Nate Silver’s “The Signal and the Noise” presents some interesting findings for public relations

June 25, 2013
Nate Silver book cover

SOUNDING OFF: Nate Silver extracts signal from noise in his new book

I spent a good deal of my time over vacation reading, and top on the list was Nate Silver’s new book, “The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — but Some Don’t.” Silver is a gifted writer with an uncanny ability to put complex analytics into everyday language that even a non-mathematical mind like mine can understand.

His sweep is impressive, spanning baseball, to the financial market, to earthquakes, to politics. Silver is obsessed with distinguishing between the noise and signals — those variables that actually give us insight into future outcomes and those that simply confuse the issue.

He shows us how statistics, expectations, and our own psychology (as well as the complexity of the world around us) often confuses our assumptions, leading to disasters like the financial collapse, the Fukushima nuclear reactor tragedy, and even the Washington Nationals’ deal with right fielder Jayson Werth.

Much of what he writes translates directly to business, as well as my first love, public relations and human communications. For what it’s worth, here’s how Nate Silver’s findings impact public relations:

The noise versus the signal. So much of public relations is trying to understand media noise and either play to it or against it. With so much information flowing so quickly, you have to ask yourself, what, if any, has meaning? Does The New York Times still carry weight in a derivative media world, where a single online influencer on Twitter can reach a larger, more appropriate audience in 140 characters?

The very thesis of Silver’s book — what is fire and what is smoke — holds vast implications in the practice of public relations, where understanding real influence becomes more difficult in a chaotic universe of information.

Predictive versus fortune telling. For years, public relations had been a black art of hopeful fortune telling. Clients retained agencies to repair or enhance reputation without any real measure of success. Analytics were relegated to counting media clips at the end of a campaign and applying some advertising equivalency to them.

With the tools available today, though, we have, for the first time, the ability to test a message; optimize its impact; refine its meaning; and track, trace, and monitor its ability to impact reputation, generate interest, and deliver prospects and sales opportunities to our patrons. Analytics have now come to public relations and our clients are the better for it.

Talent versus luck. Does baseball have more luck than basketball? Which investment strategies bear fruit while others are tantamount to monkeys throwing darts at a dartboard? Is our success in life determined by our talent or by random chaos? Why is weather forecasting getting better while economic forecasting is getting worse (or at least not any more exact)? Silver delves deeply into the nature of success and how luck influences it.

The lesson for public relations is clear. In a highly competitive, hard-to-predict environment, talent becomes even more important and those who can outperform others, even slightly, can turn the odds of client success in their favor.

Silver uses the heyday of online poker playing as an example. When online poker sites were being inundated with newbies eager to learn the game, Silver succeeded as a professional poker player, even though by his own accord he was only modestly talented. When the fish (unskilled players) lost all their money and stopped playing, Silver started to lose big while a couple of other professional players continued to win.

Silver’s conclusion? A small skills gap separates good from great poker players. While good isn’t good enough in poker, great still wins — modestly, but enough over time to make lots of money. The same is true in public relations. While there are many good firms and good practitioners, great ones tip the odds oh so slightly in favor of their clients’ intentions. And in a chaotic, difficult-to-predict world, that is often enough for great fortune.

Silver’s “The Signal and the Noise” stands as a fun, comprehensive read that takes the complex and makes it accessible to anyone who scored less than 600 on their math SATs. Through it, and probably unbeknownst to him, he relays a story of great importance to anyone who earns a living in public relations.

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