared and shared and shared, and it’s really the headline that’s getting taken away.
So, that, again, goes back to the concept I talked about earlier. It’s about how do we tell our own story, define the rationale for the project, create a supportive environment and not let anyone else do that for you, even if it’s news coverage. Because people are only going to see that headline. And that becomes the basis of people’s interpretations and view of what a project is or is not.
Brett: So, there’s the importance of the real-time data. Being able to capture that, see how things are migrating through the various channels. That’s important to understand the external dynamics for infrastructure, but then these projects could take 20 years. So, it’s really a question of how do you marry the real-time element with any of the longer term data to inform your strategies?
Zach: That’s a great point. I mean, if you’re only playing the short-term strategy, you’re missing the full picture. As you can see today, or feed is like puzzle pieces. Puzzle pieces on arenas, puzzle pieces on jurisdictions, puzzle pieces in the short-term versus the long-term. And I think the really critical point about where we are now in culture and in politics around infrastructure, that it really is about that long-term view. We are seeing today, amidst the revisiting of everything that our system has created and the inequity that it creates, infrastructure is a big part of that. When I was 15 years old, I read The Power Broker for the first time. I’ve read it three times since. This is the Robert A. Caro book about Robert Moses who built New York. And you could see, and you’re seeing this cited more and more in the news today, about the inequity and the systemic racism built into infrastructure projects.
How do we learn from those mistakes and how do we create projects going forward that really address this issue of environmental justice for people that were creating fairness through infrastructure? I think what we’re seeing now, as part of president Biden’s approach to infrastructure is a broader definition of what infrastructure truly means that takes into account those long-term ramifications of what it really creates. There was a great quote. President Biden, him talking about his plan and his broad definition of infrastructure, where he said, “200 years ago trains weren’t traditional infrastructure until America made a choice to lay down tracks across the country.” So, when you think about the first steps of new infrastructure, things that don’t exist necessarily in mainstream society today as we’re getting electric charging stations, for example, as people talk about Bitcoin mining. That’s something that’s further down the road.
We need to be taking the long view about what all of this means, because when we talk about infrastructure, as we were saying earlier, and as you just mentioned, it may take 20 years to build and get permitted, but it’s going to be around for a 100 years. We’re talking about generational impact as a result. So, if you’re coming into a project, not taking into account the consequences of what you’re doing and how it’s going to impact environmental justice, it’s also just as risky not to be coming into a project and thinking retroactively, because of the systemic issues that have come out of infrastructure from our past, you need to know what the consequences of that were. There’s oftentimes we come into a project and we’re trying to understand what happened in that community that county 70 years ago.
It might be a real estate project that’s going to be built today where they want to demolish something that means something to a whole lot of people, because it may not be a landmark, but it might be historic and meaningful to people. It might be that you come into a community and there might’ve been some type of accident or spill or something 50 years ago, but it’s still on the minds of the people who matter, who elect the elected officials that are going to have a say over whether this project moves forward. So, coming into an infrastructure scenario, you need to be thinking about the long-term ramifications of what you’re doing, but also understand the consequences of what’s been done before. And this is fascinating space and why I’m obsessed with it as a passion, is because you have to piece these puzzle pieces together to get that full view. It’s critical.
Brett: Yeah. I think the average person when you think about infrastructure, there’s a lot of sectors that we don’t consider or aren’t really informed about. I think that will be an interesting question is maybe, could you talk about really some of the segments that have a big public affairs impact, but maybe don’t get the mainstream coverage and the headlines? I’d be curious to see what your take is on what some of those segments are.
Zach: Yeah. And I would say they don’t make the headlines maybe on a regular basis, but I think whatever infrastructure segment you are in, you have to have the expectation that you have the ability to go viral. You can just happen. And the less people know about your segment, it used to be a strength. You can sort of keep your head down, do the work and the project done. No more, because if there’s not awareness, acceptance, support for what you’re doing, that again, as I mentioned earlier, that’s your greatest risk going into a situation. I think about, to take a specific example. I think a lot about data centers. There’s parts of Virginia, where data center comprise of a third of the country’s internet traffic going through one county in Virginia. But a data center can be a very controversial issue.
Even though for the most part, this is a building that doesn’t admit anything visible. It might be noisy. It might be dressed up to look like an office building. It might be dressed up like a barn I’ve seen. I’ve actually read a whole magazine about the architecture of data centers and the external way that you sort of get it to blend in with the community. But a data center has a lot of different pressure points for people. It gets people riled up about the threat of security. This is critical high value infrastructure in your town. There’s health concerns. People don’t understand what are all these servers emitting that I can’t see. It may not be a smokestack, but is there radiation I need to be concerned with. What’s the health impact? And then there’s environmental concerns. This is an energy intensive technology.
What can this mean for the future of sustainable clean energy future? These are the issues that come up around data centers, which in the comparison to other types of industries, particularly around manufacturing, where there’s much more of a visible impact. This is something that would seem, on the face of it, benign, until you start digging into it. And what might go into a permit application, for example. This is where you have an industry that may not be forefront every day, but has a huge public affairs consequence that needs to be evaluated through our geopolitical risk framework.
