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From Hunches to Hard Numbers: Embracing Data-Driven PR for Success

The business world is obsessed – big data, data science, data driven. Anything can be data – it truly is nothing more than “factual information (such as measurements or statistics) used as a basis for reasoning, discussion, or calculation.” Of course, in the modern world we understand “data” primarily as referring to digital bits of information that can be collated, organized and analyzed. Every industry is buzzing about ‘data-driven’ decision making and ‘data-driven’ solutions.

What is ‘data-driven’ public relations?

A tertiary search of the internet for the term “data-driven public relations” (or PR) will refer you to articles defining data-driven PR as the use of data, research and analysis in press releases, pitches and brand storylines. This is PR spin! Despite the buzzy-ness of the term, data-driven is generally accepted as using data to inform business decisions, strategy, tactics, etc. With the development of generative AI tools, enhancements to media monitoring and social listening tools, and the maturity of the PR profession’s acknowledgment of the importance of measurement and evaluation, it is time for practitioners to stop spinning SEO buzz words and start practicing data-driven PR.

The PR data-dearth myth

There is a common refrain in the profession (perhaps self-serving) that PR is hard to measure and its most common metrics – impressions and ad value – are bogus. 100% accurate on all counts. However, just because the metrics the traditional PR measurement platforms spit out are suspect does not mean the practitioner should simply throw their hands up. Your client likely has many sources of data throughout the organization that the PR team / agency is not utilizing. Some may be harder to get access to than others, but this is one of many reasons why a strong partnership between the advertising/marketing team/agency and the PR team/agency is so important (another being integrated, cohesive campaigns).

Get creative, but make sure the data answers your question

I get it – your PR team is busy, so busy that they’re often tempted to skip ahead in the four step process of campaign planning: research (situation, audience), planning (goals, strategies, objectives, tactics), implementation, and evaluation (RPIE). However, the research is where the magic really happens. Being data-driven is about strategy formulation and decision making, so the first step is defining what you need to decide. If, for example, you are building a strategy for a new product launch from an established brand, you might want to first know who your brand’s most engaged audience is, how that audience differs from your new product target audience, and where/who that existing audience trusts to give them information about new products.

Step two is defining your data set. Many PR practitioners build a strategy and tactics that rely on limited factors such as audience reach, unique monthly visitors, or known influencers. That is an experience and intuition driven strategy, not a data-driven one. The data-driven PR practitioner would look for evidence. This is where you get creative. Ask the sales/revenue/advertising team(s) what data they have on current customers. Talk to the social media team about engaged users – what do they know about their demographics and psychographics? Talk to the web team to find out where web traffic and conversions are most often coming from. If the company is a B2C, what information can you glean from your credit card and bank partners on purchase behavior? Even fielding short surveys to your email database or social media networks can be helpful.

Build personas of the people you are trying to reach, take the time to find out where they are most likely to get information, and trust what you’ve built.

Did it work?

PR practitioners often rely on the number of pieces of earned media coverage, audience reach, and/or unique monthly visitors to media sites as their data set. These are great measures of output, but say little about outcomes. What business results, ROI, etc. came of your PR initiative?

Again, creativity and an eye for patterns are useful. Look for movement in web traffic – not direct click throughs or spikes, but waves of increased traffic that can’t be explained by anything other than increased visibility. This can also be visible in organic search volume. As much as possible, try to remove other variables, such as paid efforts, from the equation. Don’t just measure once. Look for a halo effect in the 2-3 weeks after a big PR campaign push. Other examples of data to collect and analyze include otherwise unexplained upticks in social media followers, inbound media inquiries, inbound calls, even self-reporting (‘how did you first hear of us’ surveys).

Collect your data and evaluate the success of your tactics based on measurable and meaningful business results. Then immediately take that evaluation and go back to your original research to evaluate where there is optimization opportunity for next time.

This is data-driven public relations.

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