Technology, data, and the desire for validated insights are changing our roles as public relations professionals and the organizations for which we work. Beyond storytelling, media relations and creativity, your senior leaders expect you to understand business fundamentals as well as the technology and data sciences that propel business results. In order to raise the profile of the public relations function within the organization to elevate the success of the enterprise and advance the profession, corporate communicators must harness the advantages that business knowledge, technology, and data sciences provide. While this task may seem enormous, the solution starts with each of us making a humble commitment: begin simply but simply begin.
This book outlines the emerging methods and developments that allow you to optimize the PR process and quantify the power of corporate communications. We begin with a review of public relations technology, data, and insights and a discussion of the forces driving these trends. With a better understanding of these assets, we can look at how they can be applied throughout the communications continuum, including landscape analysis, objectives setting, strategy development, tactical design and execution, evaluation and continuous improvement. The goal is to improve efficiency, performance, and return on PR investment with each rotation through the cycle so that we can better connect public relations outputs with business performance and the overall success of the enterprise.
Why the PR profession needs to change
The business world typically sees PR as a “people business” combining the skills of stakeholder relationship management, ingenuity, and interpersonal communication. By this definition, PR is “soft,” meaning it cannot be measured. In a world driven by data-informed decision-making, the absence of PR data means PR’s value remains entirely subjective, an undesirable position which puts our professional standing at risk. And yet despite the many opportunities for public relations practitioners to evolve through the focused use of technology, data, and insights, many in the field make a deliberate choice to do nothing, opting instead to reinforce the notion that “public relations is an art” rather than recognizing the underlying science beneath the art. Timeworn canards that “technology is too sophisticated” and “PR data analysis is too complicated” are mere rationalizations since so many simple options are available at low cost, even free. Communications technology (or CommTech) allows PR professionals to execute more efficiently and speak the same language as corporate decision-makers. Communicating in the language of business positions us as invaluable counsellors to power. By not taking advantage of these assets, many practitioners purposely choose to limit their upside potential. Simply stated, the absence of applied technology, data, and insights is a matter of “unwillingness” rather than “inability.”
While the concepts supporting technology, data, and insights may feel new to many professional communicators, the concepts are traceable to PR’s earliest days of the twentieth century (discounting the very earliest examples of prehistoric public relations when cave paintings were the first forms of story visualization).
Public relations always embraced technology
If we define “technology” as “equipment and machinery,” technology has always been central to public relations, though in forms we may not recognize now. For example, where we now have email, PRs once used the United States Postal Service; while we now compose content using our keyboards, typewriters have keys, too; whereas we now use streaming video, practitioners once relied upon VHS tapes and, before that, “industrial films.” We now manage our journalist database on our PC or through a platform whereas public relations professionals once relied on their Bacon’s books, Rolodexes and Addressograph plates. While we now capture news in real time using low-cost portals and Google Alerts, we once depended upon our clipping service to deliver a twice-weekly envelope of manually sourced, hard-copy clips snipped from newspapers and magazines. Before the internet, we had only the public library, encyclopedias, print media, radio, and television. And, perhaps among the greatest transformations, social media, which as a form of “unmediated media” simply has no antecedent other than the barber shop, the neighborhood diner, and the town square.
In the late 1950s into the early 1960s, PR underwent a technology boom. After the Second World War, special PR service companies emerged to meet the needs of a growing profession to handle database management, printing and mailing, wire distribution, film production, press clippings, and more.
Today, we benefit from built-for-purpose technology to help professionalize public relations and to enable public relations departments and PR agencies to do more with less and for less. Emerging technologies apply artificial intelligence and virtual reality… and who knows about the advances of which we haven’t yet dreamed that will continue to propel public relations forward.
Public relations always embraced data
Often called “the father of public relations,” Edward Bernays referred to the practice as a “social science” because it was reliant on scientific methods to build theories that persuade, motivate, and explain the behavior of individuals, groups, and organizations. Bernays employed surveys to make a better case for his clients’ positions and products. He also applied data as a means of generating publicity. Because of his efforts and the evolution of applied data in the profession, public relations research and evaluation now enjoy wider acceptance than in the past. And while communications data science may seem as if it’s new, it may be that it’s just new to you since it’s been around for more than 100 years.
