New chapter out on text-mining and digital research

A chapter I co-authored on text-mining has (finally!) been published in the Sage publication, Innovations in Digital Research Methods.

51w3SHTuVJLCo-authored with Lawrence Ampofo, Ben O’Loughlin and Andrew Chadwick our chapter covers  researching social media, discussing key techniques for textual analysis and exploring some of the opportunities, limitations and ethical considerations.

The full blurb from the introduction chapter is here:

Text Mining and Social Media: When Quantitative Meets Qualitative and Software Meets People
Text mining has developed dramatically in recent years in its power to analyse and extract information from very large bodies of unstructured text. Its applications are motivated by a growing awareness that researchers need more powerful tools in order to benefit from rapidly increasing amounts of textual data being generated through the proliferation and unprecedented levels of take up of Web 2.0 technologies. Chief among these are blogs and social media (‘micro-blogs’), the latter exemplified by the rise of platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.

In this chapter, Ampofo, Collister, O’Loughlin and Chadwick explore how text mining using natural language processing (NLP) techniques can provide qualitative social researchers with powerful analytical tools for extracting information from this unstructured data, including harvesting data and analysing it in real time. They survey the range of research tools for text mining, broadly defined, available both in the academic and commercial spheres. People’s use of social media is seen by many researchers as providing an ideal source of data through which to monitor rapidly changing situations, hence, it has come to particular prominence during civil unrest (e.g., the so-called ‘Arab Spring’) and natural disasters (e.g., Hurricane Sandy). Beyond these inherently unpredictable phenomena, one of the most popular emerging applications of social media analysis lies in the tracking of public opinion through the application of NLP-based techniques such as sentiment analysis. These techniques have the capacity to generate results in real time, which offers intriguing possibilities for both commercial and academic research.

To illustrate the potential and challenges of using text mining techniques in social research, Ampofo, Collister, O’Loughlin and Chadwick present overviews of two projects. The first is a study of social media during the televised debates between political party leaders in the 2010 UK general election campaign. The second is also drawn from this election campaign and focuses on the reporting of accusations of bullying against then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown in the British media. The application of NLP-based text analysis tools to social data is still, in many respects, in its infancy. With this thought in mind, the authors conclude by outlining the ontological challenges (echoing the reservations that Elliot and Purdam set out in Chapter 3) and the technical challenges of mining text in social research settings. They note, in the case of social media, increasingly restrictive access policies, and they also consider the ethical implications of text mining used as a social research tool.

You can download the introduction over at the Sage website and download a full pre-publication version of the chapter from Royal Holloway’s New Political Communications Unit.

And of course, you can buy a copy of the whole book from Amazon.

 

CIPR Social Media Panel: Guide to Paid Media

As a member of the CIPR’s Social Media Advisory Panel I spent a fun afternoon last Wednesday taking part in a ‘PR Hackday’ on the subject of paid media.

It was a good session with lots of productive discussion – both within the room and with practitioners at large via a Twitter Q&A.

Paid Media is major opportunity for the PR sector, but there’s a risk that PR will fall (further?) behind competing industries if they don’t recognise the opportunities and do something about it.

At least one participant in the Twitter Q&A remarked that paying to amplify messages or content wasn’t PR’s job. Could you ever imagine hearing an advertising or SEO agency saying: “We don’t do earned media. That’s PR.”?

At the end of the afternoon the panel had produced a useful series of resources for the sector, including:

Take a read/listen/watch and tell me that PR doesn’t do paid!

 

Infographic: A History of Social Media

Chris from Prohibition PR has put together this handy infographic providing a history of social media and outlines some of the big game-changing moments in this blog post.

It contains some surprises – who knew Tripadvisor launched the same time as Friends Reunited? – and a few blasts from the past. Ning or Friendfeed, anyone (both still live, btw)?

Thanks to Chris for a nifty resource (I’ll be using for teaching my students!).

PR can’t respond to ‘structural’ challenges of social media. Discuss.

So. Here’s a thought. My old boss and friend, Robin Grant, told PRWeek last year that PR had missed the boat on digital. The reality, of course, is much more nuanced than that but there is a definite truth to what he says based on my own experiences and discussions with a range of people from within the PR world.

