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Do you need to be good at maths to succeed in PR?

Albert Einstein is supposed to have said: “Not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted”. This is certainly true in PR, where measuring what really matters is a particularly tricky issue. And measurement is not the only activity where a head for figures can come in handy. Here PRs debate to what extent it helps to be good at maths if you want to get on in PR.

Maths and data skills are vital

Rebecca Moss, digital PR director at PR agency JBH: "Data-driven PR campaigns are our bread-and-butter. We use a mix of brand-owned, market research and external data to create PR stories for our clients. I am no maths genius (in fact I barely passed my maths GCSE) but I would say it's an absolutely crucial skill in PR in 2023.

"When recruiting PRs at every level for the agency, I now look for evidence of maths and data skills, just as much as I look for PR, comms and creativity, given that it's important to have a blend of both for what we do.

"On a typical day, we might be using Google Sheet formulas to extract PR stories from spreadsheets, or attempting to express a percentage as a fraction or ratio to make it more newsworthy for journalists to digest.

"However, we also understand that data analysis and maths skills don't come naturally to everyone - which is why I created the JBH PR Percentage Calculator - a tool which helps PRs express complicated percentages as fractions and ratios - something I was finding myself Googling all of the time!

"Not only are maths skills important for campaign creation, they are crucial to ensure that the information we share on behalf of our clients is accurate and credible.

"We need to ensure that we are able to scrutinise any data shared with us, so we're not presenting misinformation or simply spinning numbers to present a more interesting story".

There’s maths, and there’s PR maths

Ellen Durrant joint managing director of Red Lion PR: “There’s maths, and there’s PR maths. As long as a PR can understand numbers sufficiently enough to craft a headline-grabbing story that stands up to the potential scrutiny of a sell in - exactly how many Brits say they love their dog more than their spouse? - then for the most part, we’re good to go.

“I wouldn’t consider myself a numbers person although running my own business, now I have to be. But being married to Maths masters grad, I have some funny stories about him questioning the PR maths of stories gone by.”

You need to be able to ‘read’ data to communicate about it

Sam Knowles, chief data storyteller at agency Insight Agents, and creator of the Using Data Smarter training ecosystem: “The secret to persuasive communication is the ability to bring together the ‘fire and ice’ worlds of narrative and numbers. Basic numeracy matters, for sure. More than that, brilliant data-driven storytelling demands empathy, a clear understanding of the data tolerance of your audience, and a cast-iron aversion to the Curse of Knowledge. This Curse - as defined by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker - is “the difficulty in understanding what it’s like not to know something that you know”. This is particularly hazardous when it comes to data storytelling.

“In our world of bigger and bigger data, every organisation is surrounded by data which it’s tempting to share. But life - and communication - is no maths exam. We don’t get extra marks for showing our workings out. Because we make our decisions emotionally and only justify them rationally, the defining equation for success in the modern knowledge economy is simply: Analytics + Storytelling = Influence.”

Luckily there are tools to help

Tani Fatuga, communications consultant at PR agency Hard Numbers: “I think it helps to be good at maths in PR. However, for most roles, all you really need is a basic understanding of stats. There may be some instances where you’re working on a campaign and you need to pull out interesting stats from raw data in order to tell a compelling story, for example.

“That said, if you want to provide real value for your clients and accurately measure the impact of your PR, maths does play a very important role, especially when it comes to hitting those sales-focused KPIs and proving your value to sales teams. But there are now so many tools available - in addition to Excel formulas - that can help, such as CRM systems, like Hubspot and Google Analytics. In order to make the best use of these tools for your data - you do need to be good with numbers and with anything, practice makes perfect - you don’t need a maths degree!”

There is no need to be scared of maths

Stella Bayles, director at PR reporting tool company Coverage Book: “Having basic maths skills and a curiosity in proving theories is absolutely essential in PR today. With digital storytelling helping brands reach bigger audiences, PR people need to understand their audience data and be confident it’s credible. Nobody wants awkward boardroom meeting moments!

“That’s not to say everyone should pick up a maths degree to get into PR. It’s more that the industry has a confidence problem with numbers and it's holding many back. Ultimately, clients want to hear results in plain English and PR professionals should feel confident in using metrics to show off their wins.”