To illustrate the point, we once tabulated the volume of print clips and circulations but we now calculate print and digital circulation as well as TV audience, social followers, and unique visitors per month. In the past, we used mechanical adding machines and calculators. Twenty-five years ago, my older colleagues described how they applied specially designed adhesive tape to create bar charts on graph paper. Now we use low-cost PR technology to capture and visualize content exposure, and to produce reports with just a few mouse clicks. Through the 1980s, we were limited to simple clip-counting; now we analyze the quantity and the quality of the earned media content we generate, including the tone and presence of intended and unintended messaging, spokespeople, competition, opposition, reputation attributes, and much more at a highly granular, actionable level of detail. Before technology enabled instantaneous online surveys, researchers conducted in-person interviews and mailed questionnaires to capture public opinion for further analysis and evaluation. The time intensity and related costs meant that only the largest companies could afford anything more than semi-annual surveys. Focus groups were once the only way to capture people’s organic commentary in their own words. Now, social listening and analysis enable researchers to capture unfiltered comments from thousands of people in a single day in ways that are statistically valid and projectable to a larger population (which focus groups are not).
Through the late 1990s, the only way to isolate PR’s contribution to business outcomes happened in those rare cases where PR operated in isolation and by using A/B testing (which in and of itself was rarely done). In and around the year 2000, market mix modelling emerged as an early “big data”
approach to clarify the connection between a marketing output and brand performance and business results. AT&T’s Bruce Jeffries-Fox created the first marketing mix model to include PR data and first quantified PR impact. But even after that success, PR data was rarely integrated into marketing mix model data streams, and when it was, it was often lumped into the equation as “other” (in other words, “unexplainable”) without ever being attributed directly to the public relations function. The models reflected a derived impact based on algorithms rather than actual impact. They were expensive and slow, with most brands conducting the analysis only once a year on a single brand, even among the largest, most diverse consumer packaged goods companies. Now, attribution analysis connects digital earned media coverage with a quantifiable subsequent behavior. Advances in automated market mix modelling now offer sophisticated approaches to uncover the relative return from PR as well as any other marketing endeavor. Attribution technology and automated models enable fast and inexpensive big data analysis across the marketing and communications mix.
Public relations always embraced insights
The prestigious Arthur W. Page Society, one of PR’s most exclusive professional associations, defines the role of communications in the fifth of its seven Page Principles: “As a management and policymaking function, public relations should encourage the enterprise’s decision making, policies and actions to consider its stakeholders’ diverse range of views, values, experience, expectations and aspirations.”1 Within this context, the public relations professional is a counselor to and a member of the leadership team striving to contribute directly to the performance of the enterprise. Quantifiable, reliable, and actionable insights are the foundation of good counsel.
Communicators strive to operate at the high levels achieved by Arthur Page, Vice President of AT&T and an extraordinarily rare example of a PR person serving on the board of directors of one of America’s largest companies. High-achieving corporate communicators frequently bring insights, but those who support their insights with a rigorous foundation of data earn their coveted “seat at the table” because they speak the language of the board room: data (not “buzz” or “hits”). Many public relations practitioners subsist in vague and indeterminate service to what Chief Communications Officer and Page member Andrew Bowins calls “deli counter PR,” fulfilling management requests for “’a pint of press releases’ and ‘a quart of press clippings.’”
Whereas executives expect public relations professionals to deliver creativity, too many communicators rely on variations of “what we did for that other client” or “this worked last time.” Conventional thinking is the enemy of innovation and breakthrough results. The data-informed, insights-enabled communicator drives positive change and contributes measurable business performance through the intelligent and timely application of technology, data, and insights.
When public relations functions in a data vacuum, insights are unreliable. Where data resides, intelligence leads to insights that connect PR output to outcomes, more effective decision-making, and improved business performance. While public relations decision-making continues to rely on experience, observations, and hunches, insights based on rigorous data science coupled with expertise and experience lead to dependable and scalable strategy and execution.
