Absolutely Fabulous? Bringing data-driven decisions to PR

Barb Mosher Zinck Profile picture for user barb.mosher July 18, 2022
Bringing data analytics to the fore in PR outreach


As a journalist, I'm often frustrated by the endless emails from press agencies and brand communications teams. Sometimes the pitch is bang on, and I go for it. But most of the time, the pitch is irrelevant to the topics I cover, a topic I've just covered, a generic pitch that went to multiple journalists, or is (from my perspective) boring.

Software can't solve all these things, but it can solve some. I talked with Zach Cutler, CEO and co-founder of media intelligence and PR management software company, Propel. Cutler has spent his entire career in public relations, starting his own PR agency in 2009. He talks about his frustration with the lack of management and workflow software designed specifically for PR:

There's plenty of databases and monitoring, but there was no CRM or workflow tool for PR. I was watching my team manage hundreds of spreadsheets and hundreds of different campaigns in a given year or a quarter or whatever, and literally, no tool that could help us manage all of that and help us get insights into what's working well, what's not and where can we hone in our efforts.

From agency owner to software founder

What do you do when you can't find the software you need? In his case, Cutler built his own solution. Cutler is a data guy, and he wanted to make his agency more data-driven. So they developed the initial version of Propel to support his team.

He soon realized that if he wanted to bring Propel to market in the right way, he needed to commit to it. So, Cutler sold his agency and dove into building what he calls the "first SaaS product for public relations management." Cutler called Propel a CRM for PR professionals and termed it a new software category called PRM.

Now technically, the term PRM software stands for Partner Relationship Management software, so for these purposes, we'll stick with PR Management software.

Propel also includes a media database and a media monitoring suite along with the core PR management application.

It's about increasing response rates

For Cutler, creating Propel was about increasing response rates from the media. He said you do that by having intelligence around how you are pitching. It doesn't matter if you are an individual PR person or as a PR team; you need that intelligence to improve both your pitches and the responses you get from the media.

Did we get any engagement? If we did, who on the team has the best relationship with this journalist? When did we last pitch this journalist? Are we going to be double pitching them or over pitching them if we pitch them again today? What are the preferences of this journalist? Do they like to be pitched on Monday morning or on Wednesday afternoon? What are the topics that they're most engaging with?

In the core solution - the CRM component - brands and agencies can track who they are pitching and the results of those efforts. If it's an agency, you work with clients, and if a brand, you can organize your PR by division. You can see pitches, open rates, response rates, publish rates, and published articles. You can also see who on your team is pitching and how successful they are.

Propel's media database includes over one million journalists, 3 billion articles, and 50 million Twitter influencers. You can search the database by media outlet, journalist, category, or geography, to find the right media outlets and journalists to pitch.

According to Cutler, the media database and the CRM data enable the platform to leverage machine learning to analyze millions of actual pitches and provide PR people with insights into who to pitch when to pitch, and what to pitch:

Let's say a firm has multiple offices, or even with remote work. You know, Sam in New York may have no idea that Sarah in Chicago pitched this same journalist for a totally different client or different announcement an hour ago, and now Sarah is seeing two pitches from the same firm within an hour, making the firm look horrible. So here [with Propel], you're able to see, Oh, well, my colleague has them on this media list. My colleagues sent them a pitch yesterday, so I'm going to hold off.

Propel includes Gmail and Outlook integration enabling you to put together the pitch and send it quickly. The integration with email is nice. With Gmail, it's easy to pull in a list of journalists and an email template. But you don't want to send a generic pitch to every journalist (remember how I said I hate those?). With Propel's integration, you can save the emails as draft and then go into each journalist's email draft and customize it. This email client integration automates the collection of pitches into the Propel platform.

Another good feature of Propel is that journalists can opt out of getting pitches. They may still be on the list in the database, and they can be put onto a journalist list, but they will not receive any email.

Tying pitching to business outcomes

Cutler believes making PR more data-driven and tied to business outcomes is essential, so  features are built in to Propel that help users understand how PR efforts support ROI:

Being able to understand how much traffic did the articles [published] actually generate, how much goal completion? Now this one led to two new paying customers to bundle packages. And this is from direct attribution, so it's from the backlinks in the articles.

Not every article will have a backlink to the brand, so Propel also shows a general correlation by showing spikes in traffic that correlate to an article's publish date.

My take

Cutler said that there is a continuous decline in the response rate for PR. For example, in the Q3 Propel Media Barometer Report, the average journalist response rate was 3.25% in Q2, down from 3.37% in Q1. These numbers are also lower than the 2021 response rates.

It's getting harder and harder for a brand to get on the radar of any journalist or influencer. Like marketers who create content and struggle to rise above the mounds of articles, blogs, whitepapers, podcasts, and other content every brand is producing, PR agencies and internal communications teams struggle to get recognized among the many pitches that so often cover the same topics.

I won't lie. My pitch response rate is not high. I don't respond to generic pitches (which are very easy to tell), but I also don't respond to pitches sent three to four times or cover the same topic (with slight differences) that I recently covered.

As a marketer who is sometimes responsible for helping pitch a brand story to journalists, I know how hard it is to find the right journalist, craft the right pitch and track it to completion. The Propel media database alone could, in theory, be beneficial. The PR management application even more so.

Propel isn't the only solution on the market; Muckrack, Cision, and Meltwater provide some of these capabilities. The key is that some type of technology is necessary to improve public relations; without the tech, PR people will continually struggle.

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