This essay first appeared in PRNEWS.

As communicators gear up in 2020, we reflect on the past, look forward to the future and consider the many opportunities and challenges ahead. Thoughts turn to new beginnings, fresh starts and replenished budgets. To succeed, we must discard old notions, reject tired chestnuts and dispel the myths that stifle our profession. In particular, public relations research is the subject of misunderstanding, misconception and, as a result, misapprehension. What are the myths that hold PR back? We thought you’d never ask!

Public relations research is too complex and too expensive for us: Communications research is more accessible to more professionals than at any time in the history of PR (some do-it-yourself platforms are even free).  Despite the limitations of free and low-cost tools, they provide simple ways to conduct an on-line survey and a media analysis upon which you can create an appetite for the data and insights they enable. As the interest in data and insights grows among internal clients and your team, resources for more evolved approaches will materialize to take you even further on your public relations research and evaluation journey

PR measurement, analytics, research and evaluation all mean the same thing: As the wordsmiths representing our organizations and clients, we must strive for precision in every instance. As such:

  • Measurement is the lowest form in this hierarchy; it’s equivalent to “counting”
  • Research involves gathering, analyzing and interpreting data about a market, a company or a brand, and its past, present and future potential
  • Evaluation requires expert judgement to draw data-informed conclusions about quality, merit or worth

Realtime analytics are essential: The pace of business and society often demands immediacy and responsiveness. Still, high-stakes situations require thoughtful consideration, in which case, “right time” matters more. Here, “right time” represents the speed of deliberate decision-making, often at higher levels within the organization. To fuel such decisions, the trade-offs between speed, accuracy and budget shift the balance in ways commensurate of the situational implications (which may be high)

PR research will only tell us what we already know: While that’s true some of the time, wouldn’t you enjoy the benefits of pre-testing your hypothesis in advance of launch? Reassurance holds great value when alternative approaches may be too speculative, expensive or even careless when under closer scrutiny

PR tools are “insights engines:” While technology plays an essential role in achieving the desired insights and analysis, it represents only one-third of the insights equation. The other two parts reflect the need for “research” and “evaluation” (see above) which are the two human complements to achieve a reliable outcome: “Sector expertise” ensures that the data and research are undertaken by people familiar with public relations, your industry and the media,. The third element, “Statistical acumen,” guarantees accuracy and an ability to reveal the stories below the surface. Eliminating any one of these three parts translates into findings that are either inaccurate, irrelevant or inexecutable

Artificial intelligence now drives most PR research programs:  While artificial intelligence captures a lot of attention in the public relations discourse, there’s very little that qualifies as true artificial intelligence (as opposed to machine learning which is a lower-form of AI). Machines continue to struggle with intangibles. Taking content analysis, as an example, there are hundreds – maybe thousands – of ways an author expresses a reputation theme like “innovation.” Without humans to “teach” and manage the technology, the project will fail. The future of AI in public relations holds great promise but it won’t be “hands off” and it’s not here yet

PR research kills creativity and negates professional expertise: This argument implies that the sterility of data conflicts with the ingenuity of the communicator. On the contrary, research and evaluation focus the communicator’s brilliance on the areas holding the highest potential for explosive results and positive returns on investment

Connecting PR with sales remains out of reach for all but the biggest companies: Until 2018, when advances in marketing technology enabled public relations professionals to track clicks from the digital news article level all the way through to on-line purchase, this myth held true. In the past, the only ways to quantify PR’s contribution employed marketing mix models (still popular) or the rare case where PR operated in isolation with no competing factors to influence the buying decision. Now, even lower budget PR campaigns – even B-to-B – track consumers from article (origination) through awareness, consideration, understanding and purchase (optimal completion). Called “attribution analysis,” the incremental budget for this technology falls within most PR budgets

The right budget for communications research is 10%: This canard suggests that all companies and brands occupy the same stage in their respective life-cycles. The right answer: “It depends.” If you plan to announce a breakthrough product, 20% may not be enough to optimize the occasion. If, however, you plan to milk a dying brand, 2% may be too much. The best advice: “speak with a communications research expert. They can guide you.” A great source for free information is the Institute for Public Relations (www.instituteforpr.org)

When we think of “myths,” we tend to think in terms of ancient societies who explained certain phenomena by applying limited knowledge to uphold a particular belief, which, in turn, typically supported the conventional wisdom of those in power at that time. Today’s leadership knows enough about business and the power of data sciences to elevate the enterprise in ways that go far beyond PR’s purview.

As we seek to quantify PR’s unique contribution, to communicate our impact on business performance and to remain relevant, measurement, research and evaluation hold an essential position for the modern communicator. And as we seek to elevate ourselves, our employers and our vocation, we must approach the process as fully informed professionals who are unfettered by conventional wisdom and focused on generating a positive return on PR investment.

Mark Weiner is the Chief Insights Officer for Cision. To read more of his writing, please visit the company blog.

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