Three Ways PR Can Use Data to Improve Performance

Data has given PR the ability to put science behind what was once considered art. It makes communications more customized and targeted, predictive and quantified.

Similarly, as communicators we also can use measurement to test assumptions. In that way, we can help improve operations of the businesses we work in.

Data and PR still struggle

And, yet, as communicators, there is still a struggle about how to apply data to our work. Why have data and PR had such a tricky relationship?

Consider higher education. Often at the directive (OK, pressure) of presidents and board members focused on academic prestige, PR pros at universities traditionally have spent countless hours figuring out how to get stories into The NY Times. Making sure target audiences on the right channels are receiving the university's messages wasn't a top priority.

I’m certain some readers are nodding in empathy with this example. Academia is far from alone in having leaders who think media relations begins and ends with placements in The NY Times or Wall St Journal.

Conversations about channel optimization and holistic campaigns are sometimes considered too marketing for academia.  In addition, marketing is misunderstood and vastly underestimated at universities. Often confused with branding or confined to business and law schools or online degree programs, marketing takes a second seat to communications. The evidence is a paucity of true CMOs in higher education.

Course correction

But now, some universities are shifting course – and data is helping drive that change. Job boards are filling up with postings for senior-level strategic marketers, content strategists and digital communications leads. The need is for those who understand how to harness the power of data and insights.

And communications departments are connecting more closely with their admissions and advancement counterparts. They are integrating PR and social with fundraising campaigns and recruitment efforts. This clearly demonstrates ROI against true financial objectives.

In light of this evolution, what ways can communications teams start to effectively use data to improve performance?

Track and audit constantly

Regularly audit peer and competitor channels to understand whitespace. Do this not just at a macro and brand level, but even on a channel-by-channel and story-by-story basis. Track competitor engagement levels and their reach as regularly as you do your metrics. Understand what topics they are leaning into, so you can determine the best way to differentiate your storytelling and stand out. Also, take immediate advantage of new social ad transparency policies to see what other institutions or organizations are promoting. This can help shed light on not just what others are promoting, but alert you to sponsored posts that are talking about you – accurately or not.

Use data to ensure that stories – and the way they are told – are resonating

Each story – whether on new research, improved educational offerings or even just cool campus features – has a unique audience. These groups seek and digest information differently. Take cues from our marketing counterparts and create a profile or persona of each key audience for the university. Include stats on news consumption habits and social engagement. When pitching stories or creating campaigns, use these personas as the foundation for your strategy. They are the best way to find that sweet spot of where to place a story to watch it take off. And then keep track of that post’s performance over time. Feed intelligence into future editorial conversations and decisions to constantly improve performance.

Integrate paid social as a key part of your 2020 communications budget

Whether to foster greater alumni engagement or chase more research dollars, targeting and amplifying content, especially earned media articles, is imperative for tracking performance and measuring success. But communications teams, unlike their marketing counterparts, often fail to put adequate (or even any) paid media dollars in their annual budgets. In today’s cluttered and highly confusing content environment, using old-school metrics like impressions misrepresents – and actually undervalues – communications’ influence. The data generated when paid is put behind a post or article can help teams prove that content is reaching intended audiences. Similarly, data can also closely quantify success aligned with business metrics. Such metrics include admissions yield, research funding and philanthropic donations.

Paid media and attitudes

I recognize that some faculty and academic leaders still look down on paid media. They think that a sponsored tag on social is akin to “pay-for-play.” This lessens the prestige of that hard-earned article on groundbreaking research. Not so!

Instead, note that 55 percent of U.S. adults get their news via social media, and organic posts have a very limited reach. So, without an extra boost, chances are that the coveted New York Times article will never reach its full, intended audience.

Yet another way data can be a higher education communicator’s best friend.

NOTE: A version of this content appeared originally in PRNEWS, November 2019.  For subscription information, please visit:

Brendan Streich is an SVP at FleishmanHillard