We need a mix of people, not just numbers people

Katie Finn, director at agency Babel PR: “Whilst data analysis is undoubtedly becoming a core component of our role, particularly within the B2B space, PR remains a multifaceted profession, requiring a diverse range of skills. As a result, it is a profession which attracts people from all kinds of academic backgrounds - at Babel, for example, our team studied subjects including History, French, Geography, Theology, Archeology, and Social Work at university, or came through an apprenticeship scheme. In bringing together people with different specialisms and experience, were much better able to excel at every component of communications than if we homogenise education. Therefore, whilst maths capabilities certainly won’t hurt, to continue to deliver standout campaigns, championing this diversity - and doing more to make PR an inclusive profession overall - will be more important than prioritising any one subject.”

PRs need to accept maths is a necessity

Mike Maynard, managing director of B2B agency Napier: “PR is an art. It requires excellence in a wide range of soft skills from understanding human behaviour to crafting great copy. But without good numeracy, PRs frequently damage their credibility and fail to get the credit they deserve.

“You can’t escape the fact that PR now relies on vast amounts of data. Interpreting that data, whether the data are in survey results or clippings reports, needs maths knowledge and skills. Without the ability to properly interpret data, you are missing out. More importantly, lack of maths will mean you can misunderstand data, potentially damaging the effectiveness of your campaigns.

“Do PRs consider maths sexy? Even I, with a mathematical background, have to admit they don’t. However it is the unsexy foundation that creates many great campaigns and produces the analysis that shows how effective they were.”

You need a lot more than maths

Isa Lavahun, freelance digital PR strategist: “The first thought I have is ‘would mathematicians be able to do our jobs? And the answer is a big fat NO! Yes, some PR tasks require data analysis and yes, being good at maths will help with this but fortunately, there are lots of tools available to help. Google Analytics, Coverage Book and Buzzsumo to name a few, can help you monitor , track, measure, and report on your campaigns. Additionally, Excel or Google Sheets are both powerful tools for organising and analysing data once you’ve figured out some clever formulas. Whilst having some basic maths skills can be helpful, the most important qualities for success in PR are strong communication skills, creativity, and strategic thinking.”

You can always ask others to check your workings out!

Kath Myers, partner, consumer and planning at agency Milk & Honey PR: “I got into PR because I was good at English - maths was never my strong point (I use my fingers to count). But I love the numbers side, because of what they can tell you and I do think it’s crucial to get a handle on this in PR. From understanding the commercials (yours and your clients’) to uncovering consumer insight, developing budgets and tracking and measuring results, numbers are often the key to unlocking greater success.

“If you’re not comfortable with maths learn to use Excel properly (it can do the hard work for you) and you can spot any errors. Give yourself time to work through tasks and always have someone else check your workings. You don’t have to be a maths whizz, but a decent grasp helps and using tools and leaning on others for support are key if you’re average at it like me.”

My A level maths hasn’t been a great help

Nicole Marsden, director at PR agency Little Red Rooster: “I don’t feel my A level maths has been a huge help career wise, predominantly because much of what is learnt is theoretical pure maths or mechanics - great for showing off, not so useful for day-to-day, real-life business applications.

“The way that automation is going with helpful tools and easy-to-use formulas on Excel, you don't need to be great at maths as these programmes crunch the numbers for you. What is vital is being commercially minded, with an ability to analyse the data, looking at things like profitability. If maths isn’t your strong suit, hire someone who lives and breathes numbers and finance to compile these for you, then use the talent of your senior team to interpret the data. Job done and despite what Rishi Sunak says, no shame required. After all, PR, as with all aspects of life is all about playing to your strengths rather than focussing on your weaknesses.”

I failed my maths A level!

Caitlin Singh, communications executive at B2B agency Definition Agency: “As somebody who tried (and failed massively) at A Level Maths, I am thankful that my lack of maths qualifications has not been an issue when it comes to progressing a career in PR.

“Being good at maths can certainly be helpful in certain aspects of PR. For example, understanding statistics and data analysis can be useful for measuring the effectiveness of PR and social media campaigns. And whilst data analysis is becoming increasingly important in many PR roles, many organisations already have data analysts or other professionals internally who can handle the more technical aspects of data management and analysis.

“So, I’m sure that maths qualifications can be helpful in PR, but being a maths whiz - in my opinion - is not a requirement for success.”

As someone who has also failed maths A level, I completely agree that it is not a necessity for a job which is largely about communication. However, you do need a maths qualification if you want to be an accountant, and I must admit, I sometimes wonder if accountancy would have been a much more sensible (and lucrative!) career path! But, as I am sure all of you agree, PR is a great industry, and it is a bonus that you don’t need to be brilliant at maths to work in it. You just have to be good with numbers, which is different.

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