The forces driving change in PR
While many of the basic tenets of the profession—creative muscle, an ability to build and sustain relationships, an aptitude for interpersonal communication, and a gift for the written word—continue to be important, these skills require greater speed, agility, and decision-making power than ever before. This is where technology, data, and insights become invaluable to us. Communications technology enables us to manage and execute quickly; communications data empowers us to navigate with less waste and greater confidence; and communications insights enable us to contextualize the present and plan the future.
What caused the need for greater speed, agility, and decision-making power in our profession? Technology, data, and insights in public relations are but a manifestation of changes in society and in business in general.
Accelerated pace and disruption of business
The world we know changes constantly but the pace of change in the past five years accelerated at a spectacular rate. Most of us find ways to adopt and adapt to rapid change in ways that outpace the organizations for which we work. The rate of change and the threat of disruption distress many business leaders who understand the importance of innovation, the need to mitigate advantages held by competitors, and the difficulty of transforming nimbly. Consider how quickly the iPhone disrupted the mobile phone sector (and others including social media, photography, social media, and more) or the impact Amazon had on traditional retail chains. Even the mightiest competitors of Apple and Amazon were slow to transform operations, initiate digital strategies, and attract the required talent to manifest the necessary change.
Adding to our collective anxiety is the perceived need for immediacy. Most organizations use a variety of real-time technologies to support instantaneous executive decision-making. Despite our efforts to adapt, somehow the speed at which we operate will become even faster: the advent of 5G and WiFi 6 will hasten processing and wireless connection speeds by a magnitude of 3×. For fully automated operations like programmed stock trading, for example, that rely on algorithms to buy and sell large numbers of shares, a millisecond can make a material difference between profit and loss. However, the importance and immediacy of such technology diminish in cases where thoughtful decisions are required. In these cases, the technology serves as a platform to enable expertise and experience. These situations rely less on real time and more on “right time,” which is to say, the speed of the decision being made.
For corporate communicators who must adapt to the accelerated pace of business, many technology platforms offer low-cost, real-time or near-real-time access for news and social media dissemination, social listening and media monitoring, analytics, and reporting. Problems arise when people assume that the real-time tool can do everything you need with uniformly high quality and efficiency. It can’t. Since our focus is on technology, data, and insights, let us concentrate briefly on technology. The technology promises real time but communicators often overlook the time it takes to manage the platform. Selecting media lists for distribution; identifying target journalists; updating journalist/influencer contact information related to conversations and pitches; setting up search strings and dictionaries; filtering your media monitoring results for irrelevant content; checking the analytics data for inaccuracies… all of this takes time and effort. So while the technology may be real-time at the moment of execution, we must invest many hours to ensure quality and speed when we eventually employ it.
For data-informed insights generation, we must recognize the need to “challenge the data,” to analyze the figures we produce and the analytics we apply to probe more deeply into the origin of the data, how it’s been processed, and whether it’s sufficiently reliable for communications decision-making. In short, the data may be accessible at speed, but we must think about the data and process the results through a critical thinking progression to understand its meaning. For us to optimize the data fully, we must consider it as less of a report card and more like a tutor. A report card tells you how you did last semester, but a tutor gauges past performance and tells you how to improve in the future: What do we know now? What do we need to know to perform even better? What new possibilities emerge through thoughtful analysis? Where should we focus our time and effort?
As corporate communicators, we play an important role as counselors, involving ourselves early in the strategic planning process. We must also seek opportunities within the practice and throughout the organization to uncover opportunities to partner with marketing, finance, and other areas of the organization to promote reasonable risk-taking and to enable positive transformation and growth. Such collaboration requires thoughtful proactivity since intra-company collaboration raises the stakes for public relations. As such, remember that while certain situations may require real time, integrational thinking requires a common platform for planning, execution, and evaluation. Data connects everything within the organization. The chances for successful integration improve when purposeful data-informed collaboration drives the conversation.
