PR’s Big Tech Problem: How to Bring Your Comms into the 21st Century

PR’s Big Tech Problem: How to Bring Your Comms into the 21st Century

Public Relations is notoriously slow to adopt new technology. But with tons of apps, services and online communities out there, why do we remain so hesitant, and how can we bring our comms strategies into the digital world?

Christopher S. Penn knows data. He is Chief Data Scientist and co-founder at data and measurement company Trust Insights, he co-hosts a podcast and Slack community dedicated to understanding the analytics and data related to marketing and PR. He's an author and frequent Tweeter about all things digital, data, AI, and the occasional meme.

It's safe to say Christopher knows his stuff, which is why we were so excited to sit down and pick his brain about:

  • How the internet has changed the landscape of Public Relations
  • The role of data in informing strategy
  • Tech tools and the importance of using them right, versus just using them a lot
  • The five questions to ask yourself when evaluating your use of data and technology
  • And lastly, how can we better reach our audiences?

Check out the full interview here, or read on for the choice bits:

PR's Big Tech Problem feat. Christopher Penn
PR's Big Tech Problem feat. Christopher Penn

PR is notoriously slow to adopt new – and not so new – technology. But in the modern world, those who don't adapt get left behind. Join data wizard Christopher S. Penn to learn: What PR gets wrong about technology, Tried & tested tools...


A comms professional in their natural, digital habitat

How the internet has changed the landscape of Public Relations

Back in the day (you know, 10 years ago), it was much, much harder to reach an audience. The ability to connect to the general public was limited largely to press releases, traditional media journalists, and literally shouting your brand's message from the rooftop with a megaphone.

But now, with the power of technology, anyone can talk to everyone, all of the time. This is a magical thing, and if you were to tell our PR forefathers of this mystical internet, they would have torn up their media rolodexes and thrown away their megaphones, positively beside themselves with glee*.

PR media strategy, circa 1993 (colorized)

However, those in the current communications climate know that it isn't that easy. Just because you can reach literally everybody doesn't mean you will. In fact, traditional Public Relations have become harder since the average consumer is saturated with a billion messages being shouted from a billion digital rooftops.

Because brand communications are no longer locked behind media gatekeepers and traditional advertising techniques, the PR industry has to adapt. Fast. And data plays a huge role.

The role of data in informing strategy

Data no longer belongs to the nerds. At this point in the age of the internet, we all have a duty to understand what data is, how it's collected, and what it tells us about our media strategies. Because we no longer simply connect to our audiences through journalists, it de-centralizes the Relations part of Public Relations and puts the responsibility of connecting to the audience on, well, everyone.

Chris explains it best:

Christopher Penn
Christopher Penn

There's a couple of things that are at work especially in the PR industry about people's understanding of technology. We see it even as simple things like Google Analytics, right? For example, could you credibly sit down and explain what the difference is between the four core metrics of Google Analytics?

The page view, the unique page view, the session and the user. Those are the four metrics. Can you explain the difference between them? Most people cannot. And as a result, if you don't know what those mean, you can't make decisions from them, but you can't say "I understand what this number is telling me, and therefore I can make a decision."

So when we apply that to any technology, if you don't know what it is, you don't know why it's important. You don't have the foggiest idea of how it works, then, at best you're going to misuse it and at worst it's going to do nothing for you. It's gonna be a counterproductive waste of time. The same is true of data.

It's no secret that Chris loves data, and he thinks you probably should too. Why? Because "becoming data-driven means accepting reality as it is currently".

Being passionate about becoming data-driven means that you are using metrics, analytics, and pure facts in order to inform your decision-making. How did your campaign do? How many people did you reach? How effective was your strategy? These questions used to be ephemeral and unknowable, but now we can know literally everything, in real-time. This is hugely important in being successful on the internet, and data plays a big role in quantifying the previously unknowable.

It's something that Gini Dietrich and Laura Sutherland went into in some detail during their own episode of PR Roundtable on building a solid PR strategy – you can watch it here (or read the highlights).

