PR measurement is stuck in the past

The communications industry has been rebooted. As last month's Cannes Lions demonstrated, the creativity of the advertising sector has been augmented by the hard rigour of data science. Marketing, too, is being revolutionised by super targeting possibilities.

Can PR catch up? asks David Benigson
Can PR catch up? asks David Benigson
New platforms are giving customers the analytics they are demanding to plan and justify their spend. Pretty soon, these businesses will be so efficiently run that clients will enjoy absolute certainty about the effectiveness of every pound, before it is even spent.

Contrast this with the public relations sector, however, which seems stuck in the past - a failing that may be its undoing.

Consider measurement. 

Increasingly, companies are receiving copious data on the performance of their ad campaigns, showing how people were reached and how consumers were influenced, demonstrating actual return on investment. There is even a move to start pricing ads based only on intended outcomes like purchase.

But, even in the digital age, PR agencies still demonstrate their effectiveness to clients just with clippings. 

The successful placing of an article is treated as a trophy, the end of a process. 

But this trophy says nothing about whether the business objective - be it sign-up, purchase or perception-boosting - has really been achieved.

The explosion of data available means we can measure virality, social impact, engagement, duplication and syndication across the whole media spectrum. 

That means, yes, it is possible to show whether a press mention did produce a sentiment uplift, whether it prompted a website visit or whether your stock price got a lift.

PR practitioners are not solely to blame. To give clients what they will need, they must have the tools at their disposal. 

Unfortunately, today, the leading PR insight platforms - like Precise, Gorkana and Cision - are unwieldy, rooted in the old age. 

The user experience on these platforms is totally outdated, and their poor search accuracy can lead to missed stories.

Imagine a world where the true effect of PR activity is no longer measured by a client after receiving a morning cuttings email manually produced by an account executive. 

Imagine, instead, this being made patently clear via custom dashboards that illuminate the volume of reaction, story sentiment, topical associations and more.

That is what clients are beginning to demand. They certainly deserve it. And, once they get it, a natural consequence of the kind of detailed feedback that connects outcomes to effort will be a push for results-based pricing.

The PR industry will not like this, reading it as the prospect of payment by results. 

Decoupling account staff’s efforts from income received will be a scary prospect for most companies. 

However, I would caution against fear - the same precision and information that will place clients in the driving seat will also allow agencies to plan their work with such powerful predictability that execs should always know the expected outcome of their input. 

All the risk of a pitch failing can be eliminated by bringing natural language processing, machine learning, and scenario modelling to bear, before the press release is even written.

Data and analytics are disrupting every business sector out there. Can PR catch up? 

I think it is vital that agencies quickly adopt a data-centric mindset - not to do so risks entering a spiral of client dissatisfaction in an era of information abundance.

David Benigson is the chief executive of Signal 

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