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How to measure PR performance and ROI
The purpose of public relations is to communicate with a company’s stakeholders so that everyone holds that brand in high regard. In other words, it is all about reputation.
For companies and organisations to thrive, they need to show that they can be trusted to do what they say in their mission statement. This is about purpose and behaviours. It’s vital to have a well-worded explanation of your intentions and the products or services you provide, but if you do not deliver to the standards you’ve set, then trust in your brand will be lost, and your reputation may end up in tatters.
PR practitioners help companies to build reputation by educating anyone who may come into contact with your business, to gain understanding and support and to influence opinions and behaviours for the better.
To succeed, any PR strategy must be designed in accordance with an organisation’s overall goals and objectives. This means that either your in-house team or external agency must have the ear of management and be included in any major strategic decisions
This may sound preposterous to some less enlightened bosses. But your PR practitioner has a foot both inside your business and outside, through their communications with stakeholders. This means they can provide vital intelligence as to how a particular idea, product, service or strategy will be received by those who could support it or slam it.
Here’s how having a good reputation may affect your business:
- Influence people to buy your services or products
- Change the views of detractors
- Bring investors on board
- Attract the best talent
- Open up relationships with leading suppliers
- Support the business in difficult times
- Increase sales and profits
- Increase a company’s overall valuation
- Make it easier to achieve an exit strategy
In this blog, we will break down the difficulties of PR measurement and offer up solutions as the industry looks at new and (hopefully) more effective measurement activities.
Is it possible to measure PR success?
Measuring the success of public relations activities is by no means straightforward. However, it is no different to any other business function in that it needs to demonstrate value to the client.
The key word here is value.
It is critical for practitioners to know if their strategies and tactics have met the targeted objectives; equally, if they haven’t, that they learn from this for future campaigns. It is also essential to be able to show that an appropriate return on investment has been achieved.
However, it would be a mistake to believe that this can necessarily be measured in financial terms.
CEOs want to know about outcomes and the effects that PR is having on the company’s ongoing reputation and whether stakeholders are supporting it – both internal such as employees and external such as shareholders.
This requires continual evaluation, which may include the monitoring of website traffic, for instance.
So, while it is possible to measure PR success, and much is being done to improve the way practitioners confront this perennial issue, it’s worth looking back at what’s been tried in the past before going on to assess some of today’s tools of the PR measurement trade.
A brief history of PR measurement
In the UK, public relations has primarily been a post-WW2 activity. The first press agency, Editorial Services, was set up by Basil Clarke in London in 1924. Still, the establishment and real growth of public relations came from journalists and propaganda experts coming out of government and the armed forces in 1945 with knowledge of news management and propaganda methods.
The Institute of Public Relations (IPR) was set up in 1948, mainly by governmental communicators in information officer posts as the first step to professionalise their area of activity.
The issue if how to measure PR was discussed in the IPR’s Journal from the start, and a series of papers were published on the subject.
But there was little discussion of the methodologies that could be used to measure public relations activity.
Accurately measuring and reporting the impact and effectiveness of earned media has been, and continues to be, the subject of persistent debate within the public relations industry. It’s not difficult to understand why.
External PR and communications agencies have an incentive (in the form of continued generation of fees) to deliver favourable and beneficial results to their clients.
While corporate communications executives inside brands focus on the measurement of their activities, measurement as a priority among agencies has lagged.
But accuracy and accountability do not just fall at the feet of agencies. Because public relations is inherently a production business, software vendors serving the PR industry have historically been incentivised to deliver outputs that map to agencies’ strengths.
This is why “volume of output” is continually used as a key metric. Nearly every social media listening and media monitoring platform on the market today produces a volume of coverage, mentions or “impressions” as the initial metric. While everyone loves a chart that flows upwards and to the right, metrics like these do not reliably indicate success or value in an earned media campaign.
What are today's commonly used measures?
PR clients want accuracy and accountability from their agencies when it comes to the measurement of earned media.
For many years the main form of measurement was based on Advertising Value Equivalencies, or AVEs. This method counts the column inches of coverage and calculates what this would have cost as paid-for advertising.
