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Julie O’Neil is at the forefront of using new tools in public relations.

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Julie O’Neil, left, and graduate student Maria Belén Navarro used data to guide the Fort Worth
Botanic Garden on drawing more visitors. Photo by Rodger Mallison


OFTEN VIEWED AS THE FEEL-GOOD COMMUNICATORS, public relations professionals are increasingly relying on data and analytics to create messaging.

Data gathered through high-tech tools are shaping how corporations, nonprofit groups and government entities understand audiences, craft communications and measure effectiveness.

“Big companies are using software to pull in chatter around the world,” said Julie O’Neil, a professor of strategic communica­tion, the academic branch of public relations.

“They’re looking at what they know about their audience, what messages are being shared” and who is sharing the messages, said O’Neil, also associate dean of graduate studies and administration at the Bob Schieffer College of Communication.

O’Neil recently examined how educators can adjust undergraduate curricula with an eye toward integrating data into strategic communication studies.

In 2021, she partnered with Emily Kinsky, professor of media communication at West Texas A&M University, and Michele Ewing, professor of public relations at Kent State University, to research what senior public relations practitioners perceive as the opportunities and challenges that data and digital analytics present to the field.

Part of the study’s goal was to shape strategic communication curricula.

“Traditionally in public relations, we were more focused on communicating messages,” Kinsky said. “Today there is a huge push for measurement of our effectiveness.”

Measurement includes finding out the percentage of consumers, perhaps in a given demographic or geographic area, who have heard of a certain brand. Do consumers want to learn more? Are consumers deciding between products? Do they have any positive or negative associa­tions with a particular brand or company?

“The ability to closely monitor and analyze data generated from conversations and behaviors on digital platforms can be extremely valuable to protect an organization’s reputation,” the authors write.

In fall 2022, O’Neil taught a research class to strategic communication majors. Their client was the Fort Worth Botanic Garden, which wanted to increase its number of visitors.

Her 20 students used the Brandwatch platform to assess what people were saying about the Botanic Garden online. They looked at everything from key topics and influencers to the demographics and hobbies of people talking about the garden.

Platforms like Brandwatch and Talkwalker analyze content across TV, radio, YouTube, social media, online newspapers, magazines and more. The students’ query yielded nearly 4,000 mentions of the garden from more than 2,000 unique visitors in the previous two years. Students analyzed the information and formed suggestions for garden leadership.

As for the researchers’ own study, “the biggest surprise … was the overwhelming answer from these professionals that it doesn’t matter what tool you teach,” Kinsky said. “I sometimes feel like I’m expected to teach my students a thousand different tools, but the professionals said they’re so similar that once they know one platform, they can adapt to the others.”

At TCU in spring 2022, O’Neil piloted a social listening and data analytics course. During the summer, a faculty committee recommended the planning and implementation of the new Schieffer Media Insights Lab, where students and faculty will be able to test data analytics tools and conduct research.

“People around the world consume, produce and share information as they play, work, learn, engage and advocate in digital spaces,” O’Neil said. “This rapid evolution demands an equally quick adaptation for scholars, instructors and current and future professionals across all communication disciplines.”