“Strategic communication without analytics is now a contradiction”

PR Moment’s annual #PRAnalytics conference took place last week at Ketchum’s London office in front of a packed audience.

Chaired by the International Association for Measurement and Evaluation of Communication’s (AMEC) Executive Director, Barry Leggetter, the event’s speaker line-up consisted of eight of the most influential opinion leaders on the PR industry’s Achilles’ heel – measurement and evaluation.

Meaningful objective setting is key

The importance of SMART (smart, measurable, aligned, realistic and timely) objective setting was the order of the day, with every speaker reinforcing the view that the use of analytics should demonstrate how PR activities are helping to achieve broader organisational objectives. 

Hailed by Barry as an ‘analytics evangelist,’ Andre Manning, VP and Global Head of External Comms at Philips, flew in from Amsterdam especially to share his thoughts on Best Practice and the story of how his department rose in prominence within the organisation with the development of a global 24/7 real-time online portal which employed an algorithm based on NPS (net promoter scores).

“You have to earn that seat at the top table, no-one gets it for free”

Andre was also keen to stress the growing importance of ROI analytics with reference to AMEC’s Valid Metrics Framework, particularly for NGO PRs, whom he believes can’t may struggle to retain their budgets without proving ROI. However he conceded that the industry is ‘still trying to find the holy grail of metrics.’

Big Data is Big Business

Ketchum’s Director of Research, Ben Levine, talked about how the Big Data revolution was creating and storing more data than ever before. But, harnessing insights from that data in order to make more informed decisions is a challenge for the PR industry and business in general.

Ben cited examples of effective use of Big Data insights, including Nate Silver, who accurately predicted election results in 49 of the 50 states in the US in 2012, based on an algorithm he developed built on polling information, as well as how the sports world in the US (and even a few English Premier League Clubs) is beginning to use data to identify more cost-effective athletes.

“If Big Data isn’t analysed in the right way, it’s meaningless. Companies that use Big Data effectively improve performance by 5-10% on average. We mustn’t be afraid to speak a little geek”

Ben acknowledged that at the present moment most PR teams don’t have sufficient time or knowledge to utilise big data, but he was adamant the industry is moving in the right direction.

It’s about asking the right questions first

Chris Foster, Vice President of the management consultancy, Booz Allen Hamilton, talked about how his firm have used open source data to identify patterns and predict future communications flows.

“Strategic communication without analytics is now a contradiction”

Chris talked about how Big Data must come from a variety of primary and secondary sources, such as:

  • Custom stakeholder research
  • Real-time digital listening
  • Internal data and external data
  • And good old fashioned desk research

Big Data analytics is particularly useful for crisis comms or issue management, according to Chris, as it’s possible to map out how certain stakeholder groups will react to something, based on empirical data analysis.

Chris turned the issue on its head by suggesting that the industry seems to be using analytics to find answers to questions, rather than using data to determine which questions we should ask in the first place.

There is no silver point for evaluation

Richard Bagnall, co-founder of Metrica and Chair of AMEC’s Social Media Committee, expressed concerns about the inconsistency and inadequacy of the 226 social listening services that currently exist and the tendency to capture easy figures (outputs), but not what matters (outcomes).

Moreover, Richard raised the question – when should we stop measuring our efforts online, where content is permanent and non-linear?

Richard advocated his own definition of PR as ‘trying to communicate the right message to the right target audience at the right time, in the right medium to achieve an objective.’ So the question is how can we measure?:

  • Out-takes – what do people think or feel after exposure of PR outputs?
  • And outcomes – what will people now do differently?

Richard reinforced the inadequacy of the social media measurement by citing the allegedly most influential person on Twitter in Britain – One Direction’s Liam Payne…

“Popularity is being confused with genuine influence. Influence is when you think or do something you wouldn’t have otherwise.”

Richard then reinforced the recurrent theme that there is no silver bullet to PR evaluation – the answer depends on the objectives.

