PR’s elephant in the room

PR’s elephant in the room image
Measurement has long been PR’s elephant in the room. With the tools we have available, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Given it’s an industry filled largely with wordsmiths and creatives, it’s unsurprising that one particular term invites at best apathy and at worst derision within PR.

Measurement, and the small brigade of PRs fighting its corner, are neither popular nor cool. Reporting is neither glitzy nor glamorous. Demonstrating ROI, whisper it, is almost taboo.

“You can’t link PR to commercial results, there are literally textbooks telling you that’s not what PR does” snorted an indignant peer at a KPI and measurement course I went to last year. It’s an attitude that, sadly, is far more prevalent within the industry than it should be.

Scepticism about tying PR to commercial results is understandable. PR is not sales. There are good reasons to argue that the inclusion of sales messages in media relations, still a big component of public relations, is not good practice. Across social media, virtually always a component of a successful PR campaign, focus is shifting away from directly driving website traffic and revenue. It’s no secret that volumes of web traffic driven by organic social content have been falling due to a combination of factors, including oversaturation of content and changes to Facebook’s algorithm. Instead, engagement is being prioritised.

PR and social operate in the far more nebulous realm of building brand equity. While the term brand equity implicitly recognises that commercial value can be generated by positive perceptions of a brand, which PR and social go a long way to formulating, it does not explain how this might come about. The problem for the PR industry is that this value is often created in an indirect way, rather than in the direct way that a sales team uses its messages and tactics to generate clear results. This makes it more difficult to measure.

Difficulty of measurement, however, is no excuse for not trying. In a world where Wetherspoons culled its entire social media presence because it could not see how it benefitted the business, there is no place for complacency. Agencies need to be able to explain the value of what they are doing for clients. The answer to the question: “what is the commercial benefit to my business of PR and social?” cannot be “there undoubtedly is one – I just can’t show you what it is”.

When it comes to tackling this question, large swathes of the PR industry currently reside in a half-way house. The comfort blanket of largely discredited AVEs has been cast off by many agencies following the creation of the Barcelona Principles and the publishing of AMEC’s reporting framework. Unfortunately, many appear to have done so without asking the question – what do we replace them with? Those not asking that question plough on with AVEs regardless.

Without a satisfactory replacement for AVEs, PRs are left with coverage, and little else besides. Social media marketers never had to emerge from the shadows of AVE reporting because it was never applicable to their work, but still face complicated questions about how to prove the commercial value of their activity.

The challenge for both is to go beyond outputs, to coin some marketing jargon, and provide insights on how audiences responded to the content they were exposed to. The stage after that is to try and show whether any change in awareness, sentiment or engagement this may have caused has had a commercial impact on the business.


Demonstrating the value of PR and social

There are a number of quantitative and qualitative methods available for measuring the ‘so what’ factor that needs to be answered to demonstrate ROI. Unfortunately, many offline methods can prove prohibitively expensive for clients who don’t really want to shell out thousands of pounds to find out if their campaign met the objectives agreed at the outset. They will especially resent that outlay if the result of that investment is to discover the campaign did not deliver.

All hope, however, is not lost. Tools are available, such as the use of tracking and goals in Google Analytics, to demonstrate where both PR and social have made either a direct or indirect contribution to commercial performance. And so, we come full circle to the start of this piece, and perhaps an explanation as to why best practice measurement and reporting has not been adopted in the industry as widely as it might have been.

Data analysis, at the risk of generalisation, is not what gets most in the industry out of bed in the morning. There exists a skills gap in the industry in this regard – and the onus is on PRs to upskill to fill it or integrate better with their digital teams where the required knowledge already exists.

The benefits of doing so may well include bigger budgets, with clients emboldened to commit funds in the expectation that ROI can be measured. Those larger budgets could unlock the potential for bigger, more innovative and more creative campaigns.

Now that is something to get out of bed for in the morning.

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