ANALYSIS: Will XPRL be the future of PR communication? - A computer language dedicated to making PROs' working lives easier is to reach a crucial stage of development in the coming weeks, says Allison Giles

Tired of spending time stuffing envelopes when you could be whipping up punchy PR campaigns? Help may be at hand. Described by one proponent as 'the liberation of the PR industry,' XPRL - the eXtensible Public Relations Language - is soon to hit a monitor near you.

The PR brother of XML (eXtensible Make-up Language), it is under development at Leeds Metropolitan University (LMC). And the beauty of it, say enthusiasts, is that it's a language computers use between themselves, so the average account handler or PRO won't even have to learn it.

Once the basics of the language have been established, it will be time for software houses to write the programmes: 'It'll be possible for software firms to produce programmes using XPRL to create press lists, press clippings, press release writing tools and forward features,' says XPRL honorary secretary and Internet Reputation Services CEO David Phillips.

It is believed the language will make PRO's lives immeasurably easier with programmes that help cut down the time spent writing press releases and provide attendee profile lists for event organisation - alongside including in-built tracking codes which will provide a fast and accurate method of monitoring media coverage.

Peter Christopherson, XPRL promotional sub-committee chair and Echo Research practice director, explains: 'XPRL will help all in PR cut down on misunderstanding.

It's a language of identifiers that tell you what you're getting, in the same way that html is a language of identifiers that tells you what you're seeing.'

Extensible make-up languages (XMLs) and similarly tailored systems already exist in the IR, accountancy and news worlds.

'XML has been going for about ten years, but it's only now become an important part of communications development for software vendors; journalists have NewsML, accountants have XBRL (eXtensible Business Reporting Language).

A couple of years ago we thought we could adapt it for PR,' Phillips says.

Last October, Phillips and Text 100 founder Mark Adams linked with a number of industry figures to form a steering group, headed by LMU PR professor Anne Gregory. It comprises a dozen members from the PR world, a journalist, a software expert, academics and some accountants with XBRL experience.

Gregory was chosen to head the group in order to stress the non-partisan nature of the project.

This will be particularly relevant in the coming months, as funding is sought to continue the development of the language.

'We're currently at the stage of trying to get companies on-board,' says Nigel O'Connor, IPR head of policy and steering group member. 'The IPR wants to keep abreast of developments and to ensure that its members' interests are represented.

The group, or more specifically a researcher under the direction of the XPRL executive committee, is developing a working dictionary or 'schema'.

The basics of this should be accessible on the website for anyone to download and use, free, within the next six weeks, although it could be two or three years before a fully integrated model is ready to use.

That won't stop companies creating their own programmes in the meantime.

'It's the kind of thing software experts within agencies will use to make programmes that are specifically designed to meet their needs,' Phillips says.

The steering group estimates that up to 30 per cent of a PR executive's time is spent on mundane tasks that XPRL can eliminate the need for.

'XPRL will take the mundane tasks of PR away from the hard labour and make it into a simple automated process,' Phillips says.

It will also make for better targeting of journalists, proponents argue, as the possibility exists of creating databases encoding what particular journalists' interests are, as well as identifying their preferred sources and terms of reference.

'The beauty of this is that anyone with a web browser already has a computer that can understand XML - you won't have to buy anything new,' Gregory says.

The image of the industry as a whole could well benefit too, Gregory says, as the enforced standardisation of the language of PR will improve the credibility of an industry often plagued by mistrust: 'The standardisation of terminology will be useful for accountability and transparency.'

XPRL is not going to go away and it looks to be the sort of bandwagon PROs will probably have to jump on. 'The industry can choose to get on board and lead, or it will fall behind,' Gregory warns.

The pitfalls are obvious. 'It will only work if we can make it work with other XML domains - it has to be inter-operable, and it has to be global,' Phillips says.

But with a sufficiently robust campaign to sell this idea to the industry worldwide, there seems no reason why it should not be either of these things. As Christopherson concisely puts it: 'We are not re-inventing the wheel, just using technology to make turning that wheel easier.'

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