The Importance of Benchmarking Media and Why 2021 is Different

Media content analysis continues to be one of the most popular forms of PR research and evaluation. It involves deconstructing traditional and social media content. Text, video and audio content is converted into data representing individual messages as well as the names of spokespeople, opinion-leaders and influencers.

Once in data form, the researcher detects trends and insight and proposes action. Media analysis includes:

  • Quantitative analysis (frequency and reach);
  • Qualitative analysis (tone/sentiment and message delivery);
  • Comparative analysis (your performance versus other measures); and
  • Business Impact (how PR shapes revenue generation, efficiency and cost avoidance).

Without the context of comparative analysis, one can pursue what seems like a proper PR plan. Set measurable objectives, develop data-informed strategy and tactics, and evaluate performance…and get everything absolutely wrong.

Imagine this: a communicator sets an objective to improve 20 percent vs the previous period by generating 500 positive stories per month, 80 percent of which include at least one key message, with 20 percent appearing in top-tier media.

Even all objectives are achieved, though, you may fail miserably. Why? Because competitors aren’t idle. They may have generated 1,000 positive stories/month, for example. Without competitive benchmarks, you are partially informed.

Proper Benchmarking

When done corrrectly, benchmarking offers insights. The best comparisons to include are:

  • Performance vs objectives: Assuming you set measurable objectives at the start, good objectives answer what, when, among whom (the intended audience) and by how much (the level of improvement). Objectives such as ‘generate significant buzz,’ ‘break through the media clutter’ or ‘raise media awareness’ aren’t measurable.
  • Performance vs competitors: One of the most compelling metrics to management is whether you beat competitors (and how much). Even if you have many competitors, focus on those that matter most, including the ones that keep the CEO up at night.
  • Performance vs aspirational peers: There are times when a traditional competitive set may not provide the insights you need. Being the best among losers isn’t much. In that case, add an aspirational peer to enable pursuit of ‘the best of the best.’Performance over time: If you set measurable objectives in the prior period, you can measure how much you improved since then. Senior executives may not understand PR, but they recognize improvement. One wrinkle: the state of media business portends great difficulty if you focus solely on quantitative measures. Circulation is down and the emergence of news deserts, content sharing through common ownership, and bottom-line struggles reveal fewer opportunities for media placements.

Even if leadership knows little about PR, you may need to show only that you beat the competition, exceeded objectives and improved vs last year to prove that you invested the organization’s PR funds wisely.

Benchmarking in 2021

While benchmarking is as important as ever, consider what 2020 means to evaluation.

  • News hole considerations: In an early 2020 PRNEWS column, we showed that the pandemic and former president Trump occupied 93 percent of print and broadcast news. Consider the impact of George Floyd’s killing and the election. With limitations on space and time for other topics, your 2020 analysis may show a decline vs 2019 and a surge in 2021. While your performance almost certainly changed, almost everyone faced the same challenges. In this case, focus on measures like ‘tone/sentiment,’ ‘positive/negative share of voice’ and ‘number of positive key messages per story.’ De-emphasize quantitative measures and look more at qualitative, comparative ones.
  • Competitors’ reaction to 2020 events: Unless companies tied themselves to current events last year, they found themselves shut out of the news. Those who offered solutions to COVID-19 or took strong positions on sensitive societal issues earned favorable visibility. Many other stories were not seen as newsworthy in the face of #BLM and the pandemic. If your competitors donated masks to front-line healthcare workers, enacted employee protection programs and took a position on racism and you did not, you will find it difficult to win.


Like all communication research and evaluation, benchmarking takes place throughout the PR cycle rather than at the end of a sequence. Benchmark early and often to guide your progress toward continual improvement.

Mark Weiner is author of “Public Relations Technology, Data and Insights”