Artificial intelligence and machine learning
From autonomous vehicles to SIRI to online shopping recommendations, artificial intelligence promises to do for us what we once could only do for ourselves, only more efficiently. While most of us interact with artificial intelligence in some way every day, we can agree that it continues to develop. But who hasn’t been amazed by technology that mimics human intelligence? The technology replicates actions once considered unique to animate beings. Every day and in almost every industry, we deploy technology to take action, to make judgments based on its ability to mirror human attributes like cognition, perception, and ingenuity. Machine learning, a more common form of artificial intelligence, is a method of developing computer systems that absorb information and evolve based on the computer’s experience. Some common machine learning applications include medical diagnoses, self-driving cars, investment fund management, legal discovery, and work evaluation. The publisher of this book applied AI to help with editing and proofing. As such, expectations for the technology are high and optimism among business leaders remains great. At the same time, concerns over disruptions in the labor markets, unsupervised weapons deployment, and increased vulnerability to cyber terrorism, among other risks, cause hesitation among others. The full potential of artificial intelligence confronts industries and companies to consider, assess, and plan for certain obstacles, the most notable of which are a true understanding of what the technology can do and what it cannot, the skills required to manage the technology, and funding requirements for all this.
Like business everywhere, public relations must evolve. The ripest opportunities for artificial intelligence and machine learning in business relate to tasks described as repetitive or dangerous, which hardly describes public relations as we know it. However, as public relations practitioners, we need to recognize that the companies we represent and the media with which we collaborate face enormous challenges as the new technologies emerge. Communicators must prepare to represent riskier aspects, for instance automated market trading losses or an accident related to an autonomous vehicle. Many newspapers already use artificial intelligence to “write” routine announcements such as earnings and sports scores, to uncover fake news, and to fact-check reporting.
Business priorities demand that whatever can be automated will be automated. While we explore artificial intelligence in Chapter One, many of public relations’ unique and valuable contributions are distinctly human. Artificial intelligence promises to monitor news and social media, inform media targeting, and enable better message detection and planning, but someone needs to manage the technology. And while artificial intelligence and machine learning may generate data used for better communications decision-making, the process requires human expertise to think about the data to generate the actionable insights that empower breakthrough communication.
Through globalization, individual economies around the world seek to streamline the marketplace, elevate competitiveness, limit international skirmishes, and spread prosperity more equitably. What’s more, global organizations pursue lower taxes and lower cost of labor, some of which they find outside the borders of their headquarters nation. Despite recent trends toward a heightened sense of nationalism, tariffs, protectionism, and, for some organizations, an “anti-globalization backlash,” institutions of all kinds continue to depend on one another regardless of location. The success of economic openness and international governance will be measured by the extent to which nations compete, collaborate, and achieve their respective goals.
Those of us in public relations must think globally and act locally. As economies around the world become more and more closely linked, developments in communications technology enable us to monitor international trends, analyze data on a worldwide scale, and uncover insights which enable us to execute local communication programs from any place to any place at the pace of business. Internationalization places an increased burden on the public relations professional as social/cultural sensitivities and language must be simultaneously coherent and nuanced (not to mention political, economic, and business frameworks that make everything even more difficult). In recognition of these challenges, large multinational organizations and PR agencies employ resident communications teams to execute programs that drive local outcomes that quantifiably contribute to their headquarters’ objectives (wherever headquarters reside). Diverse stakeholder groups—employees, investors, consumers, regulators, and the communities in which organizations operate—deserve localized information and intelligence to better navigate their relationship with your company.
Ubiquity and mobility of technology
Sometime around 2016, the number of smartphones in use worldwide surpassed that of laptops and desktops, according to GlobalStats.2 In their earliest iterations and reflecting the origins of desktops and laptops, manufacturers considered smartphones primarily for business applications because of their high cost. However, with the convenience of an all-in-one device for voice communication, video and photography, messaging, personal information management, social, and wireless, the smartphone became essential to most of the world’s population. For communicators, the “always on” culture produced through mobile technology translates into a 24/7/365 culture for public relations along with the stress that accompanies it. Inaccessibility comes only because of a deliberate choice to disconnect, so much so that some companies felt forced to create “phone off” policies to enforce a better work–life balance. But disconnecting means you might be absent from even the small chance that your organization or your client may encounter an imbroglio requiring instant access and immediate response to an emerging crisis (commentary about which can be made even more compelling and viral when accompanied by video and photos taken by citizen journalists). Mobility equals accessibility for all concerned: you, your management, your stakeholders, your competition, and your opposition. Your ability to manage the technology, your skill in thinking about data, and your capacity to contextualize at the speed of business is a measure of your professionalism and a modern-day requirement.
