By: Ellie Clark

The role of Big Data in PR is underexplored, what does it mean for measurement?

The PR industry is obsessed with measurement – and for good reason too. Demonstrating the tangible outcomes of PR activity is, in short, essential for the survival of the profession. Better measurement can give the industry legitimacy and it secures further investment. If communications don’t contribute to the organisation’s bottom line in concrete ways – then what’s the point?

Understanding the true impact of communications, however, is complex. How do you understand if a piece of coverage really resonates with the people you are trying to affect?

The very essence of PR is managing reputations and changing attitudes or behaviours which are largely unquantifiable. This makes evaluation tricky. For decades, experts relied upon Advertising Value Equivalents (AVEs) to measure activity. Estimating what the size of the coverage would cost, if it was paid for advertising space, is nonsense. It provides no indication of the sentiment of the piece or if competitors are mentioned, for example. AVE is widely discredited by the Barcelona Principles of 2010, but it is still used by PR practitioners.

Given this challenge, there is an opportunity for Big Data. Arguably, the incomprehensibly large datasets can overcome some of the inefficiencies apparent in existing evaluation methods. Big Data can be used to analyse sentiment trends, prevent negative news cycles, engage with the holistic media landscape and generate insightful information about earned media placements.

I first became interested in Big Data from a communications perspective after watching Tricia Wang’s Ted Talk about the missing human insights from Big Data. This became the inspiration for my Masters thesis. I interviewed 10 UK PR practitioners to investigate if Big Data can improve the evaluation of PR activity and the legitimacy of the profession.

I found that…

1. Lack of sufficient education and resources prevent Big Data from being used in PR      

The absence of adequate education and resources means that often, Big Data is a tool which practitioners simply cannot use. Big Data in itself has few implications for PR – a layer of processing is needed to programme the data. Without competent training, understanding the impact of Big Data is simply not possible.

2. Ethics are a key concern  

Using Big Data to evaluate PR inevitably involves accessing detailed personal information. The practitioners expressed that using this resource is complicated without clear ethical guidance and consent platforms, which PR does not currently have.

3.  Big Data can inform objectives  

Without clearly defined and measurable objectives, there are no benchmarks to measure activity against – Big Data can help here, too. There are a number of surveys and resources which can be used to understand the demographics and interests of the people you are trying to reach. According to the experts I spoke to; PR does not use these resources enough in the initial planning stages.

4. Evident link between evaluation and legitimacy

The practitioners were confident that there is a definite link between evaluating communications activity and achieving legitimacy. Demonstrating the impact of PR was identified as a means to professionalise. It supported award entries and contributed to a greater awareness of what PR does.

Analysing communications in a scientific way leads to legitimacy. Practitioners felt that if the industry became well versed in scientific disciplines including data science and behavioural economics, evaluation would become standardised and measurement would be objective and reliable.

In short…

With enough resources, education and ethical guidelines, Big Data could be influential during campaign design and measurement.

PR is an impact driven industry. Proving the worth of communications is essential for legitimacy, growth and credibility. Big Data has not transformed evaluation yet, but it is clear that whilst evaluating PR activity remains complicated, it is not impossible.

Ellie studied MSc Strategic Communications at the LSE, she is now a Junior Account Executive working in the Technology PR team at Aspectus Group.

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