This post appears as a part of AMEC’s Measurement Month.

Public interest and ire are generated every day as result of news coverage. However, in a world that is increasingly connected and “smart,” PR metrics for media relations work – as important as that work is to shaping public opinions and agency revenue — continue to feel like something out of the dark ages. While advertising has made strides to introduce new measures that align with an evolving communications landscape, on the earned media side, circulation numbers and publisher site traffic data still reign as industry standards. How can brands be sure attention for their stories is being earned when the dominant measures remain at the publication, versus the article, level?

In an increasingly complex media environment for generating positive news and managing issues, understanding who cares and who doesn’t about brands’ breaking news can make a huge difference in guiding messaging and media relations strategies. This, coupled with public skepticism about fake news and the growing reliance on social feeds – not publications or news sites – for information, means it is more important than ever that PR professionals have the tools and analytics to understand where and how to organically garner the attention of target audiences.

To achieve this in the current environment, communicators must have access to new and better data sources that extend beyond legacy macro-level output metrics such as coverage counts and publisher-level media impressions. Success in the current environment, characterized by an ever-expanding array of content streams and fragmented audience attention, requires that more granular data and more advanced analytics be infused into the art of media relations planning and execution.

While digital advertising has continued to refine thinking around its measures, such as viewability and in-target impressions, earned media continues to operate with dated measures that have not evolved to reflect media channel and usage realities. Across owned and paid media, marketers have access to custom segmentation data and audience demographics to evaluate whether specific pieces of content are resonating with target audiences. Earned media metrics have not evolved sufficiently in this regard.

Top-tier news and business earned media outlets are typically defined (and coverage in them evaluated) with little regard to content target audiences versus publisher reach. Further, little to no information is typically available on who actually consumes specific pieces of news – which, today, are more apt to be accessed via a social feed than directly on a publisher’s news site. The painful truth is that our measures are growing increasingly disconnected from the realities of the media environment.

There are, however, alternative methods available that provide better data and greater opportunity for using earned media metrics to move beyond static reporting of coverage volume indicators to true audience intelligence. Through a partnership with Hitwise, a Connexity Company – Weber Shandwick is now beginning to tap the Hitwise panel of eight million people, to index earned media consumption by age, gender, region and consumer lifestyle segments based on article-level data.

The depth of insights about earned media performance that can be gleaned from analyzing article level data is a significant departure from how earned media has traditionally been analyzed. It can provide intelligence around the audiences that should be prioritized when working to promote, balance or reshape brand narratives. It can also offer media relations teams analytics that support greater rigor and precision in planning activities and evaluating audience engagement with specific news stories and news outlets.

For example, a high level review of September coverage for the seven-day period ending on September 12th showed, not surprisingly, that news content about Hurricane Irma dominated audience attention. A review of news content across 100 top-tier news and business media sites found that of the top 20 online news articles engaged with during that timeframe, 85 percent were about Irma. Only one piece among the top 20 most engaged with online news stories referenced a commercial brand – and that coverage was associated with a crisis event. The other two pieces among the top 20 were political in nature – a Fox News Tucker Carlson Tonight video segment featuring author Mark Steyn commenting on Hillary Clinton’s new book and The Atlantic essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates about Donald Trump. Audiences in the South Atlantic region, as should be expected, significantly over indexed for viewing coverage of Hurricane Irma and, of the 17 most viewed pieces of online hurricane coverage, eight were on More mature (age 55+) and Southern audiences for FoxNews over indexed for engaging with the video including commentary on Hillary Clinton’s new book. Conversely, younger skewing (age 25-44) and coastal audiences (in the Mid-Atlantic, New England and Pacific regions) for The Atlantic over indexed for engaging with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s essay.

While, as yet, there are no perfect or standardized solutions in this area, we’re excited about the potential to glean more meaningful insights about the audiences engaging with different types of earned media content and content across an array of online media sources. We’re appreciative of the partnership we have with data providers, like Hitwise, who worked with us to build out this capability and we encourage other agencies to pursue conversations around potential innovations with established and new partners in the earned media data space. Public Relations has come under fire for being slow to innovate, particularly in areas of data and data science. The PR industry as a whole must push for broader availability and adoption of audience behavioral data. Data that moves media relations work forward and that more closely aligns with the planning and evaluation data available to inform paid and owned channel activations. Only then will earned media – specifically earned media analytics – be placed on more equal footing with paid and owned.

Allyson Hugley is the President of Weber Shandwick’s Measurement and Analytics Practice. She is a member of the IPR Measurement Commission and the Market Research Council (MRC). Follow her on Twitter @HugleyA.

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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