Shifting news consumption habits
With new and archived information at our fingertips via the internet and social media, an organization’s stakeholders are more informed than ever with instant exposure to a vast array of sources, opinions, facts, and figures. For communicators, public relations materials endure for years if not decades. Stakeholders can access a press release and the media coverage that resulted from it whether it appeared this morning or a decade ago. For public relations— unlike advertising and other forms of marketing for which there may be no digital footprint—this enables an extraordinarily slow decay rate for earned media coverage that can be either good or bad depending on the news and information for which one searches. Positive reviews inform decisions for years while an unmitigated crisis results in the opposite, including diminished market share, lost market capitalization, and, in some cases, extinction. With more and more decisions—even small decisions—based upon online search, including elections, regulatory actions, purchases, employment, healthcare, investments, and practically every aspect of daily life including what’s for dinner, the internet now represents the fabric of everyday living. As such, professional communicators must act both with immediacy and for the long term as every PR action remains searchable, retrievable, and educational to inform attitudes, preferences, and behavior for many years to come.
In 2018, the Pew Research Center declared that social media outpaced print news as the most frequent source of news for Americans (TV news was most popular).3 Moreover, reflecting another important shift, in 2019 Pew reported that “mobile outpaced desktop when it comes to … occasional use of digital devices for news. Eight-in-ten US adults get news on mobile devices either sometimes or often.”4 Public relations is more than just media: it’s employee communication, investor relations, reputation management, and more. Nonetheless and for the most part, “media” continues as a central theme across most public relations departments and agencies. As such, we must be even more nimble to initiate and respond to the media with the highest penetration among our target stakeholder groups. The media mix may be in flux—as it always has been—but the need to identify and communicate efficiently remains a constant, with the added challenge to reach each of our stakeholder concentrations using the channels they prefer. Survey panels and new technology, called “attribution analysis,” provide demographic and firmographic data to identify the best media matches to enable greater efficiency and information consumption among the right people. When contextualized, communicators develop insights into which journalists and influencers resonate most strongly among target audiences; which journalists and influencers are most receptive to your organization’s news; and which can be reached most efficiently using the channels preferred by the tier-one journalists and influencers your research identifies.
The media business
The rapid introduction and domination of social media place it on top of information dissemination including news, elections, regulatory and legislative action, and marketing. Far beyond its origins, social media now leads our modern discourse. Especially as it relates to news, business, government, and politics, social media’s potential for good and evil increases because it’s “unmediated media.” Influencers—some of whom display a naked interest in presenting a particular side of an argument—leverage an advantage in going directly to the public and bypassing any journalistic principles supporting balanced reporting “without fear or favor.”5 Building on the last point, people tend to trust “people like me” rather than experts, government, and the church. Where better to find people just like us than among our circle of social media friends and family?
Despite many challenges, professional journalism is alive if not exactly thriving. The advertising model, which fueled the media business for three centuries, has crumbled. In 2019, according to the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina, “more than one in-five papers has closed over the past decade and a half, leaving thousands of our communities at risk of becoming news deserts. Half of the 3,143 counties in the country now have only one newspaper, usually a small weekly, attempting to cover its various communities. Almost 200 counties in the country have no newspaper at all.”6
Nick Newman of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, reporting in “Journalism, media, and technology trends and predictions 2020,” asserts: “The last ten years were defined by the twin technological disruptions of mobile and social media, which fragmented attention, undermined advertising-based business models, and weakened the role of journalistic gatekeepers. At the same time, social and political disruptions have affected trust in journalism and led to attacks on independent news media in many countries. The next decade will be defined by increasing regulation of the internet and attempts to re-establish trust in journalism and a closer connection with audiences. It will also be rocked by the next wave of technological disruption from AI-driven automation, big data, and new visual and voice-based interfaces. All this against a backdrop of economic and political uncertainty which will throw up further challenges to the sustainability of many news organisations.”7
For the professional communicator, the new media landscape represents both opportunity and risk. Research tells us which media, journalists, and social influencers are most and least receptive to a particular theme. At the same time, data informs which media perform most credibly and efficiently in reaching a specific target audience. Research also reports the degree to which we deliver organizational messages directly, persuasively, and credibly. Through the dominance of social media, we risk losing the benefits of higher standards that come with professional journalism, which greatly reduce the potential for “fake news” and weaponized social media. Public relations and journalism are intertwined and each of us shares an interest in the viability of the media business. With shrinking margins, consolidations, and bankruptcies, print media in particular are under siege. As the journalist’s partner, we should all do our best to support them.
