Public relations is sometimes referred to as the "persuasion business," and that nickname says it all. PR campaigns are largely about convincing an audience that something (such as an event, a person, a company, or a transaction) is important and supporting that claim with clear reasons.

However, it may be time for the PR industry to start campaigning on its own behalf. Global industry growth slowed to 5% in 2015 marking a significant downshift from its double-digit growth just two years prior. Meanwhile, spending on PR information and software is going up, reaching $2.9B in 2015—a 5.5% increase over 2014.

The diverging dynamics show that in 2016 and beyond, PR needs to be a business of technologically powered proof—not just persuasion.

For the PR industry to grow and thrive, it needs to prove its direct value in the most tangible ways possible.

Amid the ever-evolving digital media landscape, the following best-practices will be integral to proving the value of PR efforts delivered by agencies, firms, and in-house departments of all sizes.

Owning the discipline

The lines between marketing, PR, and digital media are getting so blurry that even leading PR stakeholders are unsure what to call themselves. A recent global survey found that only 27% of agency leaders believe that by the year 2020 the term " public relations" will clearly and adequately describe their work.

This isn't a brand-new issue in the sector. The difference between a "strategic communications consultancy" and a PR firm has never been crystal-clear. But even as content marketing, brand strategy, and other disciplines increasingly infiltrate the PR field, industry stakeholders need to own the importance of PR. 

At its heart, PR remains the most important vehicle for building mutually beneficial relationships between entities and their audiences. That's vital for everyone inside the sector to remember (and to continually remind and prove to their clients).

Keeping trust first

The mutually beneficial relationships mentioned above are centered on one all-important foundation: trust. Despite PR's negative association with "spin," the narrative-driven nature of public relations—of telling a brand's story to an audience—is the most valuable way to establish an authentic, meaningful, and trusted relationship between a company and its public.

That comes back to one of the fundamental deliverables of any PR initiative: earned, rather than paid, media.

Successful media coverage driven by PR efforts doesn't result directly from dollars spent, as with advertising. They only follow validation of a brand's news, message, or insights by members of the media.

Even amid declining trust in media (and slowing PR spending), third-party validation still matters a lot. It's a key reason why PR generates conversion rates 10-50X that of advertising conversions.

Using the right toolset

PR isn't only about driving trust between a client and its audience. It's also about driving trust between a client and the PR agency or firm it works with. That trust isn't built on persuasion. Instead, it's built on the adage "trust, but verify."

Agencies should be able to support their significance to their clients' business outcomes with verifiable intel on how they are adapting to media industry changes.

Now that a reported 83% of journalists use just 10% of press releases they receive, PR industry stakeholders must go well beyond the wire for media engagement.

The use of robust media contact databases—spanning both traditional journalists and social media influencers—will be more important to driving PR outcomes than broad newswire distributions will be. PR firms looking to build stronger trust with clients are wise to work with vendors that can provide them access to broad global databases and to use those databases to deliver stronger ROI to their clients.

Deliver real intelligence

Ultimately, ROI is the endgame for every PR customer. Clients end their relationships with agencies or downsize their PR departments only when they don't see outcomes that support their business goals.

So amid declining PR spending, the PR industry must deliver and showcase effective, measurable results from their efforts that go beyond media impressions and other vanity metrics.

The C-suite stakeholders of every PR customer are concerned with the same things:

  • Strategic alignment with marketing
  • Transparency into overall PR performance
  • Metrics and performance indicators that exceed industry benchmarks

With the right media monitoring tool set, PR professionals can deliver meaningful intelligence to their clients—intelligence that can guide smarter long-term decision making.

That's why the persuasion business really is so powerful. It delivers actionable insights on how well a brand's message resonates with its audience.

In the changing landscape of media, PR intelligence is business intelligence—but it's up to the PR industry to prove it.

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The Challenge of Proving the Value of Public Relations Today

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image of Chris Morrison

Chris Morrison is president of MediaMiser, an Innodata company that offers a global media contact dataset and a comprehensive toolset of media intelligence solutions and services for PR organizations of all sizes.

LinkedIn: Chris Morrison