When you set out to work on a PR campaign, you may be excited to jump right in and produce results. But, strategy is the key to success for any serious initiative—helping drive results as well as set expectations.

A great place to start your research is competitive benchmarking. It not only gives you a great perspective on what’s giong on in your industry, but guides you in uncovering untapped opportunities, differentiating yourself from rivals, and setting ambitious–but realistic—goals.

Why Competitive Benchmarking Is Important in PR

By benchmarking the level and quality of your brand’s media awareness against competitors, you’ll enter a new campaign armed with the information you need to measure effectiveness.

“The desired outcome is to learn which processes lead to greater success in order to improve your company’s performance,” says Sandra Fathi, president of Affect.

By gauging where things stand when you begin, you’ll be able to track success (or failure) as you go. Not only will you be able to report on whether you’ve gained a competitive edge through your efforts, but you’ll be able to keep up with key KPIs. Measuring things like spikes in website traffic in conjunction with earned media coverage; or the number of prospects who get in touch because they saw an article about your company; or the growth in social media followers or interactions, you’ll be able to report on the impact your efforts are having.

By setting up a competitor dashboard in your media intelligence platform—where you compare your share of voice, reach, and coverage numbers to your competitors—you can keep an eye on results. Doing so enables you to change course if you need to. Ultimately you’ll draw data from this dashboard to report results.

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Brands Don’t Operate in a Vacuum

“Looking to your competitors to learn not only what they’re doing well, but what you might want to avoid, can help guide your next move,” said Lauren Cranston, PR manager for Skyword. “It isn’t enough to track just your own performance—competitive analytics can make or break everything you thought you knew.”

“Benchmarking is important because PR is actually a competitive function—and because all inputs-outputs-outtakes-outcomes are considered in the context of a market,” says Alan Kelly, founder and CEO of Playmaker Systems

Benchmarking Is Results-Oriented

While much of public relations measurement seems to revolve around the number of press releases written or the number of pitches sent, benchmarking lets you focus on the results you’ve achieved, rather than the effort you’ve made.

“Perhaps the most valuable aspect of the benchmarking process is that it only charts achieved success (earned media coverage), rather than simply listing or summarizing all monthly PR activities—the number of news releases distributed, columns written, interviews conducted or time spent ‘pitching’ stories to the media and following up pitches,” says Len Stein of Hubspot.

“Yes, all of these are gauges of PR activity, but when the rubber hits the road, it’s all about success for the client, rather than the water carried.”

How Do You Benchmark? An Example

So how do you effectively benchmark a PR campaign? Parameters can be broad or narrow, depending on your goals. You can also include other departments in the effort, to ensure you get as much out of the benchmarking as possible.

Fathi gives this example for using benchmarking to build PR strategy and report on success:

  • Objectives could include things like:
    • Build and maintain Brand X’s position as a thought leader on a given topic.
    • Maximize Brand X’s overall public relations results
  • Examples of strategy:
    • Compare and contrast media coverage with your top three competitors. (Or the three smaller players on your heels. Or the three top brands in your category.)
  • Methodology:
    • Choose a unit of measure, like press coverage. Set a timeframe (say six months) and parameters (top 20 industry publications) and use a tool (like Meltwater) to help you.

With results in hand you can validate what you’re already doing, while looking to see where opportunities lie.

“Don’t be afraid to learn you’re wrong,” Fathi says. “Don’t be afraid to change course.”

Benchmarking can be used to demonstrate ROI when compared to true business metrics. Leverage the findings to gain C-Suite support for your strategy, budget, headcount, and resources.

As Fathi suggests, “Measure what matters to the C-Suite and present the data in a way they’ll understand it.”