Trust and the ‘truth’
The 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer8 reports that despite a strong global economy and near full employment preceding the Covid-19 pandemic (which may perpetuate even lower degrees of trust), neither government, business, NGOs, nor the media are trusted. The decline in trust for the four societal institutions the study measures, Edelman says, “can be found in people’s fears about the future and their role in it, which are a wake-up call for our institutions to embrace a new way of effectively building trust by balancing competence with ethical behavior.” Trust dissolves with the malleability of “truth” (as opposed to “fact”). As we see too often in our political discourse, accusations of “fake news” and the increasing popularity of fact checkers, “Pinocchio counting” and “truth-o-meters,” which exist to highlight transgressions. “Truth” is based on reasoning, and if you’re persuasive enough, you can convert me from my truth to yours. On the other hand, a “fact” is a “proven truth.” As such, every fact is true but not all truths are facts.
For the corporate communicator, we must be mindful of the consequences of lost trust as we have in some ways contributed to it. Product claims for “new and improved,” “made in America,” and “organic” often come from public relations and advertising departments only to be proven false under scrutiny. In terms of our day-to-day, professional communicators must tell the truth with honest and good intention to portray an organization’s character and values. What’s more, we must embody the truth and our values by proving them through our behaviors. People judge an enterprise more by its actions and less by what it says.
Purpose and the rise of corporate social responsibility
Perhaps as a result of lost trust across our great institutions (government, politics, religion, and the media, for example) or maybe because businesses have earned our trust by supporting corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives, more and more of the world’s populations now look to companies to contribute positively to our planet, our nations, and our individual well-being. As a reflection of this change, Business Roundtable, an association of chief executive officers of America’s leading companies, shifted its emphasis in August, 2019 from “shareholder primacy” to “an economy that serves all Americans” including customers, employees, suppliers, communities, and shareholders.”9 Earlier incarnations emerged in the late nineteenth century as Andrew Carnegie, among other titans of industry, committed to building libraries, parks, and performing arts centers as a way of sharing wealth among those in need. Corporate social responsibility emerged in the 1970s as a similarly focused social contract for “doing good,” including but not limited to funding, companies began to incorporate social practices into their business models (“sustainability,” for example). Now, corporate social responsibility is an essential business strategy for companies large and small around the world.
More recently, environment, social, and governance (ESG) has emerged as an extension of CSR and as a means to quantify the degree to which a company operates ethically, sustainably, and with respect to social causes for investment purposes. Theorists, financial analysts, and investors believe that companies that reflect these priorities perform better than those that do not. As such, asset managers and other financial institutions increasingly rely on ESG ratings to measure, evaluate, and compare companies’ ESG performance. Socially responsible investors synthesize the three domains— social, environmental, and corporate governance—to create an ESG score. Once a niche investment area, responsible investing now stands as a major measure of corporate performance and guides the preferences of those who wish to invest within ethically defined parameters. In recent years, it has become a much larger proportion of the investment market. As such, ESG’s standing within the C-suite became increasingly important, too.
Also related to corporate social responsibility, “purpose” seeks to connect business performance with society. In November 2019, for example, the United Kingdom’s Institute of Directors (IoD) introduced a Manifesto on Corporate Governance10 that set out three objectives for new standards:
- Increase the accountability of the UK corporate governance system to stakeholders and wider society.
- Improve the competence and professionalism of UK board members— whose role is central to business decision-making.