Secrecy is dead

Brandwatch’s CMO, Will McInnes talked about how brands are harvesting info from the social web and developing it into editorial ideas, using ASDA’s Social data-driven PR strategy #ChosenByMe as an example – the supermarket is daringly printing comments sourced from social media on its packaging.

Will was also keen to stress the power of data to reinforce positive behaviour and create a sense of networked psychology, referencing Brighton Hove Council’s bicycle counter.

However, Will’s key message was that complete and utter transparency from brands will become a pre-requisite to success in the future, citing how a San Francisco-based social media start-up called Buffer published all of its staffs’ salaries last year.

“If the most secretive company in the world can’t keep secrets anymore, no-one can”

Will also claims that soon there will be a ‘TripAdvisor for everything and everyone.’ Every professional will be rated and reviewed.

Linking PR to Sales is not optional

PR must prove its impact on the bottom line, according to Mark Westaby of Spectrum Insight.

Mark claimed PRs have to get to grips with ROI or will forever remain on the fringes of the business. 

It’s easier and cheaper than most people think.

Using a sweet corn brand as an example, Mark spoke about how his company cross referenced PR outputs with patterns EPOS data to demonstrate how online coverage of sweet corn recipes could account for 77% of product sales.

Intriguingly, Mark also illustrated how to geo-locate social word of mouth to specific regions in the UK – leading to much more targeted and effective initiatives.

“Listen to the right people – what emotions are they expressing? Emotion drives sales and PR is excellent at generating emotion amongst consumers.”

Don’t bite off more than you can chew

eBay’s Head of Strategic Comms, Ben Matthews, discussed how his department is overcoming the challenges of the website’s business model on demonstrating ROI.

“eBay doesn’t own any of the inventory it sells, so we have to look at the impact we’re having in a different way”

Nonetheless, Ben echoed the theme of organisation aligned objectives, insofar as he seeks to dispel the misconception that eBay is just an auction website. 72% of what eBay sells is fixed price and 70% are brand new products.

Although eBay’s analytic framework was still a work in progress, according to Ben, as in a business like eBay, strategic priorities can change in a matter of months.

Ben expressed scepticism of developing algorithms, insofar as they must relate to something meaningful and most are flawed. In this respect, analytics can be seen as an art, not just a science.

Volume of coverage (excluding organic), reach, cost per thousand, penetration of key messaging, influencers reached online and amount of awards won are still key metrics for Ben’s department in determining success. However, outcome measures such as omnibus surveys on key stakeholder groups are now being used too. 

Demonstrating ROI in Government Comms

The final speaker was Robin Riley, Head of Digital & Corporate Comms at HMRC, who reiterated Richard Bagnall’s concerns of inconsistency in amongst digital metrics, as researchers found 427 different metrics actively in use in digital marketing in November 2013.

“Evaluation is about learning outcomes, not the tool. Think what it is you want to measure then decide the tool”

Robin illustrated how HMRC’s simple, yet effective methods, for measuring how digital activity was helping to achieve organisational objectives. Examples of how HMRC’s graduate recruitment Facebook page activity was delivering the same ROI as exhibiting at a university graduate job fair as well as how HMRC’s Twitter activity contributed $5 billion to revenue during the last tax year.

What next?

Since the declaration of the infamous Barcelona Principles in 2010, there have been some significant changes in the PR industry. AMEC will hold its next summit in Holland on 11/12th June 2014, which will try to further guidelines for practitioners on Best Practice in the advent of the issues of Big Data discussed above.

The PR industry is on the right path to developing sophisticated, data-driven evaluative methodologies, like other marketing disciplines. It is high time PR took itself seriously.


Sean Ball is a final year undergraduate studying BA (Hons) Public Relations with Marketing at Leeds Met, currently writing a dissertation on the future of measurement and evaluation of PR. Sean interned at the EMEA communications department at The Walt Disney Company last year (2012-2013) and has worked at several PR agencies in Leeds, as well as freelancing for the third sector. You can check out his blog here.

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