I would just add a segment that’s related to data centers that kind of gets talked about, especially now, as you see a lot of states moving towards cannabis legalization is how do you create a supply chain within your state or to support cannabis. And cannabis grow houses, the cultivation stages. This is a very similar profile as data centers. You may not see anything being emitted, but it takes a lot of energy. There’s people that are concerned about the security, the health, the environmental consequences of that. And it’s something that is essential infrastructure in the sense that you have these States setting up new legalized cannabis markets, it’s prohibited at the federal level. So, you can’t move it across state lines. So, whether you’re in North Dakota or New Jersey, you’re going to need to have a cannabis supply chain and that’s infrastructure. And it’s going to have a very similar profile, as I mentioned, to data centers where it may be below the surface, but it can rile up the same concerns of people and that ultimately needs to be addressed to successfully develop and operate.
Brett: Yeah, I didn’t think of the comparisons from the cannabis distribution outlets to the data centers. It’s super interesting.
And I think before we go to the audience for some questions, clearly you’re very passionate about infrastructure. And I feel that, I see that coming off this interview, which I’m really enjoying. Tell me a bit about that. I mean, you’re passionate about infrastructure. We talked about you going to the national parks and looking at infrastructure on your ways there. What started it? And can you give us some examples?
Zach: I wish I could tell you what really started it, but I can tell you it’s in my blood. I am an infrastructure geek true and true. And I am a proud of that. Most people go on vacation, they look to how do they get to the beach, I’m trying to seek out infrastructure. I have dragged family and friends alike to see things like a landfill in Southern Ohio, a coal mine in North Dakota, an underground salt mine in Kansas, a feedlot in Nebraska, an oil refinery in New Jersey. And perhaps a few years ago, I really met my match with infrastructure that I got to work on as part of my work at Kivvit. And it was for the Erie canal bicentennial.
Talk about infrastructure with a story. It faced opposition back in the early 1800s. I don’t think our social listening monitors actually go back that far, but I’m sure you look at any infrastructure at any point in time, it will follow a similar framework in some ways to what I’ve already described. So, I view infrastructure, as they said, and where I think my passion comes from, as a real way of understanding the world around us and the ability to shape what our world becomes.
Brett: Very cool. Very cool. Okay. There’s a bunch of questions that came in here. Okay. But here’s pretty simple. Where do you see the future of infrastructure heading over the next five years?
Zach: I think we saw it with Colonial Pipeline. I think we’re seeing it with the cyber attacks going around, even a company like JBS meats. Meat, food production, part of our infrastructure. I think you’re going to see any type of infrastructure is going to have a digital cyber component. The ability to secure those assets and develop infrastructure that is not only secure from kind of the community perspective, but from the cyber perspective. And that’s going to be the kind of thing that throws like a food production segment into the headlights. It may not be something broke at the plant, it’s because the cyber component of it.
Brett: Yeah. Yeah. Okay. I think we have time for one more. Check back here. Oh, interesting. Infrastructure seems to bubble up to the servicing conversations around election platforms. Do you plan differently for midterm elections versus presidential bids? Ooh, it’s an interesting one.
Zach: You plan the same for them all. A candidate could be running an election four years from now, but you’re going to get an inkling of what they’re going to make noise about today. Political issues of infrastructure is something we talked about earlier, and it’s something that you have to anticipate. If you’re trying to build a project mid cycle or in the early stages of what’s going to be an election cycle, either two or four years out, you have to be factoring in who are the loud voices that are going to help shape perceptions about projects. And again, it goes back to this idea that if you are not telling that story yourself, you are going to cede the ground to someone with a very strong political agenda, in this case, we’re talking about candidates, and that’s going to create significant risk for your project that could potentially put you on defense. Because that candidate is getting up every morning to push their agenda, push their message.
And I’ll tell you, something like infrastructure can really get, because it’s so local and it really gets encapsulated in how people experience their lives. It’s a really ripe target. That’s the issue. And again, we’ve talked about how infrastructure is so highly engineered, so specially chosen to do this project here for this reason. And it’s totally in conflict. And it really gets back to why insights and analytics are important, because if you’re not aware of the environment around you and you’re not shaping it proactively, that’s going to come and bite you in the end.
Brett: Yep. Zach, I love having you on these webinars. You’re awesome, Super intelligent, and really appreciate you taking the time to share with us and our audience and learning more about your continued success at Kivvit. So, thank you.
Zach: Thank you, Brett. And thank you to Paul and the whole NewsWhip team. You guys are terrific partners.
Brett: Awesome. Great. So, this wraps up our edition. This is our 20th edition of the NewsWhip Pulse. So, thanks again, Zach. And thanks for everyone for listening in.
Please do join us on our next webinar. We have one on Wednesday, June 30th, and we’ll be joined by another insights guru, Brian Mossop who heads intelligence at FleishmanHillard’s Methods+Mastery. Brian has a great experience in the communication space, former editor from Wired, PhD in biomedical engineering. He’s going to be chatting with Paul Quigley, who’s the CEO in NewsWhip, about prediction. So, very excited to listen to that. And thanks again for everyone for contributing. Zach, you for all of your insights here, and have a great weekend everyone.
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