While some sectors have welcomed the digital era with open arms, others have been far slower to progress. The PR industry may have grown 7.4 percent in 2016, but the revenue generated per PR employee went down 5 percent the same year. What this points to is a growing industry with an efficiency issue -- which is both a big problem and an obvious opportunity to innovate.

An Analog Industry in a Digital Environment

PR professionals get the word out about their client or brand by building relationships with reporters and influencers. A couple decades ago, before the recent proliferation of media, maintaining a Rolodex of contacts and calling the right reporter with the right story made sense: It was a relationship-driven business in an analog world.

Today, with the expansion and digitization of the media landscape, all those journalists and influencers have increased by orders of magnitude. Yet media relations have stayed pretty much unchanged. As a result, PR practitioners aren't able to reach -- or even find -- all the reporters relevant to their campaigns.

And with shrinking budgets for staff writers, publications are turning increasingly toward unpaid contributors, who may be harder to contact as they usually have full-time jobs. To make matters worse, those contributors are getting more pitches than ever in an era when fake news and social media noise have created huge demand for credible articles in third-party publications. A popular reporter may get hundreds of pitches in a single day -- which means the majority of them are just plain ignored.

AI and Automation As Equalizers

While almost every discipline in the marketing suite -- from SEO to ads and inbound marketing to events -- has become data-driven, PR still hasn't. What's the solution? The PR world needs innovative technologies that allow practitioners to more easily target reporters, understand impact, and streamline and automate parts of their workflow.

The PR industry is worth $15 billion today and is expected to close in on $20 billion in the next three years. PR tech is likely to become one of the hottest sectors in B2B technology -- as long as entrepreneurs and investors actually seize the opportunity in front of them.

Thankfully, some interesting startups are beginning to notice the market need.

Propel, a CRM platform that brings AI and streamlining to PR teams, just launched this month. With data, Propel helps PR pros understand which pitches, teams, and campaigns are succeeding -- and shows them what to do with those insights. By helping PR teams get under the hood of their media and influencer relations efforts, Propel offers clarity and accountability. This means managers can run their teams better, and employees can more effectively target reporters and get results.

A more established innovator in the space is TrendKite, which launched in 2014 and has already raised $36 million in funding. The startup helps brands and agencies measure the impact of their PR campaigns by providing a variety of analytics, including coverage volume, SEO value, social engagement, and more. TrendKite also helps customers attribute nondirect traffic back to PR activities.

AirPR is another relatively new startup in the business of providing analytics that show the bottom-line impact of PR. With $10 million in funding, the startup's specialty is attribution of traffic and measurement and monitoring of media activity.

Power Shift From Firms to Customers

As more PR tech startups emerge, and the veteran players introduce new products, brands can not only adopt such technologies, but insist that their agencies do so as well.

Progress in any industry depends on a breakdown of power structures that open up access to knowledge and resources. The influx of technology into PR allows clients to see the numbers behind the operation and understand what work is being done -- along with its impact.

This is a net positive for everyone, including firms that need to embrace technology and openness if they want to stay competitive in our data-driven marketing ecosystem. Ultimately, as consumers continue tuning out ads, and marketing dollars shift toward content, the PR industry finds itself on the threshold of a huge opportunity.

PR will always be a people-driven business. But by seizing technology that complements and advances PR professionals, the industry's brightest days may be just ahead.