Editor’s Note: Our Chief Insights Officer, Mark Weiner, wrote this column for PRNEWS November 2021 issue. The findings cited are based on PRNEWS’s survey of 150 communicators conducted in October 2021. Interestingly, his forecast for predictive analytics became a reality when PublicRelay launched its Predictive Suite in January 2022.

The results are in: The 2021 PR Measurement, Tech, and Talent Survey reveals where we are as a profession and where we’re headed, at least in terms of communications research and evaluation. In this column for Measurement Month, I’m focused on one question, specifically, “What’s the next big thing for communications research and evaluation?”  

The Advantage of Predictive Analytics for PR

Everyone answered this question to share their predictions, but, in an ironic twist, only 12% consider predictive analytics as a “big thing.” How odd that everyone felt comfortable aligning on the future, but only 17-out-of-150 respondents believe that research-based predictive analytics will play an important role.

Perhaps that’s why few PR people work in meteorology.

Significant resources are being applied to predictive analytics by savvy research providers who recognize its power to reveal important aspects for planning and activation. Imagine predicting the virality of a news item or a post. How would you like to know where your competitors are headed so you can preempt their position or mitigate any advantage? Consider the advantage of knowing which stories will—and will not – gain traction. How many times have you had to calm a client or an executive over your tepid response to their desire for a vanity press release, or their response to a negative story or a competitor’s announcement?

Why PR Measurement Needs Both Technology and Talent

The pendulum of “what’s important now and in the future” continues to swing. Of course, “near term” and “long term” are important distinctions when contemplating the future, but let’s look at each response to this survey question.

For one, consider the gap between the 5.1% of respondents who believe that what’s most important is “An emphasis on automation, AI and DIY,” versus the 21.7% who chose “A balanced mix of technology and talent.” Could it be that everyone already owns a PR platform? And now that they own it, perhaps they realize that technology in isolation is not the answer (it never was, and it never will be). The question evolves from “which technology?” to “who manages the technology?” and “how do we think about the data?” 

Surprise! Current technology is not a panacea: operators need training – the technology needs training, too. As someone who believes in our uniquely human contribution, I’m encouraged by this phenomenon, and you should be too: it underscores the paucity of talent in PR hiring situations – in the absence of viable candidates, talent trumps technology and you command greater remuneration.

I am encouraged by the lower scores attributed to “Automation, AI, and DIY.” While there’s much more that technology can do, we may have reached the stage where technology development for PR evolves towards iterative refinement. There aren’t many pure breakthroughs left to unleash upon the mass PR market beyond contact databases, media monitoring, and simple media analytics (although I believe that predictive holds great potential). When you consider how the activities most vulnerable to automation and AI are those which are rote and routine, we can see how PR is insulated. How many PR days are so mundane? Given our creative endeavors which require innovative thinking to address chaotic, unpredictable situations, you should have nothing to fear. And, based on the responses, you don’t.

That’s good news: we in public relations are safe from robot replacements and we may look forward to enhancements that make our work easier and faster so we can focus on what we’re singularly capable of achieving.

Communicators Still Want to Quantify PR’s Value

The least surprising responses are two sides of the same coin: “A fully integrated analysis across the marketing and communications mix” and “A solution for quantifying PR’s impact on business outcomes like sales and revenue generation.” A combined 46% of respondents envision this as PR’s next big thing. The two ideas are interrelated because to isolate PR’s impact on business outcomes, we also need to know our relative contribution across the marketing and communications mix.  As such, the second is predicated on the first.

But it’s been PR’s next big thing for 30 years.

The difference is that marketing and communications analytics have evolved dramatically. And here’s where technology shows great potential to boost integrated marketing communications. With cascades of data, business in general and PR specifically can ascend beyond what anyone would have imagined in the past. And these technologies continue to evolve. Now, we have access to lower-cost multi-touch attribution and marketing mix modeling. Multi-touch attribution collects specific user-level data to quickly isolate specific events and assess their impact on conversion (“the customer journey”). Marketing Mix Modeling was first used in the late 1990s. Applying advanced regression analysis, these statistical models quantify the success of marketing and communications activities over time. Unlike attribution modeling, it is much slower, favoring annual or semi-annual analysis and heavily dependent on historical data but it reveals a much bigger picture.

Each in their own way contributes to understanding PR’s impact on business outcomes and explains the ways by which PR interrelates with other marketing agents. When combined, attribution and modeling create an even more formidable platform to accurately quantify PR’s contribution and to inform near and long-term planning and evaluation.

Why ESG is the Next Big Thing in PR

Now for my prediction:  Often the contrarian, I believe that ESG will be the next big thing because it answers so much of what communicators envision for the future. Investment advisory services like Morningstar quantify ESG as a predicate for investment, and they estimate that one-third of all investors factor ESG into their buy and sell decisions. ESG is a function of two elements: a company’s behavior and the reputation it creates for doing good. To a high degree, PR owns reputation. Until now, investors considered reputation to be a “soft asset” that couldn’t be quantified. With the advent of ESG investing, that’s changed. What’s more, compared to attribution and marketing mix models which reveal PR’s ability to generate a few million dollars in revenue, reputation affects billions of dollars in market capitalization. ESG introduces PR to the big money.

PR’s Continuous Evolution

Only time will tell. As is so often true in the evolution of public relations, business, and humankind: the predicate isn’t so much about technology or methodology; it’s about people’s willingness to change. One thing about which we can be certain: our profession continues to evolve and elevate, and these changes will profoundly affect public relations as we know it.

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Mark Weiner is a Trustee of the Institute for Public Relations and the author of “PR Technology, Data and Insights: Igniting a Positive Return on Your Communications Investment.”

Originally published in PRNEWS November 2021 issue.

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