- Enhance the ability of board members to pursue long-term, sustainable business behavior—including addressing the challenge of climate change.
The movement toward creating corporate purpose motivates employees, supports communities, and engages customers to recognize that a corporation and its brands aspire to go beyond profits to contribute a sustainable global guiding force. Purpose forms a foundation as well as a reflection to articulate why an organization exists, what problems it solves, and who it wants to be for all stakeholders: to attract and retain the best talent and to earn customer loyalty, to cite two examples. When companies align their business with societal purpose, they build deeper connections that often lead to higher market share, lower cost of business, and higher sales. Increasingly, businesses are harnessing the power of purpose to achieve profitability as well as contributing to the betterment of society. As an example, PepsiCo introduced “Performance with Purpose” in 2006 to support its products, the planet, and the people who occupy it. The company reduced its use of plastics in packaging, introduced reduced-salt and whole-grain options for its snacks, and made its delivery fleet more fuel-efficient. At the same time as upholding its purpose, the company delivers strong financial results.
For professional communicators, we must tell our CSR, ESG and purpose stories authentically, engagingly, and credibly to maximize impact. For example, Procter & Gamble’s push to be “a force for good and a force for growth” depends, in part, on its PR team’s ability to share compelling stories to support the company and its brand commitment to diversity, equality, and the environment. However, more important than “telling the story of purpose,” public relations professionals must encourage the enterprise to “act with purpose.” When companies and brands communicate with purpose in ways that are trustworthy, genuine, and persuasive, and then legitimize what they say through action, they earn trust and loyalty by elevating humanity to the heart of the initiative. Organizations must embed corporate social responsibility, ESG and purpose into every action while remaining flexible and agile to meet changing social dynamics. Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter responses revealed the readiness of organizations and the communicators who serve them. In March–April of 2020, companies and brands were limited by the permissions granted from the media and the public. By the last week of March, 2020 when the US rate of infection continued to climb while the pandemic rates in other parts of the world began to flatten, an analysis of news coverage in the USA revealed that Covid-19 news in combination with President Trump dominated roughly 90 percent of the domestic capacity for news in digital/print media. Forward-thinking communicators applied data and analysis to realize the limitations they faced: an insightful review of the data revealed that the media’s appetite for corporate and brand news was limited to themes related to helping others—especially healthcare workers, furloughed employees, and the sick—lest they seem insensitive and uninformed. Routine proactive public relations activity like new product announcements died on the vine (if they were even tried at all). Companies and brands found ways to demonstrate caring and commitment that aligned with and supported efforts to help one another. By understanding, updating, and preparing, communicators knew their positioning, targeting, and timing while others were caught flatfooted. And the best communicators made sure that their company positioning was known throughout the organization so that one spokesperson reinforced every other.
The PR profession adapts to a changing world
The evolution of the profession continues, sparked by the many changes in society and business in general but also by some changes specific to public relations.
Professionalism of public relations
Earlier in the history of public relations, most practitioners expatriated from marketing or journalism and simply migrated to PR without formal training. Many universities began offering public relations courses in the 1980s (although New York University was among the first colleges to offer a class in public relations in 1923). Now, the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA), which identifies itself as “the foremost organization for students’ interested in public relations and communications,” upholds rigorous standards for public relations education and ethics. The organization began in 1968 with nine qualified colleges hosting PRSSA chapters; it now numbers 415 qualified institutions in the USA alone. Public relations master’s and doctorate programs offer postgraduate continuing education for the ascending practitioner and teacher. The graduates of these programs represent more and more of the total population of communications professionals as their predecessors retire. This group of communicators reinforce their creative and writing ability with public relations theory as well as a more formal understanding of business, finance, statistics, technology, and more. Many are now emerging into leadership positions and they expect their subordinates to be as qualified and well versed as they are.
Reinforcing the move toward higher standards, professional associations around the world established and regularly reinforce principles by which members must comply. The Arthur W. Page Society as well as the Institute for Public Relations, the PRSA, IPRA, PRCA, CIPR, ABERJE (Brazil), and the International Association for Measurement and Evaluation of Communication, among many others, hold members accountable for upholding standards for professionalism. Nowadays, many chief communications officers hold a Masters in Business Administration so they know how to harness data-informed business processes for continuous improvement. What’s more, they expect public relations to abide by these processes to make a quantifiable contribution to positive business outcomes.
