My PR qualification is a Masters in Science. The class, with many years of work experience between us, wanted an explanation of why this wasn’t an Arts degree. Our course leader justified it by emphasising that effective PR is more science than art. Like all scientific approaches, communications should be both evidence-based and improved over a sequence of iterations. Yet, out in the real world, I have often been disappointed by how unscientific the approach to media relations is, especially now the digital and social side of the communications equation has become more data-driven.
With organisations developing a customer focus that is results-oriented and relies heavily on insights from the Big Data generated by digital interactions and predictive analytics, PR still hasn’t got close to maximising the benefits of the data at its disposal. True, industry awards include measurement criteria and clients demand performance metrics. However, the notion of actionable data and how to use it for business benefit eludes many organisations because PR remains fixated with obtaining media coverage for its own sake. Relationships – with publications, bloggers, sponsors and so on – can override the primary objective of creating impact in the marketplace, if the true impact of those individuals and media on raising awareness, building reputation and supporting business goals is poorly understood.
The science of PR is focused on audience behaviour, models of influence and channel performance. Instead of developing a target media list that contains every conceivable title relating to the topic in question, PR teams should consider how likely those media are to deliver a decent return on effort and budget expended. How likely is the content to be seen and read, based on what we know about audience behaviour and the influence level of the publication? With most media now online, this level of data is accessible and provides invaluable input to campaign planning and targeting. We can calculate the Interested Audience for any given piece of coverage and model how one media outlet compares to others in its ability to find the audience and deliver key messages.
An SEO-style Approach to Ranking Media
For example, we know that when media content appears in top Google search results, its impact is greatly amplified because it remains online long past its publication date. It is now possible to accurately predict the chances of any individual media publication appearing in top Google search results for any given brand or topic. While organisations use SEO to promote their Owned content, they seldom stop to consider how Earned media contribute to their online presence in search results. Having an SEO-style metric for the effectiveness of Earned media vastly increases the success rate of the target media list in reaching the desired audience. Indeed, coverage can gain a bigger audience through appearing in search results than through direct readership of the media in which it appears. Yet how many PR professionals are even aware of this let alone taking it into account during measurement and planning?
Analysing Audience Interaction with Content
Similarly, recent research has turned what was traditionally best PR practice on its head. For years, journalists have encouraged the submission of images, often refusing to publish online content without an accompanying photograph. We now know that people pay less attention to images than to the words used in a piece. The subjective appeal of emotional adjectives is often far more engaging than a picture and when the ratio of sentiment adjectives to the overall number of adjectives in an article is high, audiences tend to read longer and further. Despite this, most press releases still use the terse, objective style that journalists expected twenty years ago, devoid of colourful adjectives and emotional appeal. However, with the vast majority of media content now consumed online, it is possible to gain detailed insight into the vocabulary that drives engagement for distinct issues and themes – insights which will entail a rethink of the language of media relations and online reporting.
The Eureka Moment
While PR teams may not be naturally inclined to consider data and charts, once the insights are available they become incredibly compelling. A recent client example illustrated this perfectly – the team in question was astonished to learn that the majority of its audience for a particular high-profile story was contributed by just four online media outlets, despite its distribution to a much wider list. In another example, we were able to illustrate that a high percentage of social media coverage relating to a campaign was actually retweets of links to content in specific Earned media, rather than retweets of Owned Twitter content relating to the same story.
Experience and reliance on ‘gut feel’ take us only so far. Where traditional media relations coincides with the potential of data-driven planning and execution, results will inevitably improve. A more data-driven approach to generating PR outcomes can be a great motivator, even for the most reluctant ‘scientists’ on the team. Showing the real value of media relations in today’s communications environment can only increase job security.