Is Art or Math More Important in PR?

I shouldn’t tell you this, but it’s a funny story. Do you know how I got into PR? I flipped through the course catalog to find a major that had the least amount of math involved. I liked to write and talk, so the classes in the PR major looked like a lot more fun than the ones in my original major of Economic Crime Investigation (think lots of accounting and economics). I never liked math in school. I took Algebra a couple of times – with the same teacher no less. I can’t help but feel like somebody is playing a cruel joke on me, as more and more of what we do in PR and marketing hinges on numbers.

I recently sat through a breakout session on the topic of analytics and social media ROI at SoCon10 in Atlanta, a social media “unconference” hosted by Kennesaw State University’s Center for Sustainable Journalism. One of the topics that came up in the discussion was how much of marketing is art versus math (hat tip to @lance for leading the discussion and bringing up this topic – you can find his presentation here).

It’s a great question if you think about it, as so much of what we consider success in marketing is based on the art of it all. If an ad or website looks great, it must be great. If a site gets more traffic this month than last month, it’s a success. If a press release generates 10 hits, it’s a success. So on and so forth. There is an art to what we do in marketing and PR, and that’s measured (hopefully) through analytics. This is where the math starts to come into play, as you need to be able to read the numbers related to your programs to see how things are performing. More and more professionals are stepping up to the plate with solid measurement programs.

Where the rubber really starts to hit the road is with testing. How do different versions of your campaign tactics perform side-by-side? Are you currently using A/B or split testing in your PR campaigns? How about multivariate testing? This is where both the art and science of what we do as marketers comes into play. In discussions with social media-savvy PR professionals, the topic of testing is at the forefront of campaign planning right now. This is driven by an increased use of interactive marketing in PR programs today, and supported by the increased use of social media marketing by public relations professionals (where measurement and testing are always part of the equation).

In truth, few PR professionals have the ability to leverage testing or advanced analytics in their campaigns today. For the same reasons measurement has been so difficult to implement, such as no agreed upon standards or lack of resources (time, people and money), testing and analytics get put on the back burner. This is unfortunate, as it’s these areas where smart marketers can realize the most significant improvements in marketing ROI, and I believe it will be one of the fastest-growing segments of PR services in the years to come. The professionals and agencies that come to the table with more math and science than art will have a competitive advantage.

Imagine this scenario during the agency selection process. A client wants to know which newswire you use to distribute news for example. Agency A says “We have an account with XYZ and we use their social media features. We use this platform for all our clients.” Agency B says “We don’t make assumptions about which tactics will work best for you. We test all aspects of our programs to find the tactics that generate the best results for your limited resources – then we find ways to maximize your resources across the best performing tactics.” Which agency would you want to work with? I would choose Agency B, provided they really did what they said.

Math And Art, Not Math Or Art

This isn’t an either or scenario. PR professionals and agencies need to have competencies in both the art and math of our profession. They still need to come up with the big ideas that will generate awareness, interest and response in noisy markets, but also be able to measure, test and retest performance to continually reinvent the way they manage and optimize programs. So for those of you out there that scored high on both the math and verbal sections of your SAT, there is hope for you yet. And if you are a numbers wizard, and you’ve found yourself with an interest in PR or marketing, the future is full of opportunities for you in our profession.

What skills do you think are most important in PR today? Do you agree that analytics and testing are necessary components of a PR program? How are you currently testing and refining the performance of your campaigns?

(Image Credit: Math Chaos by MaskedPhotography DM)

About Jeremy Porter 214 Articles
Jeremy Porter has been passionate about the intersection of public relations and journalism since studying both Public Relations and Journalism at Utica College of Syracuse University in the late 90s. Porter launched Journalistics in 2009 to share his ideas and insights around both professions and how trends and developments in modern day marketing, communications, and technology impact those working in these fields. Porter also values the traditions and history of both professions and regularly shares his perspective in these areas - and related topics geared toward the next generation of journalism and public relations professionals.


  1. Like you, I am no math lover and in fact when I realised my post grad diploma in marketing was laden with stats, my frustration got the better of me. But you are right, we cannot be content to just think it’s only about writing and ideas anymore. CEOs are looking at the bottom line and a huge part of that is the analytics so we have to get up and get or go. But it was not such a funny story. I think a few people can relate to how you ended up in PR.

  2. Completely agree with the need for analytics and testing. However, as a case for art, good art will produce better numbers. Well-written press releases will get more hits. Well-designed landing pages (not just pretty ones) will get more conversions. Bad designs and bad ideas will usually always produce bad numbers. So, as for what’s more important, it seems to be a chicken or the egg thing.

  3. A very timely post! We are now in the middle of testing new distribution methods of press releases – combining both SM and traditional media – as I don’t think all newsrooms are completely up to speed. Further, we’re pushing the distribution provider to work with us in this testing phase as one size doesn’t fit all. Believe me, I never thought as a PR pro I’d be so into metrics, testing etc…but here I am! Though my high school math teachers would be shocked…

  4. Fantastic post. When I was an undergraduate journalism and mass com. major at UNC-Chapel Hill, Prof. Philip Meyer would lead some great workshops called “math for journalists.” They never got as much attention as they should have, and now five years later the ability to analyze data and statistics is equally important for PR professionals. I’ve dealt with clients who are wary of web-based promotions for fear that no one will see them online. A command of web analytics can provide concrete proof on a web campaign’s effectiveness, and reassure the client that the message is getting through.

  5. Perfectly put! Numbers definitely aren’t the most glamorous part of marketing/PR but seem to be the driver to success these days. In Northwestern’s IMC (Integrated Marketing Communications) program, we are discovering that numbers really are they underlying key to any marketing strategy. While my heart has always been on the writing/creative end, I’ve also learned that you have to be creative with numbers to make them work in any campaign. Perhaps the two ends go hand in hand after all..

  6. The whole idea of art versus math really is synonymous to left brain versus right brain. In many ways, a left brain prisoner never is able to appreciate the pleasure and beauty that derives out of the creation of a masterpiece. On the other hand, a wandering right brainer may not have enough logic to devise efficient delivery of a final product in a timely fashion. Perhaps a blend of the 2 is where it is at. 😉

  7. Anyone who has practised websites promotion for many years will say that you need quality content on your website to get Google rankings. Besides you need many backlinks from many different sources. Links are like currency – the more you have the better.

  8. So public relations is more about the creative side? I’m a junior in high school and am interested in this job;however, I tend to struggle in math, but creatively, I feel confident. Will my math phobia interfere immensely with pr?

    • I took Algebra three times in high school – so I might have had a math phobia too. You’re in high school, so you still have a bit more time to work on things than I do. Learn how to use analytics tools for websites, social media, etc. – while there’s some match, it’s not a lot of math. But you do need to know how to figure things out. For example, if you wanted to know the average engagement you generate on social media posts, how could you figure that out? (in case you get stumped, one option is to take the total number of posts and divide by the total number likes/comments/shares/clicks). Thanks for the comment! Don’t be scared of math, it all adds up in the end.

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