Just as companies that behave well earn rewards, the degree of punishment for bad corporate behavior has never been more severe. Consider these examples:
- Samsung: Lost $10 billion in market value according to The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) due to its exploding phone problem and the airline warnings that followed.
- United Airlines: Lost $700 in stock value after dragging a customer off a plane and the subsequent CEO’s leaked letter to employees defending the action.
- Boeing: Lost $11 billion of market value within two days as it struggled to communicate its intentions for the troubled 737 Max. The former CEO’s lack of transparency and failure to listen compounded matters.
Warren Buffett famously said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.” The pain felt by each of these companies continues to haunt them years after the events occurred. For the most part, they recovered by saying and doing the right things, a process empowered by good corporate communications.
While the public relations department is not responsible for developing new computers or for designing aircraft controls, leaders often call upon the public relations person to clean up the mess. It’s important for leaders to know that, just like any other asset, reputation can be managed through foresight, authenticity, and responsible action. Using technology to capture real-time alerts while there’s time to mitigate, using data to quantify the potential impact of bad behavior and applying insights to guide authentic, ethical conduct are the responsibilities of the evolved public relations executive.
Emergence of search
Search engines enable stakeholders to retrieve news, information, and other forms of content for years… even decades. In this way, news—both good and bad—lasts forever for whomever wants to see it. As such, public relations people must plan for future retrieval of press releases, news items, and social media posts. The repository of earned media coverage, reviews, and organic news acts as one of PR’s unique assets when the content is positive. As opposed to other forms of marketing communication which appear and then disappear without a trace, public relations activity endures, affecting awareness, understanding, preference, and behavior long after the campaign ends. Ordinarily, public relations budgets relative to advertising and other forms of marketing are extraordinarily small—sometimes less one-half of 1 percent (which means it often rounds down to zero). Whereas the effectiveness of a mass market television commercial, for example, may last for a week or two, and the effects of a price promotion may last only as long as the two-for-one offer is valid, the impact of public relations on sales can last for months or years. When combined with low PR budgets (“$0”), PR’s long-tail effects translate to extraordinary efficiency relative to other agents within the marketing and communications mix.
Within this context, search engine optimization (SEO) has emerged as a requirement for professional communicators to enable social sharing at the same time as it “future proofs” output over time. Done properly, SEO involves audience research to uncover target audience triggers for content consumption such as messages and media that are both compelling and credible. Beyond content, the data-informed communicator also needs to know about the paths stakeholders take to raise awareness, gain understanding, and spark a buying decision.
While many of the basic tenets of public relations—such as creativity, an ability to build and sustain relationships, an aptitude for interpersonal communication, and a gift for the written word—will continue to be important, these skills require greater speed, agility, and decision-making power than ever before. This is where technology, data, and insights become invaluable to us. Communications technology enables us to manage and execute at speed. Communications data empowers us to navigate with less waste, better performance, and greater confidence. Communications insights enable us to contextualize the present, plan for the future, and optimize business outcomes for the benefit of the enterprise.
Technology, data, and insights become fundamental elements in the public relations/corporate communications mix as technology drives execution, data propels analysis and understanding, and insights enable corporate vision and the consultation required to achieve it.
In the following chapters we’ll look more deeply at public relations technology and its many applications; we’ll explore sources, methods, and uses for PR data; and we’ll consider approaches for uncovering actionable insights. Finally, we’ll review the public relations continuum and how it can be better informed through technology, data, and insights to achieve breakthrough results.
QUESTIONS PR INVESTMENT DECISION-MAKERS MUST ASK
- To what degree do we combine technology, data, and insights to understand our business environment?
- Do our public relations balance the best of tools and talent?
- How well do we integrate our public relations data into our business decision-making?
- To what extent do our enterprise leaders look to public relations for business counsel?
- Do we consider the impact of our statements and actions on all stakeholders, in every place we operate?
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