[Image via FRANk Media]

The full range of reasons behind Robin’s comment is something for a much longer post (or book, perhaps) but a series of recent conversations with smart people helped me clarify at least one aspect of PR’s problem.

For instance, in a discussion with an ex-digital director at a global PR agency we both agreed that some forms of social media, particularly community management, is becoming commodified and how PR agencies, again, risk missing the boat on digital, by placing their ‘social media offering’ firmly in this camp. Think of it as sort of replacing client press release churn with churning Facebook posts and tweets.

We agreed that the biggest barriers to PR getting social media right are structural. That’s as far as the conversation went.

Then today I was having a discussion with someone else about the increasing specialisation of social media and it dawned on me that one of the reasons why the PR profession has dragged its heals in terms of adopting and making the most of social media is its structure as a generalist industry where account teams are responsible for the full range of communication tasks (albeit with varying degrees of emphasis depending on seniority).

For example, as social media becomes specialised needing expert teams of researchers and planners; content creators, community managers and analysts, etc, PR agencies operating with employees that are trained as generalists to fulfil most, if not all of those roles, simply cannot keep up to date with the necessary knowledge and skills to succeed.

Advertising and digital agencies, on the other hand, are predominantly already structured into specialist teams. They only need to ensure that enough investment is made in ensuring their incumbent researchers, creatives, content producers, analysts, etc stay abreast of emerging knowledge and skills.

And then there’s the profit margins of PR. With their way bigger budgets, advertising and (some) digital agencies have more financial leeway to investment in training, resources and development.

So while, on paper, PR – with its theoretical foundation in understanding and building interpersonal relationships – should be on home territory when it comes to social media strategy in the main it is simply not structured in a way to make the most of this increasingly specialist landscape.

What is to be done?

Digital innovation: some reading

Serendipitously I stumbled across a couple of great articles about digital innovation in the advertising space recently which dovetail neatly with some of the thinking and writing I’ve been doing.

Following on from Adam’s comment about the diffusion and adoption of innovation within the PR sector (which warrants some analysis and a further blog post in its own right) it’s equally interesting to see how the same issues are being played out in the advertising space.

According to Digital Planning Director at BBDO/Proximity, Vincent Teo:

“This shift toward creative innovation and product development will be a continuous evolution in the agency space and one in which I believe will form the foundation of the digital agency of the future. There is a real synergy between product innovation and what agencies are currently doing and this looks like the next evolution in extending what agencies can offer to their clients.”

What this looks like in detail can found in Vincent’s great survey of the current ad/digital/innovation landscape, The Digital Agency of the Future. And following Vincent’s vision and line of questioning, a number of other posts and article’s further explore the same issues, including Rei Inamoto‘s Why Ad Agencies Should Act More Like Start-ups and .net magazine’s Inside the Labs of the World’s leading Digital Agencies.

Although there are some distinct differences between the ad and PR industries, both are rapidly converging around digital. Some level of comparative analysis will undoubtedly be useful to see where each industry is succeeding (and not succeeding) and looking for clearer paths to innovation, adoption and sharing/commercialisation. Hopefully more to come on this.

 

PR & paid media: a new reality?

A number of smart PR agencies seem to be setting up new paid media divisions of late. First, Edelman announced its hire of Cassell Kroll as vice president, media strategy operating out of the firm’s digital arm. Shortly afterwards We Are Social revealed their new paid media offering, with ex-TBG Digital sales and client services director, David Gilbert, as Media Director. It is fascinating to see how the increasing convergence of owned, earned and paid media channels is rapidly driving organisational innovation in order to remain relevant and competitive. As We Are Social’s Global Managing Director, Robin Grant, puts it:

“Today’s social environment demands that media planning be integrated into brands’ social media strategies and for media buying to operate in real-time and in synergy with always-on social content creation and community management.”

Edelman also outlines its perspective on the contemporary converged media landscape that gives some rationale for their hire into a wider context and outlines nicely how the agency approaches digital in an increasingly integrated way:

The insights reflected in Edelman and We Are Social’s new business models and strategic offerings are part of wider trends I reiterate to my students when we discuss future directions for the PR industry. The reality is the PR industry they are learning about is arguably becoming less and less like industry they’re seeing represented in textbooks and also (perhaps worryingly) discussed by *some* senior industry speakers.

