Review: PR Technology, Data and Insights

About the author

Thomas Stoeckle leads the AMEC International Certificate in Measurement and Evaluation for PR Academy and is a part-time lecturer at Bournemouth University.

PR Technology, Data and Insights: Igniting a Positive Return on Your Communications Investment
By Mark Weiner
Kogan Page, 2021, 232 pages

Those who had or have the pleasure and privilege to work with Mark Weiner – I am one of them as we both serve on the Institute for PR Measurement Commission – or are familiar with his many practical contributions to PR measurement and evaluation over the years, will know his oft repeated mantra to “begin simply, but simply begin”.

Those familiar with Mark Weiner’s many practical contributions to PR measurement and evaluation over the years, will know his oft repeated mantra to “begin simply, but simply begin”.

Indeed, “simple” and “simply” feature prominently in Weiner’s new book, in the best sense of the word: “plain, basic, or uncomplicated in form, nature, or design; without much decoration or ornamentation” (according to my online Oxford Dictionary).

This is a confident, practical, and skilful no-frills guidebook – confidence and skill grounded in and honed over many years of successful practice in a field that has shaped the author as much as he has shaped it. It is also a humble book, approaching hyperbole-prone themes such as big data and artificial intelligence with a healthy dose of experience-based realism.

When the author states that “PR’s future will be a function of our ability to marry the best of technology with uniquely human attributes” and that “technology may enable ‘real time’, but only human analysis and insights empower ‘right time’ decision-making”, then those are conclusions drawn from hands-on experience over more than thirty years in the media intelligence world.

In two parts and seven chapters, covering the latest developments in “technology, data and insights”, before taking the reader through the “cyclical rather than linear” research and analysis stages of the “public relations continuum”, the book provides a state of the art (and science) account of PR measurement and evaluation for practitioners, educators and business executives alike. It is practical and didactic, full of examples and case studies, questions and answers, and bullet pointed to do lists for practitioners.

From “Strategic Cube Analysis” to “clean slate public relations” guided by curiosity and a systematic approach to data collection and analysis, Weiner provides bite-sized guidance for PR practitioners to become more fluent in data, the new lingua franca of the boardroom.

A lot of attention is given to the quest for that Holy Grail of PR value, return on investment. And rather than leaving this at abstract calls for PR to ‘speak the language of business’ or ’earn a seat at the table’ (though those abstract calls are made, too), Weiner concludes every chapter with “Questions PR Investment Decision-Makers Must Ask”, guiding those decision-makers toward granular critical reflection to constantly create opportunities for learning and improved decision-making.

Some of the proposed approaches and solutions require a good deal of trust and commitment from clients: an investment of time and resources upfront to conduct an in-depth situational analysis not just for the tactical requirements of a PR campaign, but rather to explore the business conditions under which “public relations funding, objectives setting, and performance evaluation across the enterprise” will take place. Buy-in for such an executive audit is probably easier to achieve with the track record of Mark Weiner and the organisations he has been associated with over the years. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t all aspire to this holistic, ‘soup to nuts’ approach.

Speaking the language of business, but also speaking the plain language of common sense human: the author does both, and thus smart features as an adjective and as one part of smartphone, but not as an acronym and business framework; it is the same with agile, KPI only gets one mention, and lean doesn’t feature at all. The storytelling of the book is all the more engaging for it.

Of course, the perfect frameworks and perfect case studies are due to the benefit of hindsight and some editorial pruning and polishing. Therefore, reader: be realistic about what you can achieve with this.

It’s not a silver bullet, it’s not a map to the location of the Holy Grail, but it’s an outstanding instruction manual and guidebook for your journey.

At the same time, this is not a book without weaknesses: I would have welcomed a more critical analysis of the ubiquitous ‘influencer’, rather than just have it described as a relevant data point (Yesiglu’s and Costello’s Influencer Marketing: Building Brand Communities and Engagement, reviewed by PR Place’s Richard Bailey, fills that gap very aptly); equally, insight feels more like a means to an end, a tool, rather than a complex intellectual, cognitive and affective process (to learn more about that, consult Sam Knowles’s excellent How To Be Insightful, also favourably reviewed by Richard Bailey).

Weiner doesn’t shy away from the discussion of present pertinent political topics such as the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, which is commendable yet at the same time underwhelming (Sarkar and Kotler’s Brand Activism is a better starting point to explore the political challenges of brands in our time). The discussion of COVID research by former colleagues feels like a last minute bolt-on, understandable under the circumstances, but distracting and at the same time insufficient – the public health communication challenges arising from the COVID pandemic go way beyond the remit of this book.

Despite these quibbles, this is a very good and important book. Will it be the best book about PR measurement and evaluation you’ll ever read? I’m not in a position to make that claim. But I can say that in my opinion, it is the best available today, by some distance. And I’ve read and used a fair few.

Here is a prediction: every organisation, every department involved in the measurement of public communication and/or stakeholder relationship management activities will have a positive return on investment from purchasing this book and ensuring key personnel invest the time in reading it and applying its principles and recommendations.

It will be central to my teaching university students, as well as practitioners enhancing their continuous development, for example through the AMEC International Certificate in Measurement and Evaluation.

The phrase ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’ is somewhat overused – however it seems evident that raising the knowledge levels in a field will contribute strongly to better practice. With that in mind, I recommend this book to everyone in PR & public communication.