The Democratization of PR Tech: There’s No Reason to Sacrifice ‘Form for Function’

Editor’s Note: Days after the New Year began, private equity group Symphony Technology Group unveiled a global media monitoring, measurement and workflow management company for PR and communication. It fuses PR and communication vendor Onclusive with UK-based media relations workflow provider PRGloo and Kantar Reputation Intelligence, Europe’s largest media monitoring and analysis firm. The new company, known as Onclusive, will have 1,000 employees in eight countries and support 9,000 organizations in 130 markets.

At our deadline, Manuel Moerbach, former Statista president and CEO of the Americas and APAC, was named Onclusive’s CEO.

Prior to that, we spoke with Onclusive president Sean O’Neal. He said the combination of technology and human expertise still offers the best solutions for PR pros. In addition, he believes PR and media relations technology has progressed to the point where the excuse ‘We can’t afford custom tools and so are unable to measure’ no longer holds. O’Neal’s remarks were edited for clarity and space.]

PRNEWS: We hear a lot about AI eventually removing the human element in analytics. It sounds like your argument is that while tools and technology are vital, the need for humans to interpret data and extract insight remains important.

Onclusive President Sean O'Neal

Sean O’Neal: I don’t see [the human element] going away anytime soon. Onclusive was a pioneer of machine learning, bringing it into the media-monitoring analytics space well over a decade ago…our engineering teams are on the bleeding edge. Even still, the machines are not quite as intuitive [as humans] and lack the EQ of [human] practitioners themselves.

So, humans are needed who can dive into the why. For example, what’s the market’s feeling about ESG issues and reputation? And what words in my communication should I use to make the most of those opportunities?

PRNEWS: That leads to a question about reputation. Why do we see some companies seemingly disregarding reputation?

 O’Neal: They’re the exceptions. Reputation is like oxygen; it can’t be ignored. In fact, you’re seeing the financial community starting to increase its monitoring of reputation. Companies that are making strong inroads in ESG and inclusion are part of market cap valuation.

The bigger irony is that PR doesn’t always get its due for making reputation stronger. What the new Onclusive will do is measure a company’s communication strategy against a set of reputation pillars, like transparency and sustainability. We’ll help a PR team both improve and prove its influence in building and maintaining reputation.

PRNEWS: Will communicators in 2022 move away from expensive measurement tools toward simpler, cheaper instruments?

O’Neal: We’re at a stage of innovation where PR teams don’t need to sacrifice form for function. I think it’s less about cost.

PR pros now can use a tool and access leading-edge technology without, as you say, needing a degree from MIT. We’re now there.

The AI portion should work completely in the background. The front-end user experience should not be intimidating. It should be friendly, intuitive and useable, meaning it covers the full swath of functionality. You don’t want it to be simple, but only give you a few things.

As I said, that’s where we are. That’s what communication teams should expect.

PRNEWS: Is the PR tech market similar to the 1 percent scenario? The 1 percent is huge companies and large PR firms that can afford to have custom-built tools. The 99 percent is everyone else, forced to use free or low-capability tools. 

O’Neal: I think that was the state of the industry for a while. But over the last several years, technology has been liberated, democratized. We, like other companies, have custom-built solutions and also technology for other segments of the industry.

PRNEWS: So, when PR pros claim they lack the resources to measure, it’s not a legitimate claim?

O’Neal: No, it’s not.

PRNEWS: Are PR pros measuring and using analytics more as a result of the uncertainty for business during the first years of the pandemic?

O’Neal: Yes, but. It’s the pandemic, but also a number of other factors that have presented during this unique period.

PRNEWS: Such as?

O’Neal: Major political events, runaway inflation, stock market volatility. So, there’s a lot more noise in the media and there’s a need for PR teams to sift through the noise so they can make sense of, monitor and influence what’s happening around topics that matter to them. And, yes, as you say, uncertainty in the pandemic has raised the stakes for a lot of companies…and a lot went out of business.

PRNEWS: What trends do you see in media relations?

O’Neal: This is so important. As you’ve written, we’ve seen a hyper-shift in media fragmentation. Today a blogger might be the journalist a brand needs to track the most. And there are thousands of blogs starting every day. The PR’s pro’s job was hard before this fragmentation. It’s harder now.

Today the media relations pro has to figure out who of the millions of journalists out there can help us the most. Who should I even be talking to? The concept of the staff reporter [with one central beat] seems to be fading away. And journalists are under more pressure. So, your media relations workflow tools today require technology that is as sophisticated as what’s in your PR analytics [solutions].

PRNEWS: You’re part of a merger of three companies. Is this a way of addressing the need of offering many solutions on a single tool with one login?

O’Neal: Yes, the market has told us a unified solution is valuable. And we’re not the first, of course, to have a quote-unquote complete solution.

But the biggest benefits are not simply operational. Yes, a single login is operational and it’s valuable. So, to some degree the market is saying, ‘Hey, simplification is beneficial.’ But [the merger’s] biggest benefit is the unification of the data itself.

Having the ability to join the earned, owned and social media insights in a way that provides a PR team with a more complete view of how their brand and certain topics are being covered and engaged with [is critical].

PRN: So, it’s like a holistic sentiment analysis?

 O’Neal: It’s a joining of data sets into a meta data set with more abstract insights that cut across everything. So, it’s really the wider, deeper insights that are the value.

PRN: So, what can you tell the PR pro now with the unification of data that you couldn’t before?

O’Neal: If a PR team wanted a combination of really advanced impact metrics, like PR Attribution…

PRN: Which basically is the bottom of the funnel, ie, which pieces of media led to actions, such as downloading information and converting leads to sales?

O’Neal: Yes. So, say they wanted [PR attribution] and an integrated media relations workflow where they could not only see what media is driving sales for their brand, but also wanted to act on it. So, which publications and which journalists were behind the performance and run a campaign for [those journalists] and build a relationship with them. Those two workflows were not joined previously.

PRN: And PRgloo brings that media relations workflow tool?

O’Neal: Right. So, you can action on that data in a seamless way versus having to procure multiple solutions and have the data in the insights not be joined up.

When the data is not directly joined up it’s a little inefficient. You have to, as you said, use multiple logins and toggle back and forth between systems. And then there’s also data loss. You actually lose visibility into things.