The problem here is that advertising says what you want it to, whereas editorial may be neutral or negative rather than the positive angle you wanted to promote. However, those using this method then multiplied the AVE – most often by around three – to calculate the ‘true’ value on the basis that editorial is more valuable than advertising because it is a form of third party endorsement.
The use of AVEs is increasingly frowned upon by the PR profession. The Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) and other professional bodies argue that the people paying for PR want a more mathematically reliable way of measuring the return on their expenditure.
Other measurements include attendance rates for an event – online or face to face. This could be particularly useful if there is a previous similar event to compare it to.
Then there are click rates, when a visitor to your website follows a hyperlink from one page to another. Or you could measure download – how many copies of a digital document such as a white paper are downloaded by users.
Then there is a whole host of online evaluation tools – the list is verging on endless – that collate online, print and social coverage and arrange it in easy-to-read charts. The companies offering these services are continually trying to improve them as none is perfect. They are considered expensive by many practitioners under pressure to constantly cut costs.
Where are we headed?
The measurement of PR activity needs to change fundamentally. This was recognised in the first decade of the 21st century with the creation of The Barcelona Declaration of Measurement Principles at the European Measurement Summit in June 2010.
The Barcelona Declaration is based on seven principles of measurement. It focuses on the measurement of outcomes, rather than media results, and the measurement of business results and social media. It rejects AVEs as failing to indicate the value of public relations activity.
The seven principles of the Barcelona Declaration:
- Importance of goal setting and measurement
- Measuring the effect on outcomes is preferable to measuring outputs
- The effect on business results can and should be measured where possible
- Media measurement requires quantity and quality
- AVEs are not the value of public relations
- Social media can and should be measured
- Transparency and replicability are paramount to sound measurement
Early in 2021, the CIPR published a policy review paper entitled: Research, Measurement and Evaluation in Public Relations and Communication Management to provide thought leadership regarding current approaches and developments.
One of its recommendations is that practitioners use a mix of qualitative and quantitative analysis. This is useful in public relations and communications practice because it offers a fuller picture of what is happening in particular situations. Consequently, practitioners can gain a more in-depth appreciation of the perspectives and positions of others.
As the document states:
“A mixed research approach may be the best option to inform decision-making and programme evaluation in public relations and communications practice. Using quantitative and qualitative methods offers an opportunity to test the validity of data and explore it in depth. However, this can present practical difficulties, including extra time and financial resource requirements.”
This is an important statement. It accepts the need for mathematical and systematic evaluation, but it also implies the need to bring an assessment of ‘value’ into the mix. In the wake of COVID-19 and the vast societal shifts we face with climate change being a real and present existential danger to humanity, organisations can no longer think of themselves as operating in a self-contained manner or even as part of a particular industry sector.
PR is well worth the investment
Organisations of all sizes and shapes, across all sectors – private, public and third sector – need to alter their thinking and wake up to the fact that they are part of a much larger eco-system, dependant on others and prone to rapid change.
Many of the established forms of PR evaluation that we have discussed here do not reflect these changes. As PR practitioners, we are expert communicators and must lead the way to find alternative ways of measuring the value of PR.
Senior managers and businesses owners don’t fuss about how many likes they have on social media or how many retweets. They want to know how their organisation is perceived as a whole. Yep, you guessed it; we’re back to reputation.
And this is managed by your public relations advisers, who continually gauge the mood of all your stakeholders and the public mood – to help inform management to make the best decisions for their businesses.
Organisations that keep on top of the fast-moving dynamic environment we live in will be those with the best chance of survival.
This is the value of PR. In 2018, Jim Macnamara came up with an integrated model of evaluation that suggests there should be a two-way interaction between an organisation, its stakeholders and society at all times. This starts at the formative stage of the company/PR relationship all the way through to outcomes and business success.
This model embodies the importance of PR and why it is well worth the investment. This is because Macnamara is suggesting that PR is not simply about satisfying the needs of the organisation. It is also about continually asking stakeholders for their views and what they want from the company. It is only by meeting the reasonable demands of stakeholders that a company will succeed.