8 minute read

Can PR tech help improve data-literacy in your team?

New data from our 2023 PR Data Literacy research; which surveyed over 400 PR and marketing professionals, shows that over half (57%) of respondents lack confidence in their data literacy skills, with a similar number (44%) stating they had previously presented a metric they did not fully understand. 

Responses from in-house professionals reflect this knowledge gap, with nearly all respondents in this sector (91%) willing to invest more, but only if agencies worked to build client confidence in their capabilities.

That in comparison to the lack of confidence among agency teams presents the problem that needs to be solved. It’s clear that more PR budget would be readily available if agencies are able to upskill teams to meet client’s measurement expectations. 

So how do we up-skill and increase confidence? A combination of training and shift in culture is essential but how can PR tech vendors help? What is their place and responsibility in increaseing data confidence in PR?

James Crawford, AMEC board director and managing director of PR Agency One, and Stella Bayles, director of CoverageBook, aim to bring the subject to life by looking at this question from the point of view of tool user and vendor.

As both a vendor and a purchaser of tools, the comparison of their views provides an interesting perspective.

James Crawford, tool user

The opinion of an agency founder and managing director

As both a board director at AMEC and the managing director of a leading public relations agency, I’ve been collecting software licences like they are going out of fashion. Our annual software bill continues to expand as we increase the complexity of our measurement offering. Without tools, reporting is not impossible but very difficult.

Nowadays, the modern agency is often pulling together data from tens of different tools and sources and aggregating them into a single view or report.

Any agency or in-house team needs access to a tech stack, either directly or via a measurement professional.

Bridging the data literacy gap

Tools can help bridge the data literacy gap, but they can make it worse too. There can be an over reliance on off the shelf data and a lack of actual analysis, or a trust that the software’s own proprietary code and approach is right when that is not always the case.

Tools in isolation cannot solve the problem of data literacy or measurement; training is needed to ensure tools are used correctly and reporting is accurate.

At their worst, tools can lead to “chart porn” which can superficially look great but is low on insight. However, used well, the insights can prove our effectiveness and safeguard budgets.

Many tools only have one or two key features or datasets, and data needs to be exported into a database or data visualisation tool. Often, vendors are bolting on new features in a race for feature parity with other tech businesses which can add complexity and challenges for those with low data literacy or technical competency. The key is to know which features really matter and focus on those.

Tools that provide exports of data are the most helpful as these allow users to aggregate their own data into bespoke reports

Increasingly, licensing costs of software are a barrier to entry for smaller agencies, but free and low-cost tools do exist, such as Google Data Studio and Google Analytics. Often, someone who has learned to use the available free tools can be far more analytical and insightful than another who is relying on technology alone to solve all their problems.

Stella Bayles, a tech vendor

The opinion of a vendor

Having been on an interesting career journey from practitioner to digital marketing strategist, both agency-side to now providing tech to the public relations industry; I understand the challenges teams face with keeping up with new tech trends and being data-literate.

Be aware, but beware of magpie syndrome

There can be a tendency to get excited about a new data point or metric. It’s important to keep abreast of new tech and best practices (I wouldn’t be here, and you wouldn’t be reading this paper otherwise) but remember to remain objective.

The perfect metric for one team has its own context. There may be similarities, but it will be just a similarity – There should never be a cookie cutter approach to insight and measurement, because we’re not all working for the same client with the same objective.

Yes, the industry is behind other areas of marketing in data literacy but that doesn’t mean we are not drowning in data options. There is more data than ever available to us and that is only set to grow, so keep your head.

Remain clear on what it is you’re trying to track and prove, and only change your process, tech, or data points if you’re confident it will bring more value to your challenge and won’t affect your on-going data story of success.

A good way to organise your decision is by assessing new tools and their data as vitamins or painkillers.

Vitamins are “nice to have,” but not “need to have.” Often these are tools that provide value-add insight or have a new technique that could be useful but haven’t been tested

through your workflow yet. Vitamins are optional, are preventive and could become essential but you need to find your way with it. A painkiller is an essential piece of technology that is needed to solve a problem quickly.

One CoverageBook customer discovered us through their annual ‘automation week’; One week in the year all members of the agency department team would switch off client work (as much as possible) and focus on reviewing and improving workflow and tech use.

Each member of the team would be assigned an area of work from insight and strategy to activation, reporting and measurement. They would review the processes, research what’s new and available to their area, test, and report back to the team if they felt it could be automated or improve their service.

The team member assigned to coverage tracking was searching for quicker ways to get coverage metrics into their tracker excel sheet and stumbled across CoverageBook. In that week the team refreshed several tools and cut down on over 40 hours of manual work through switching to new technology. Real painkillers!

Consideration: Is it good enough to switch?

When considering new shiny technology that ticks a lot of client and team objectives it can seem like a no-brainer to switch right? It is if you have considered dirty data.

Dirty data! No!

Apart from sounding like a famous song by an artist who shall now not be named, it’s also an important part of your consideration in switching tools because clean public relations data is critical.

