Cambridge Analytica: PR learnings from the whole debacle

Reading the news about Cambridge Analytica’s fraudulent use of Facebook data made me feel concerned, but not for the most obvious reasons. Yes, the scandal raises serious questions about security issues and online trust, but I am particularly worried about how this case could, almost accidentally, impact on PR’s reputation. It also made me think how we should better communicate data protection to our stakeholders.

PR fundamentals were used…

PR theorised the importance of mapping audiences, understanding stakeholders’ interests and getting a message across in the most impactful way in order to achieve a goal.

In 2016, Alexander Nix, the C.E.O. of Cambridge Analytica, took this principle further. He stated that “if you know the personality of the people you’re targeting, you can nuance your messaging to resonate more effectively with those key audience groups.” Personality and profiling, in other words, psychographic targeting, were key aspects in the firm’s use of data.

… and perverted.

On one hand, social media data offer marketers, advertisers and communication professionals various categories of data: age, genre, location, interests, etc. On the other hand, psychographic targeting considers people’s personality traits and Cambridge Analytica leveraged this approach by combining psychographic analysis and data algorithms.

“The personality assessment tool that Cambridge Analytica created was based on the basic Big Five or OCEAN psychometric test. It measures a test taker on five traits – openness, conscientiousness, extraversion/introversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism – which researchers consider to be consistent across languages and cultures”, Tech Circle recently explained. The benefits of this approach are multiple: enhanced targeting, refined and more emotional content, stimulated engagement ratio, build personal bridges between individuals.

What we should learn from the whole debacle

Marketers and PR practitioners can and should explore the benefits of data in order to maximise on audience segmentation and aid the production of content that better resonates with their audience. After all, research-based targeting and data-driven message engineering are at the core of what we do. But one of the main challenges that this whole debacle with Cambridge Analytica is uncovering is the need to better establish trust between an organisation and its stakeholder.

Data protection is now becoming a hot issue and we must demonstrate the need to protect our stakeholder’s personal information by:

  • Be transparent about how personal data would be used;
  • Ask for permission to do so and offer multiple consent options so users can agree to different aspects of their data being shared;
  • Make sure we understand how the data is being used throughout different operations (or third parties in some cases).

While understanding people’s psychological motivations is valuable, it must be made clear that illegal and immoral use of personal information negates any value for a brand. Cambridge Analytica’s invasive psychometric profiling, manipulation, and controlling strategies represented a breach of PR’s code of conduct.

It also presented the opportunity to strengthen the relationship with our audience and even optimise the quality of the data that we collect for better effectiveness in our work.



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