The Future of PR Analytics 2019: shooting down the silver bullet?

Should we continue searching for the PR measurement “silver bullet,” that one metric or approach that will let us reliably measure the effectiveness of all of our activities? That’s the question that kicked off and provided the informal theme for much of PRMoment’s 2019 “Future of PR Analytics” event, held at Ketchum’s London office last Thursday.

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The topic was first raised when Imogen Osbourne revealed that 72 percent of Comms Directors surveyed by her The Pulse Business believed the PR sector should continue searching for a silver bullet metric (although most acknowledged it would be an uphill struggle). Only four percent believed it to be a theoretical impossibility. It’s easy to have sympathy for Comms Directors here: if there’s even a possibility that we can develop a metric or approach that allows us to reliably measure everything we do, of course we’d be foolish not to pursue it. Analytics technologies have evolved so much in just the past few years that it’s entirely reasonable to question what might be possible in the next five or 10. In the here and now, however, we are left with a few practical questions: does a silver bullet currently exist? If so, affordably? Is it logically possible that one ever could exist? If not, what can we do to maximise our understanding of our effectiveness?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the room didn’t end up answering these questions. A lot of interesting discussion certainly was had along the way, though.

Signal’s Felix Danczak gave a spirited argument in favour of AI-powered categorisation of content – and reminded the room how far we’ve come by recalling the days of Account Executives calculating AVEs by physically measuring coverage on their monitors with a ruler. Johnny Bentwood from Golin and Newswhip’s Paul Quigley gave further on-the-ground examples of how PR firms and in-house teams are putting data at the heart of what they do. The consensus in the room, and my own view, remained that we’re still a ways away from finding a one-size-fits-all metric or approach, but it was encouraging to reflect on how quickly analytics platforms have progressed.

AMEC Chair and CARMA CEO Richard Bagnall went further than others, questioning whether the silver bullet was the right thing to pursue at all: as each campaign has such specific objectives and executions, we may always need detailed discovery sessions and bespoke measurement programmes covering a wide range of metrics to really measure PR’s impact. As Analytics professionals, we shouldn’t shy away from that, and should instead promote the value we can bring by gaining a genuinely deep understanding of business and comms objectives.

The panel I participated in with Oracle’s Paul de Lara and IBM’s Justina Gilbert was largely in agreement on this point too: whether agency- or client-side, our best bet is to take a pragmatic approach to measurement by working with internal stakeholders to understand what they really need to know, what success looks like and finding the best, most specific, metrics we can measure to show that success. That may not be “true ROI,” as putting a firm financial number against PR is still a challenge, and the ROI question is often more reflective of overall business objectives than the specific PR objective being measured. We shouldn’t be afraid to have that discussion when asked to justify the value of PR. What we should do, though, is show clearly how PR objectives ladder back to the business objectives that are measurable in money terms.

Finding those specific metrics to measure success can be an interesting challenge, and the Cabinet Office’s Claire Pimm gave a fantastic example to round out the day. When measuring awareness of a smoke alarm battery testing campaign, the government’s analysts realised that very few devices in the UK use 9v batteries, with smoke alarms making up the lion’s share. By measuring something they can see, 9v battery sales, they were able to get a tangible proxy measure for something it’s often difficult to see in PR measurement, awareness.

Overall, while we may not be much closer to a silver bullet than we were at the start of the day, attendees enjoyed some fantastic presentations and genuinely thought-provoking discussion.