How to build a solid PR strategy feat. Gini Dietrich & Laura Sutherland
How to build a solid PR strategy feat. Gini Dietrich & Laura Sutherland

A solid strategy is the very basis of great PR – but much like New Year's resolutions, it can be tricky to stick with in the long term. That's why this January, Laura Sutherland and Gini Dietrich are here to help.

Tech tools: The importance of using them right vs just using them a lot

According to Chris, communications professionals have a responsibility to understand the tools that are available to them and how they can be used. This is done through hiring the right people, but also having a basic understanding of what you want these tools to do for your strategy.

So, where's the comprehensive list of the perfect data analytics tools that Christopher suggests everyone uses?

Sorry, it's not that simple. Every company is going to have different needs and will have to do the research and play around with the different services and software available.

Pro tip: Chris did mention a certain affinity for Google Search Console, which happens to be super free and great for getting an indication of brand awareness.

So while we were not able to pull a comprehensive list of the perfect software from him, he did give us a great deal of insight into the ideal approach to technology, and how important it is for PR professionals to take on the task of understanding what the tools are capable of and how they work.

Lastly, he suggests hiring for aptitude and attitude when it comes to building a team of communications professionals that will not only have a head for understanding the data, but also an innate curiosity about it.

The five questions to ask yourself when evaluating your use of data and technology

Chris broke down the steps for identifying if you are using technology the right way when it comes to informing your communications strategy:

  • What outcomes are you after?
  • What processes will get you there?
  • Do you have the right people to help you get there?
  • Do you have data to make sure you're on the right path?
  • Do you have the tools necessary to get to your outcome?

Knowing where are you going to go, how you plan to get there, and the tools you plan to use in order to get there in a logical way are more important than the sum of their parts.

Lacking any of these important steps along the way can be counter-productive to your whole objective. Like Chris mentioned, you can have a gorgeous newsroom and an amazing press kit, but if you don't know how to get people to visit them? You're missing some key ingredients.

And lastly, how can we better reach our audiences?

How do we best connect with our audiences? Where do they spend their time, where do we find them, how do we identify the sources of influence and fill the gap between our brand, and our audience?

The answer is simple: ask them.

Christopher Penn
Christopher Penn

The easiest way to figure out what you're missing is to take a channel that you get high response on, like email and ask your audience, "Hey, where do you spend your time online?"

You don't need complicated software to ask the people you want to reach where they spend their time. Evolving your comms strategy to include things like community engagement through Discord or educational videos through TikTok is part the adapting to technology that Chris has been talking about.

Because of the changing landscape of how brands relate to the public, it is no longer sufficient to just throw a bunch of information at a journalist and let the universe take its course. We now actually have to engage, communicate, and create meaningful content in order to build an audience that will last.

It can be scary, not to mention just a little bit frustrating, to throw out the entire PR playbook and start over. The industry is changing rapidly, and we have to change with it. A lot of major companies are recognizing that the way things have always been done, is not the future of PR.

Christopher Penn

The fear that people have around these technologies is what is precluding them from taking advantage of them.

The good news is we have more tools now than we ever have before to not only tell our story, but to understand how that story reaches people. This allows us to shape our messages, tweak our tactics, and share our messages in better and better ways – if we're willing to let technology help us.

Thank you so much to Christopher Penn for his time and insights! Follow him on Twitter to keep updated with all of the cool stuff he has going on, and subscribe to our PR Roundtable for more engaging conversations with PR experts. Until next time!


Footnotes

* Actually, maybe not! We carried out a great big global survey of PR pros worldwide back in 2020, and found that 3% of those surveyed continued to keep their contact lists offline – yup, in a notebook or Rolodex. Perhaps more staggeringly, one person confessed to using an I-kid-you-not Word document to manage all their contacts. If only there was a better way...

Katelynn Sortino

Katelynn Sortino

Storyteller, Prezly