Tracking activity over time is the only way to identify insights on activity. Whether you have been tracking publication traffic, impressions, influence, Domain Authority (DA), links, SERPs exposure, coverage views… you get the idea…Consistency is king! It is only over long time periods can you begin to gauge upwards trends of success or areas for strategy change and improvement.

If you switch tech, it’s likely you’re switching data providers and if you’re switching data providers you could ruin your chances of pulling insights at a later stage. Even when it appears that some tools provide the same metrics there could be slight differences in how the data is captured and that slight difference will make your whole evaluation incorrect.

For example, you may be tracking page views as a metric and the new tech you’re considering reports impressions, they sound similar, but they are not the same. Switching will mean you can no longer track increased views over time to an important page you’re promoting.

Similarly, tools can provide proprietary metrics that have similar labels but have different formulas. Again, switching means you are not comparing like to like and will make insights overtime very difficult!

When you’re considering the new tool, dig a little deeper and ask:

  • Who the data providers are
  • How the data is captured
  • What period and when is it logged
  • If it is a score, proxy, or estimation, how is it calculated
  • Has any of the above changed in the last two years

Engage: Who is making data decisions?

As well as understanding the data points, original providers and how it is collected and logged it’s also important to know those metrics have been chosen for the tool.

At CoverageBook for example, there was a reason domain authority, link counts and estimated views on media and social coverage were selected for reports; The tech was originally built to solve a problem we experienced in an agency at the time when our communications team was required to report to multiple stakeholders with varying marketing goals across clients every Friday. We needed a more automated approach, so CoverageBook was born in 2014. We soon realised it was a shared challenge for many other teams when CoverageBook became a public tool. That said, your stakeholders might require different data each week.

Other tech providers may have travelled a different path to creating their tech, ask them what that was. Not only will you better understand the data you’re being provided, but it will also give you an insight into what might come next too.

Through these questions, you’ll find the perfect match in provider for you. Who is behind the tool, what’s their experience and knowledge, what’s their drive and passion for our industry, does it match with your own?

Commit and become a super-user

Once you commit to your tool, ensure you use it to its full potential. Be curious and challenge your tech providers as to why they believe in their metrics. Ask what insight the metrics can provide and if it can be associated with other levels of measurement.

Ask for ways other customers are using the data from the tool. Inspiration on uses of a metric could enhance your processes too. The public relations measurement team at Diageo for example, don’t just use the ‘Estimated Coverage Views’ metric in CoverageBook as an awareness metric. It tracks estimated views on media and social coverage and then uses it as a proxy for impressions. This helps it compare spend and views on earned activity against owned content and paid activity.

What is the grand plan?

Ask what the future looks like for the tool. Do they have investors? Can they share a roadmap? Are they planning on focusing on a particular approach to insight and measurement or a sector or type of PR? This will help you understand your relationship with the tech.

Investors could lead to fast growth or a sale; this could mean a change in experience in support and potentially your metrics. They may not share this information but it’s worth exploring!

If your tool is planning new features, get an understanding on the area of focus; could the features or data help you measure a new area of work, impress new stakeholders, or help you expand a new offering.

There are a lot of possibilities when you grow your relationship with your vendor, so have a chat. Some of us are nice.

About the authors

Stella Bayles is the co-founder of public relations reporting tool CoverageBook, she’s also the author of ‘PRs Digital Resolution’ – an ebook on using SEO in public relations measurement. Prior to working in public relations tech Stella spent 14 years agency-side, first in traditional PR, then specialising in SEO-PR for major European brands. Her unique approach in using SEO techniques to build campaigns and measure success led to client growth, multiple award wins and increased agency revenue by 85%. Stella now shares her knowledge with the industry through university lectures, event talks through the PR Resolution blog and podcast series.

James Crawford is the founder and managing director of PR Agency One. Since its launch in 2012 it has put measurement at the heart of its business. PR Agency One’s proprietary evaluation system OneEval predates the AMEC framework and has since been developed into three distinct products that focus on three areas Commercial, Reputation and Brand. His personal interest is in commercial attribution. James is an expert in Google Analytics and tracking commercial outcomes.

The full report is available to download for free from the PRCA site.

The report include contributions from:

Iretomiwa Akintunde-Johnson is a lawyer and lead public relations and communications adviser at ID Africa

Orla Graham is a senior insights consultant and Account Director at CARMA

Sophie Coley is director of strategy at digital marketing agency, Propellernet and a leading expert on search listening

James Crawford is the founder and managing director of PR Agency One

Alex Judd is head of impact and planning at Clarity PR

Steve Leigh is managing director of specialist research and measurement company Sensu Insight

Shayoni Lynn is CEO and Founder at multi-award-winning behavioural science communications consultancy, Lynn

Andrew Bruce Smith is a specialist digital public relations, social media, search engine optimisation (SEO) and analytics trainer and consultant

Allison Spray is the managing director for Data + Analytics at H+K Strategies

Stephen Waddington is the managing partner of Wadds Inc., a professional advisory firm that supports agencies and communication teams.