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What Is the PR Intelligence Lab? Q&A with Lab Manager Michael Burke Breaks It Down

Take a look inside the Public Relations Intelligence Lab and meet the new manager: Michael Burke

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Last summer, the School of Communications announced that the Public Relations department would open up a new student lab and evolve the former lab known as Y Digital.

Y Digital Agency was a full-service, student-run digital marketing lab where students worked with real, paying clients on actual digital marketing problems.

The new lab is now called the PR Intelligence Lab and has a different mission. The PR department brought in Michael Burke, a PR professional with over two decades of experience and an advanced degree in data analytic is to run the lab going forward.

Q: What initiated the change from Y Digital to the now PR Intelligence Lab?

Michael Burke: There’s really not been a whole lot of data informing most of what’s done in public relations. The PR Intelligence Lab is an initial move towards the practice of big data analytics and public relations to demonstrate what organizations can do in terms of communications campaign development. The PR Intelligence lab will be working to push that forward. We’re focused on providing real-world experiences with the students, so the students are working with real companies and organizations to address communication challenges using data.

Q: What is it that you do as the lab manager?

Michael Burke: I work with the students to guide them through all the projects. The lab will be doing its own research as well outside of client projects. I have a background in both PR and in data science. I’m spearheading a lot of training here. The idea is to develop a new generation of data-savvy PR professionals. We have courses that we’re teaching on the different media monitoring platforms, and we are also analyzing data and spreadsheets. We’re working to help the students to understand many forms of data, including SEO, which has traditionally been thought of as a marketing discipline, but we’re approaching it from a PR point of view.

Q: Can you explain in a nutshell what public relations and data sciences are for someone who might not be familiar with them?

Michael Burke: Yeah, I think it’s essentially how an organization relates to the public and sometimes how different publics relate to each other. It’s also how different organizations relate to each other. People basically communicate and socialize [in] one of two ways: either just as individuals or as organizations. That’s really what public relations is; it’s the study and practice of how organizations relate to different audiences that are important to them.

Q: The press release announcement of the PR shift said “The lab will be integrated more closely into PR curriculum and the lab manager will support client projects connected to classes, as well as running client projects that are not part of class.” How has that been going this fall?

Michael Burke: There’s a learning curve, but the faculty has really been incredible in their support and enthusiasm for this project. I think everybody really put their heart and soul into this brainchild. It’s been great working closely with the professors on the process they’re doing in class. In some cases, they are projects that are carried out by the class and we come in and support them with different data analytics functions.

Q: You are an industry hire to BYU. How did you get involved and come to get this position?

Michael Burke: I have been working in PR in the Los Angeles and San Francisco area for almost two decades. I got into data analytics because I was working in Silicon Valley. I had been working with a lot of data-focused clients, so I had developed an interest in data storage and analytics. At one point, I decided I didn’t want to just promote what these data companies were doing, I wanted to actually be a part of it. I started graduate work in data science and earned a master’s degree in data science. I realized then that data science had not been applied to PR, so I started applying data science to PR in ways that really no one had ever done before.

Along the way, I was fortunate to connect with Dr. Pamela Brubaker. We started a dialogue, and she called me up a few months ago. [The PR department] basically said, ‘We want to talk to you about something.’ I just assumed that maybe they wanted some advice on a new course or something. I had no idea they would be talking to me about a position, but I was very enthusiastic about it from the moment I heard about it. I love the mission of this department and on top of that, to have this unique opportunity to focus on something that I’m uniquely passionate about.

Q: What have you learned so far in your first semester?

Michael Burke: The students are really going to be the source of a lot of creativity and ideas here. We’re here to guide them, but they’re the ones who really are going to be figuring out what are the right questions to be asking. I’ve learned that BYU has got some great, great faculty here.

Q: As a seasoned PR professional, what is your piece of advice to students launching in PR?

Michael Burke: Take advantage of the real-world opportunities and don’t be picky. You probably won’t have that luxury when you get out into the real profession. You’ll be lucky if you’re passionate about 20% of the clients that you work with. For the rest of the clients, you will have to figure out things that are interesting about them. It really is kind of a rare thing to find someone who is data-savvy and has any sort of concept of how to apply basic marketing analytics to public relations. Those students are going to really stand out most.

You’re often reporting to a marketing executive, and a lot of times we speak very different languages. But, if you can come in and you can speak the language of a marketing executive but understand the PR worldview; if you can talk frequently about Google Analytics and about SEO, you’re going to stand head and shoulders above other applicants. I promise you that.

Learn more about the Public Relations program here.