Beyond Vanity Metrics: Data-Driven PR for Measurable Results

Leveraging data is all the rage in the business world these days—big data, data science and data-driven decision-making are common buzzwords. Every industry is buzzing about utilizing data for smarter solutions. Public relations is no exception, with the term "data-driven PR" being thrown around frequently.

However, truly turning data into actionable insights for PR requires much more than just paying lip service to buzzwords. It demands creativity, strategic thinking and a willingness to carefully examine results.

There is a common misconception in the PR profession that its impact is inherently difficult to measure. Many practitioners rely solely on surface-level metrics like total media impressions, readership of a publication or ad value that provide little insight into actual business outcomes.

However, this PR data myth is self-imposed. Client organizations likely have many underutilized data sources throughout departments such as sales, marketing, web analytics, social media and more. Strong partnerships between PR and other teams like marketing and advertising are crucial for accessing those valuable data streams to create integrated, data-driven campaigns.

What ‘Data-Driven’ Means

At its core, being data-driven means grounding your strategy formulation and decision-making in relevant and defined data sets backed up by evidence, not just experience and intuition. This crucial first step involves defining exactly what strategic decisions need to be made and what key questions need to be answered through data. Consider the following:

  • Are you trying to identify the audiences most engaged with your brand currently?
  • Are you looking to understand where a new product's target audience gets their information?
  • Are you aiming to optimize an upcoming PR campaign based on past performance?

Clarifying these objectives upfront is essential. From there, the data sources need to be identified and gathered—and this is where PR teams need to get creative. Client organizations are sitting on a wealth of untapped data. Breaking down internal silos and collaborating across departments can open up a goldmine of audience demographics, behavior patterns and more.

From Data to PR Strategy

But accessing the data alone is not enough. It must be synthesized and translated into clear audience personas and insights that directly inform PR strategy. Some examples:

  • Build robust profiles of the exact audiences you need to reach.
  • Understand their motivations and information pathways.
  • Use that evidence-based foundation to shape your story narratives, messaging venues and influencer partnerships.
  • Don't let limited data sets like media lists or past publicity reports constrain your thinking.

Of course, the true test of data-driven PR comes in measuring the results and optimizing future efforts accordingly. Once again, PR professionals must resist the temptation to fixate solely on vanity output metrics. While tracking earned media pickups or overall impressions has its place, these figures alone say little about actual business impact and return on investment.

To illustrate true outcomes, data-driven PR demands combing through other information sources for tangible evidence that your efforts drove meaningful action with your audiences. Consider the following:

  • Were there unexplained spikes in website traffic, lead volumes or ecommerce sales after a
    major PR push?
  • Did social followings, organic search queries or sales inquiries surge in correlation with your efforts?
  • Did customer surveys indicate PR coverage played a role in driving brand awareness or purchase decisions?

By connecting these types of data points and eliminating unrelated variables like paid marketing efforts, PR teams can construct clear lines of insight into their performance. And those outcome-focused insights should immediately cycle back to reevaluating the original audience profiles, strategies and future optimization opportunities.

This full-circle embrace of data-driven principles is what separates true practitioners of data-driven PR from those simply jumping on the buzzword bandwagon. It requires an open-minded, creative approach to identifying and analyzing relevant data sources. It means moving beyond simplistic output metrics to rigorously pursue authentic audience insights that
shape strategies.

As data continues driving strategic decision-making across industries, public relations professionals must fully embrace data-driven principles to solidify their value and credibility as expert communicators. Those willing to get their hands dirty with data-driven principles will be rewarded with smarter, more effective PR programs that create value their current and future clients can't ignore.

Jessica Whidt is Managing Director at Warner Communications.