Former GCS deputy director: BBC should publish its audience data for news

There is no one left in PR who thinks that data doesn't have a role - or that a cuttings book and maybe a showreel are enough to persuade a client that they have got their money's worth.

The BBC should publish its audience data for the benefit of all, argues Gabriel Milland
The BBC should publish its audience data for the benefit of all, argues Gabriel Milland

The industry is making an effort to live up to the challenge. The new guide to PR measurement published last month by AMEC is the best statement yet of why measurement matters and how to do it.

But in one vital area, PR measurement is actually going backwards.

Put simply, PR professionals are losing access to the data we need to our job.

In the past, data was pretty simple. Newspapers published their ABC sales figures and the NRS produced their totals. Combine that with rate cards and you had the now-discredited AVE metric.

As a newspaper executive, I remember very well how we would get the previous day’s estimate at editorial conference every afternoon. We could tell from the editor’s face whether it was good or bad.

In broadcasting, BARB and Rajar produced regular data on viewers and listeners.

But as digital has taken over, the quality of data has taken a nosedive. Commercial media understands this.

The NRS PADD figures are a brave bid to unify disparate data sets. They integrate print, website and, crucially, mobile device figures to produce an aggregate broken down by device.

Crucially, though, NRS PADD doesn’t include the BBC.

These days I spend a lot of time sitting in front rooms and function rooms leading focus groups.

As a warm-up exercise I ask attendees where they get their news. The answer, overwhelmingly, is the BBC. Increasingly, the BBC’s digital services, especially mobile, are mentioned more than broadcast bulletins.

This summer’s Ofcom news-consumption survey found that half of adults said they used the internet for news in 2016, an increase from 41 per cent in 2015.

More than half of online news users said they used the BBC website or app. This is more than double the figure who use the second-most-popular online news source, Facebook.

According to comScore, 86 per cent of the digital audience for news in April 2017 accessed BBC sites.

If other business models continue to struggle, then the BBC’s dominance will grow even larger.

This isn’t the place to make the argument that in any discussion of media plurality, the BBC is the elephant in the room.

But what I do want to suggest is this: the BBC should make its UK audience data free to all, creating a similar level of transparency for the lead story on its news app as currently exists for the broadcast audience for the 10 o’clock news.

Page views, iPlayer downloads and app impressions should be publicly available.

Commercial operators can argue their data is commercially sensitive; however, the BBC is free from that.

Obviously, this would be in the interest of our industry. We would be able to prove our value much more easily. But there is a prize for the BBC too.

When the need for transparency regarding who consumes, creates and funds news content has never been greater, the BBC would be setting a global gold standard in openness.

Gabriel Milland is a partner at Public First and was deputy director for the Government Communication Service until March 2017

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