It’s also something that plays into my thoughts and speculation about the continued need to proactively innovate. The challenges and opportunities of social are ‘live'; that is to say they’re continual emerging meaning leading agencies or practitioners need to stay entrepreneurial in their approach to navigating this new media and communications landscape. This requires thinking freshly about what PR is now and where it’s going – or more specifically being taken by the flows of the social web.

Having worked with Edelman and We Are Social, this is a trait I can confidently say is present within the agencies’ senior leadership and embodied in employees. It must be there in others too undoubtedly, but how can we join up this thinking to ensure that ‘entrepreneurial’ agenda remains a priority – not just at the micro-level of individual agencies or organisations but more broadly at the macro, sector level.

I appreciate this is no small task requiring a focus on collaboration, rather than competition and again, potentially across sectors as well as organisations. Maybe it is already happening through industry events (but it’s not something I’ve come across recently). It’s an exciting time with a number of equally exciting opportunities for the PR industry; the question remains: how can we maximise these opportunities to ensure their strategic potential is realised? Hopefully more to come on this.

Social media helping PR operate more strategically?

The Chartered Institute of PR’s (CIPR) annual State of the Profession report suggests a potentially interesting development for the sector and the role PR plays within organisations.

In her introduction to the survey of 1,273 of its members, CIPR CEO, Jane Wilson, reports that PR “is moving away from having a primary media relations focus to embracing the opportunity presented to us by social media to participate in two-way conversations with our publics.”

While ‘two-way communications’ is an often misused or misunderstood term its adoption here is potentially significant as it might  indicate a shift from a traditionally media relations-focused tactical function to more strategic organisational as PR has to undertake greater research and planning to deal with the complexity of social media.

OK. So, this is pretty flimsy speculation but there’s another interesting insight in the report which adds some more – albeit speculative – weight to the hypothesis.

The increasing convergence and collaboration of siloed departments necessary to manage the increasingly social environment and support the move towards becoming a ‘social business’ is also affecting PR professionals. In the section titled ‘Converging areas of practice’ the report reveals that “[PR] [d]epartments working increasingly closely together has directly resulted in areas of work converging. Around half of PR professionals say that departments that now work more closely with each other share responsibility for social or digital media management (51%), branding (48%) or internal communications (48%).”

While it doesn’t indicate whether PR teams are taking the lead on driving forward a newly converged organisational strategy, these are interesting findings that may indicate that as organisations become increasing socialised and converged this may well be a catalyst for PR to recognise and capitalise on its long-absent organisational strategic prowess?

PR, it has long been argued, is best conceived as a strategic management function operating at board level to understand wider society and help shape the long-term vision and operation of organisations. In theory PR plays a central role identifying and connecting internal stakeholders with external ones, building long-term relationships with them, interpreting their changing needs and feeding this information up to the board to shape organisational strategy. The reality, alas, has seen PR all too often become relegated to marketing-led communications and reactive issue management.

But is social media forcing a change for the better? As building relationships with online communities and networks through two-way communications becomes increasingly central to an organisation’s success; and social media-empowered consumers and stakeholders are increasingly driving organisational convergence will PR’s ‘boundary-spanning’ role helping join up an organisation’s departments with its external environment help it operate at a higher, more strategic level?

I guess only time will tell. Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised as I believe PR has the potential to play a central role in helping organisations adapt to the complexity of social media at a business level – in theory, at least!

As a footnote it should also be noted that two other findings from the report may have a bearing on this. Firstly, the report argues that in terms of its current strategic presence “three in five [respondents] say that they directly brief board members or senior staff, whilst over a third of those in-house with a direct responsibility for PR sit on the board“. However, “fewer than half say that this extends to influencing wider business and organisational strategy.”

And secondly, “by some margin, the area of public relations that is seen as presenting the biggest challenge is social or digital media management. Two-thirds of PR professionals (66%) say that they think it will present a challenge to them as PR professionals, whilst half (53%) say that they think it will present a challenge to their organisation.”

So, there’s still a way to go before PR operates consistently at a strategic, management level, although social media may be well be the catalyst necessary to shift this reality. But, it’s a catalyst that’s also perceived as a major challenge – both to the profession and individual practitioners. Perhaps it’s digital’s disruptive potential will win out and help the PR industry come of age.

