Could data science be PR's Holy Grail?

"How do you measure success?" is a phrase that every PR professional has heard in a new business pitch.

It usually elicits a response so drenched in ambiguities and equivocations that most seasoned politicians would take notes in admiration. 

Alas, no matter how fancy the footwork on the part of the PR, new business prospects are seldom fully satisfied with the answer. 

Why would they be? 

Being able to measure impact and success is at the core of marketing and business development. 

After all, if you can’t quantify the impact of your actions, you can’t say with any certainty that you are doing the right thing, nor can you ‘prove worth’. 

For the PR industry, this is a systemic problem. 

With good reason many agencies have tried to create their own metrics. However, these are generally all based on a crude numbers game: coverage, speaking opportunities or press meetings secured, tweets, sentiment, competitor analysis and total reach etc. 

Securing coverage and knowing someone clicked on a link to it doesn’t tell you much about how you’ve changed the reputation of a business. Data science can change that. 

For the uninitiated, data science is the extraction of knowledge from data. In reality, it means some very clever guys with PhDs can use complex algorithms to read huge data sets and find out, among other things, profound insights into the behaviour of people and their relationships with organisations. 

By mining a heap of disparate data sets, such as social media activity, demographic info, e-commerce behaviour and interactions with customer service, on a national and individual basis, intangible concepts like what people think and feel about a business can be recorded and measured.

Crucially, this information can be tracked over time. 

The impact of a single PR initiative could be analysed, its result quantified and presented back to the business.

Not only does data science present a way to properly analyse PR, it also provides an avenue to make it better and increase its worth. 

Analysis can go beyond simply understanding whether a hit in TechCrunch was better than another in the Daily Mail, to working out what messages had a greater impact. 

The seemingly incomparable can be compared – the impact of a speaking opportunity at an event versus a social media campaign. 

This allows a PR campaign to stack up against other marketing initiatives.

As we all know, in many cases PR is only a small part of a marketing budget, but if we could prove it has a pound for pound bigger impact, then the case for expanding a remit or retainer is much easier to make. 

We comfort ourselves by believing that PR is an art rather than a science. However, this mindset can be used as a roadblock that prevents the PR industry from improving its practices and becoming a more rigorous profession. 

There is no reason why PRs both in-house and at agencies can’t use new techniques, like data science, to prove its worth.

Robert Bownes is director of comms at the data science consultancy Profusion

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