In an environment in which marketers are competing fiercely for consumers’ attention, earned media is potentially the most powerful tool brands have at their disposal—if public relations people can demonstrate the true impact of their work on sales and the bottom line, attendees at the 10th annual PRovokeGlobal Summit were told today.

During a session entitled “Data as Superpower: How to Transform and Elevate the Communications Function,” sponsored by Omnicom Public Relations Group and moderated by the group’s CEO Chris Foster, speakers addressed the changing role of data.

“If you go back 10 or 12 years, there was very little data in communication,” said Kerman Kasad, vice president, global communications & brand, at the Project Management Institute. “Today there is a lot of data.” The difference is so dramatic that while some members of his leadership team were excited when new data was presented, there was a danger that others might be overwhelmed.

The data is used around the world to implement customized measurement approaches. “PMI is for purpose not for profit, but we are structured like any organization, which means we look at outcomes and we look at measurement.” But the approach varies from market to market, he said. “So over time we have become adept at measuring outcomes in a hybrid environment.”

“It has helped me and my team first in creating messaging that is really applicable to my consumers. And it has helped me plan media. I don’t need to target a publication because of the breadth and depth of its readership.” Instead, he says, he can target publications that he knows are better able to drive engagement and purchase intent.

“This gives us a seat on the leadership table.” And looking to the future, he said, “the most exciting thing” is the potential for public relations to demonstrate its impact at many stages of the sales process. “It is well established that we contribute at the top of sales funnel, but that’s not good enough. We should have line of sight into what marketing is doing with data we are bringing in so we can show how PR engages with consumers throughout the funnel.”

That’s what Omnicom’s approach to data and its omniearnedID offer are designed to do, says Erin Lanuti, the public relations group’s chief innovation officer. “I see white space in moving PR beyond impression and engagement to business outcomes. If you think about consumers spending more and more time online, whether viewing content or in engaging in commerce, we need to understand who these people are and how they are spending their time online.

“The real opportunity today is to go to the client and say this is the audience and this is how they are spending their time, and this is how they contribute to an uplift in sales.” She cited work by Omnicom agency Ketchum for the American Egg Board, which the firm could demonstrate led to a 6% lift in egg sales and more than 180,000 new consumers who had not been in the category over the previous 52 weeks.

Most notable, she said, is the fact that many consumers spend an average of three minutes engaging with earned content, compared to the fraction of a second it takes to recognize and pass over paid content. “People spend way more time than they spend consuming a digital ad. If we really are in the attention economy then earned media is king.

“Ultimately it’s about tracking audience behavior and mapping it to reputation and to sales and to demonstrating how what we do impacts the bottom line. Breaking the measurement ceiling can change the role of PR.”