The future of PR, part 2: Readership and today’s great inflection point

If a certain New Zealand wool shoe company wanted to know, say, whether more people read about their footwear in singular product reviews or “best-of” round-ups, they’d need access to readership data. If a cosmetic brand was interested in knowing which publications performed best for their competitor set, they’d need access to readership data. And if a multinational pharmacy wanted to create a flu-shot campaign that would reach the most people, they’d need (surprise) access to readership data.

The historical PR impression can tell you one thing: how many people might have read coverage about your brand. It can’t tell you how many people actually read about your brand, and it certainly can’t divulge which topics perform best within a publication or provide guidance on how to craft a pitch that will resonate with the most readers. 

Readership, on the other hand, can tell you all of those things. It reveals actual, not estimated, engagement between brand and reader. Access allows brands to see which types of angles and coverage formats resonate best with readers. It serves as a tangible metric for how a particular PR story actually performed, and how engaged with the topic an audience was. With readership data, brands know which media outlets are the right fit for their articles. Sure, readership won’t necessarily solve all of the industry’s measurement challenges (certainly, no single metric in any industry could accomplish such a feat), but it does mean brands no longer have to estimate the size of the audience they reached based on social listening or press hits.

Suppose a tech company wants to understand which well-known columnists drive the highest readership on cloud computing. With readership, brands can drill into specific keywords (“cloud computing”) or topics by author, and publisher, and know which one(s) has the highest number of readers in that particular area. Same goes for that cosmetic brand wanting to know the best publications to increase its competitive share of voice. An outlet might be flying under the PR team’s radar, but readership reveals all. If a publication is driving tons of readership to that brand’s top competitor, then adding it to their priority media list will be an excellent place to start growing their share.

It’s a transitional moment for readership. Use and impact is proliferating at the same time legacy measurement habits (say, counting press hits and grouping outlets by tiers as part of a proprietary score) are dying out. Adoption will be gradual, not instantaneous. 

Back to that aforementioned shoe company. In 2018, its founders watched as their startup became a unicorn with its $1.4 billion valuation; three years later, in 2021, they IPOd with a stock price surge of 91% on its first day of trading. Readership may not have been the single factor to its overwhelming success, but if you were reading about their coverage, there’s a very good chance they understood where, and why.

The future of PR, part 1: What PR’s past says about where it’s going

In October of 1906, an American Harvard Law School dropout named Ivy Lee was hired by the Pennsylvania Railroad Company to explain to the public what had happened during a fatal train accident. Lee, a former stringer for The New York Times, had left his reporting job and was now something of a go-to for corporate crisis communications. He’d started a public relations firm—one of the first in the United States—and published Declaration of Principles, the now-seminal explainer on the foundations of PR work. The press brief Lee wrote for the Pennsylvania Railroad detailed how every effort was being taken to source the cause of the wreck, and that the general manager of the company himself was supervising the investigation. Lee’s statement on behalf of his client was printed in The New York Times just a few weeks later, on October 30; America’s first ever press release had come to life.

Whereas Lee insisted that PR was an “art form”, and inherently unmeasurable by nature, the other early behemoth of the industry, Edward Bernays, nephew of one Sigmund Freud, considered public relations to be an applied social science. In Edward Bernays’s first manifesto, Crystallizing Public Opinion, he called for a serious, robust approach to measurement. (As scholarly papers throughout the years have noted, however, he still seemed to have trouble identifying which metrics would be best for proof of efficacy.) 

Anecdotes from the early days of PR undoubtedly seem rather quaint to the modern PR professional. There was the Roosevelt Administration’s tally of newspaper mentions to gauge public perception. Agencies would present the size of “newspaper column inches,” and the sentiment therein—multiplied by the circulation of each newspaper—as evidence of their relative success or failure in presenting a positive image of their clients’ work and brand. 

As technology evolved, physical stacks of press clippings gave way to minutes on radio and television, all with a similar formula: the size of the coverage multiplied by the size of the audience. The same was true as the internet emerged—since readership couldn’t be measured, PR professionals were left to estimate the number of “impressions” any given mention might have received, cut with 21st-century tools like social-media listening and sentiment analysis (which is to say, who’s tweeting about us, and what are they saying?).

But today, the industry has reached a long-awaited inflection point: we can finally venture beyond impressions and clip counts. We can measure the exact number of readers to any given piece of earned media. We can understand real, not estimated, reach. 

PR will always be rooted in the art of persuasion. It will always be about the process of changing minds and beliefs—Lee’s pride of art need not be diminished. But we can, finally, answer the question that eluded even the mighty Bernays: How should we measure PR?