 

Towards a general “internet theory”

I’ve just picked up Geert Lovink‘s latest book-length contribution to the debate on social media and theory, Networks Without A Cause: A Critique of Social Media. It’s extremely prescient and chimes with a load of thoughts I’ve been having around a number of issues since earlier this year (and most recently this past weekend).

I think I’ll save a more detailed analysis when I’ve read more of the book – perhaps as a sort of review using Geert’s work as a jump off point for/exposition of my own thoughts.

In the meantime I really wanted to share the final (extensive) paragraph from the book’s introduction which resonates with a number of themes I’m trying to explore and unpick for my own research. Enjoy…

“Why, after two decades, does no (general) “internet theory” exist? Are we all to blame? We need a contemporary network theory that reflects rapid changes and takes the critical and cultural dimensions of technical media seriously. Network theory still emphasizes the science-focused “unified network theory,” to paraphrase the language of Albert-Laszlo Barabasi. But we cannot merely study potentiality and growth patterns as pseudo-natural phenomena. There is hope: we can revolt against the mathematical shapes of networks. Humanities should do more than describe the times we’re living in. We can match untimely aphorisms with future scenario planning, speculative thinking with data journalism, and computer programming with visual studies. The overall aim is to ignite speculative futurism and celebrate singular modes of expression rather than institutional power plays. Many want to know how networks can guarantee “trust” while remaining open, flat and democratic. How can rapidly emerging concentrations of power be counter-balanced? If networks are so distributed and decentralized in nature, then why don’t they oppose the economies of scale that produce the Googles and Facebooks?”

More at Networks Without A Cause.

Anarchism and social technology: conference panel

I’m going to be facilitating a panel on anarchism and social technology at this year’s Anarchist Studies Network conference in Loughborough next week. You can read the abstracts below.

There are a couple of really interesting papers up for presentation that seek to account for the social changes we’re witnessing around the globe. Both papers draw on some really interesting and novel theoretical approaches to social media and technology that – in the true ethos of the internet – hack existing theories to account for contemporary radical projects or event. For example, Aaron Peters takes Paolo Virno‘s ‘Soviets of the Multitude‘ – an extremely far-sighted perspective that appropriates Marx’s notion of the ‘general intellect’ and uses it to account for the decentralised and autonomous techno-social productivity that we’re witnessing with the social web. Thomas Swann, meanwhile, draws on (the often maligned) cybernetic theory to account for the decentralised organising seen during last year’s riots.

Aside from facilitating, I want to use my time to give a short overview of what has been described as the “ambivalent relationship” between anarchism (and anarchists) (Gordon, 2008). This relationship appeared to be manifest when trying to generate interest in this conference panel. Despite the organisers citing the #Occupy and Arab Spring movements as powerful, contemporary anti-authoritarian forces rising from the grass-roots it has not been easy to identify researchers or practitioners to take part.

I plan to address this issue and hopefully put it into some context before attempting to briefly point a way out of the ambivalence!

Maybe see you there :)

Speaking at ‘Insight 2.0: The Future of Social Media Analysis’

I’ve been busy of late working on a few different projects (more of that soon) and wanted to share some information about a really interesting (and much needed, imho) conference.

The one-day event, Insight 2.0: The Future of Social Media Analysis, promises to offer knowledge sharing, discussion and networking around the increasingly important topic of social media analysis.

In my mind, what gives this event an additional edge is the confluence of industry and professional speakers with academics working in the field of social media analysis. It’s really reasonably priced too!

I’ll be speaking during the day – probably about one thing that’s become clear to me working within a social media consultancy: data driven insights are playing an increasingly central role in shaping communications and business strategy.

See these handy articles giving a more thorough summary of the situation: Steve Lohr’s The Age of Big Data in the NYT and Christan Olsen’s HuffPo piece on big data driven communications planning.

More importantly, as the volume, complexity and tools available for analysis become increasingly professional (remember when all we had to hand was Google blogsearch, Boardreader and Summize?) the research strategies, methodologies and technology selections adopted in commercial agencies is becoming increasingly academic in approach.

The timing for this event, then, is extremely prescient!

I should disclose that I know the organiser, Lawrence Ampofo, but I’ve not been involved in the creation of this event – apart from approaching a few personal contacts to invite them to participate.

Hope to see you there!