A plethora of issues management software programs are available, and they are becoming much more sophisticated, while easier to use.
The call for metrics that effectively measure PR efforts has probably been around since the first clip book. But there seems to be an added urgency to that need today, especially as PR carves out an ever-growing role in the marketing mix.
Part of this is being driven by improvement in tools that gauge PR success or failure. Issues management software from companies such as Cymfony, Biz360, VMS, and Bacon's Information and its subsidiary Delahaye, can now provide real-time updates, as well as, in many cases, analysis of what all aspects of the media are saying about a company, its latest products, and its competitors.
But the real driver for the increasing adoption of these software solutions is the corporate bottom line. "Everything is being measured these days because budgets are tighter," says Jessica Kersey, senior director of worldwide PR for Polycom and a Biz360 client. "You must do more with less, and you must prove the value of what you do for the dollars that you're using."
"The drive is coming from the corporate clients," adds Mark Weiner, president of Delahaye. "Executives are requiring a better sense of the return on investment, and clip books, as helpful as they are, don't provide that."
Most issues management software tend to be monthly or annual services whose prices depend on the number of issues or words that a client wants to monitor. That information is then delivered in real time to the client via a software dashboard that resides on their desktop.
"We provide hundreds of different ways to look at data," says Deborah Eastman, Biz360's EVP for sales and marketing. "We'll work with a client to find out which ways are most relevant to them and then design a dashboard that triggers when that information is delivered."
Many of these software applications also take the next step by putting what amounts to raw numbers in their proper perspective. "No software is a crystal ball," says Pat Fennessey, VP of professional services for Cymfony. "But they can take the evaluation of trends out of the realm of the anecdotal and into the realm of fact."
She cites the low-carb diet as an example, noting, "Many consumer product companies were caught flatfooted by the low-carb craze. It wasn't because they didn't know it was a trend, but they couldn't quantify it as a trend against other trends."
At the heart of most issues management software are keyword or Boolean search applications that scour relevant data- bases looking for references to a product, for example, and then try other words in the sentence or story that determine whether that coverage is positive, negative, or neutral.
Jerry Swerling, director of PR studies at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and a PR management consultant, points out that naysayers have seized on this to dismiss issues management software as just search engines.
But he adds, "You can't really dismiss them as just word searches because they also can do a very good job of determining context. They look at tonality, they look at share of discussion, so it can be so much more."
James Waggoner, president of the VMS analysis division, stresses that a key to effectively using this type of software is the understanding that, while artificial intelligence can do a lot, it can't do everything. "Things like satire can influence your assessment, and if you're getting a low volume of clippings, some misapplied references can really impact substantially what you're trying to track," he says.
Michael Buxbaum, SVP of strategic development and marketing at Bacon's Information, suggests that the biggest mistake companies make is using software only to measure results and not to help identify the issues before a PR campaign kicks off.
"You may end up creating a campaign that's reacting to a single blogger or editorial," he says. "So you need to find out first if it is a real issue and whether there is a gap in the marketplace that a PR effort can address and fill."
David Geddes, SVP and partner with Fleishman-Hillard, also stresses the need to have some goals in place before implementing issues management software.
"There are companies that have been signed up who don't go through the necessary process of thinking, 'What are we doing, and what do we want to measure?'" he says. "You should always start with figuring out what are your objectives and strategy, and then you can measure the effectiveness of the programs."
You also need to realize that using software to only keep track of your company and its immediate competitors won't necessarily give you the big picture. Noting that about 20% of clients now monitor issues outside of their own company name, Ann Ertsas, director of marketing and PR at Bacon's, says, "More and more companies are becoming proactive and asking for a wider scope of monitoring."
Swerling also stresses that there is no one-size-fits-all software solution out right now.
"The most important thing is, first of all, [to] understand your own needs and your own culture, and then to realize that you're probably not going to get what you need off the shelf," he says.
Even once this software is in place, PR pros need to then take the time to figure out who's going to analyze the data. VMS CEO Peter Wengryn says, "Many clients prefer that we perform the analysis for them, and we use [artificial intelligence] along with humans to vet out the relevant information. But we also provide them with the tools so they can do a lot of it themselves."
"Technology for these purposes is great because it's consistent and fast," Weiner adds. "But the technology itself isn't intuitive and doesn't understand nuance."
There are many intangibles to PR, so it's vital not to drive a PR strategy just by the numbers you see on a software dashboard.
"These key indicators tell you what's happening," Weiner says. "But they don't tell you why it's happening or how long it will continue, and they don't tell you what you should do about it."
Do embrace the future. Technology is changing PR, and issues management software is the best example of that. But remember: These applications are your tools, not your replacement
Do look to customize. Make sure you tailor the application to deliver only the content you need
Do share the wealth. Custom reporting and analysis generated by issues management software is valuable to other departments, as well, so get regular updates to the entire company
Don't just look backward. Make sure you have software in place to measure the issues before a campaign and not just after it runs its course
Don't become obsessive about numbers. These applications provide metrics and analysis,
Don't lose your clip book. Issues management software can provide lots of valuable information, but you still must take the time to read what's being said about issues important to your company