The new software every PR pro should know about

Agency experts’ platform likes and dislikes.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

Long ago were the days of PR focused on simply pitching a story idea or campaign to print media on behalf of a client. Now, PR pros are practically drowning in technology. Yet with so many options, how does an agency choose which software to buy. 

Ephraim Cohen, GM of FleishmanHillard’s New York office, is excited about a partnership the agency started last summer with to access actual traffic data for articles from news publishers. In practice, it means they can gain a granular understanding of who is reading a given article, as opposed to relying on the less precise, but oft-used measure of reach. Cohen explains that the technology allows the firm to know “how many people read an article, in what part of the country, on what device, how much of the article they read and for how long.”

Calling the partnership a “game changer,” Cohen notes its two-fold value. At the planning phase of a media relations campaign, the firm can more precisely project earned media results. 

“We know what types of articles people are interested in, how many and in what parts of the country,” Cohen says. So the firm can create better content that its targeted audience is likely to read. Once a campaign kicks off, then the agency has better insights into the earned media engagement and an idea of actual reach, as well.

AI and machine learning more broadly are the areas in which Nicole Moreo, SVP of analytics at Ketchum, sees promise. While she notes that many have “barely scratched the surface,” Moreo says she is “intrigued by Talkwalker’s AI engine that allows the human user to train the system to better mine the media data.” Moreo also highlights how companies like Talkwalker, Netbase and Quid have capitalized on the importance of conversation clustering. She says they are going beyond the basic word clouds that “PR seems to have an obsession with and [can create] insights in the actual conversation happening around a given topic without the PR professional having to dictate the terms.”

Beyond AI and machine learning, Moreo points to the evolution of influencer software, in particular to the work Onalytica is doing that allows the PR user to “go beyond consumer profiles and begin to look at more B2B influences.” And while they are not software, coding languages like Python, R and SQL have been embraced by PR agencies and software companies to “find ways to access new data sources.” This includes companies such as NewsWhip, whose tool Spike “offers predictive analysis using these coding languages instead of the traditional ‘look back and learn’ outputs.”

NewsWhip also has a fan in staffers at Hill+Knowlton Strategies. John Gillooly, SVP of data and analytics at the firm, calls it a “must have,” pointing to how the provider “tracks and predicts the virality of news across social.” He adds that its strength is in its ability to perform this function “on exact links you want to track or just broad searches.” 

Summarization tools are another category that Gillooly underscores. “In the last year, there have been some big advances in natural language processing that have increased accuracy of computer-generated tagging and auto summarization,” he says. This allows items that consumers have come to rely on, such as daily news roundups, to be generated by a machine rather than a human. The primary summarization tool that has piqued Gillooly’s interest is Agolo. It’s not focused on PR now, but once it is, “it could very much be a must-have tool,” Gillooly argues.

Touchdown Strategies founder James Davis speaks to the current moment the globe is facing collectively, explaining that tools that “help detect emerging business threats” are those that have him and his team most excited. “Tools like Evolve 24 crunch big data that helps us anticipate threats such as the coronavirus,” he says. 

Evolve 24 can also distinguish between real and perceived threats. “For example, based on their analysis, the perceived threat of coronavirus in Washington State was low, while the actual threat was high,” Davis adds.

Sometimes it’s not the bleeding-edge products but the more obvious tools that are the most useful. That’s according to Caleb Bushner, VP of digital strategy at Mission North. He argues  that PR pros should not forget the “incredible tools that are hidden in plain sight,” such as Google Analytics, which he calls “sometimes criminally overlooked when it comes to foundational analytics and metrics.”

Knowing your audience should be the very basics of a PR person’s work.

“Google Analytics is not even that hard to pick up and learn,” Bushner says. “Make it a point to turn more people into GA experts, and your business will thank you.” Beyond Google Analytics, he says his colleagues like Brandwatch paired with qualitative insights from HotJar or Qualtrics. This tool “gives you a much more well-rounded view of what audiences actually care about than just about any other platform or combination,” Bushner says. “And knowing your audience should be the very basics of a PR person’s work.”

Yet as Brian Buchwald, head of global intelligence at Weber Shandwick, points out, recent policy changes around the world have made it harder for software providers. “Between GDPR [in Europe], the [California Consumer Privacy Act], the social networks’ pullback on data sharing and other privacy-oriented changes, many of the primary software and data vendors have pulled back in capabilities and become less individually valuable,” he says. Because of these changes, Weber has focused its efforts on building its own IP that it uses in concert with third-party software vendors and data providers.

“This empowers a holistic view of the stakeholder landscape our customers are grappling with,” Buchwald notes. “It also enables us to ensure compliance within our own governance processes so that we can safeguard that end value without putting reputation or client data at risk.”

The current global sentiment makes this all the more important. Therefore, Weber is working to build custom machine learning models to “find stakeholder actions like cancellation intent or changes in sentiment for particular stakeholder groups to keep our clients abreast of critical changes for their businesses,” Buchwald explains. Doing so requires using a network of many tools, vendors, data sources and proprietary builds to make sense of rapidly changing information.

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