Digital/Online Marketing Communications Strategy

PR Outcome Measures Need A Reality Check

The public relations industry has long dealt with the nettlesome fact that much of what PR accomplishes — such as generating buzz and creating affinity toward a brand — is difficult if not impossible to measure.

Meanwhile corporate executives are hot for hard numbers that determine how PR helps specific organizational and project goals. It’s a show me the money mentality.

PRSA logoNaturally, PR people strive to devise ways to create those numbers. Some of this stems from authentic interest in wanting to gauge the real outcome of the effort. Also, in the wake of corporate cutbacks and rising unemployment, the imperative to identify demonstrable results drives the initiative.

Hence the timeliness of a program announced last week in a press release issued by the Public Relations Society of America, which is readying to issue a set of  “recommended metrics and approaches for evaluating public relations’ influence on key business outcomes.”

PRSA posted the proposed recommendations and is soliciting comments via its comPRehension blog.

One overall recommendation is to “shift the conversation away from volume of clips, social media activity and advertising value equivalency, etc., to outcome measures that show how public relations drives business performance.”

Financial Outcomes

To connect PR with elements of financial performance — revenues, profit, efficiency in delivery of message — PRSA says to employ surveys to determine consumer exposure to PR and then correlate that to purchase levels.

Reputation/Brand Equity

To surmise how PR influences customer brand loyalty/satisfaction, enables higher prices, and reduces legal costs, PRSA recommends tying conversations (and tone) in traditional and social media to web analytic data such as registrations, requests for information and sales leads. You should also monitor how PR affects financial analyst opinions and changes in stock price.

Impact on employees

For calculating how PR impacts employee acquisition, retention and productivity, favored tactics include sizing up employee satisfaction, turnover, call response times and sick days, by comparing control groups exposed to PR messages.

Impact on public policy

Means to meter how PR impacts public voter behavior and passage of business regulations include tracking trends, legislative/regulator awareness and voter intent. Then come post-election, conduct surveys to determine actual legislative and voter behavior.

The world is imperfect

FYI, I only covered a smattering of the content.

In a perfect world, it would be great to accomplish all of the recommendations, and have the data collected show a tangible link between the effort and the business outcome.

But outside of online activity, where analytics are readily obtained, it’s tough to truly determine how much consumer activity is related to PR efforts as opposed to being the result of other factors. Even online, it’s not always obvious how and why someone found your brand in the first place. Still, you can count click throughs, links, registrations and requests for information, so there is hard data to be mined.

The public relations influence on a stock price is fleeting; that number is easily affected by general market conditions and what competitors are doing.

I could bang through more examples. The point is, the metrics cited are imperfect and only tell part of the story. There are limits to how well you can measure the numerical (and dollars and cents) effects of reasoning, intent, emotion, loyalty, interaction and conversation. This is why the focus is on surveys, sales figures and public policy. All appear to be good tools for measurement.

Surveys are useful, yet they have flaws. A survey is an opt-in method (this can skew findings). People may misconstrue intent due to how certain questions are phrased. Results can be misread: Just ask the folks who launched “New Coke” about that one.

You can make a correlation between PR and sales, but here again there are intervening factors; like how well the sales-force is trained and whether or not they are communicating the same message as the PR folks are sending.

You can tally up how lawmakers voted, but much of what goes on in politics is, well, political. Legislators are notorious for trading votes (you support my bill and I’ll support yours) hence that statistic is mushy.

A surprising understatement

I was surprised that social media is dealt with only marginally. Really, it feels like attention to social media is tacked on just to show they know it exists.

As noted, the recommendations propose at the outset to shift away from tabulating social media activity. How is this not seen as being related to business outcomes?

The PR industry is undergoing a sea change due to social media. It’s where spheres of influence are deepening. Influence surely affects business outcomes. The proposal, however, is primarily directed at traditional outlets and methods. If the committee that created the recommendations had included someone who is immersed in social media then perhaps they’d have a better handle on its role (the group is comprised of old-schoolers).

There’s no mention of search engine ranking (if it’s somehow implied, it’s not obvious). That’s a big oversight — SEO can play a major role in reputation management.

Meanwhile, I am surprised that PRSA says to steer clear of counting clips. Why not add up how much media attention is received, both online and in print? It’s no more or less a real metric than certain econometric modeling processes (which do get the nod by PRSA).

I do believe it’s worthwhile for PRSA to devise ways to derive quantifiable results connected to corporate performance. However, the organization needs to be more in tune with the reality of shifts in the public relations paradigm.

– Deni Kasrel

What do YOU think of the new PRSA recommendations for measuring the impact of PR? Is it really possible to assign a dollar value to outcomes of PR programs? Comments welcome.

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About the Author

About the Author: Deni Kasrel is seasoned (slightly spicy) specialist in digital/online communications. .

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  1. Frank Strong says:

    You’re comment about clip value really struck a cord with me — and I couldn’t agree more. It is a metric, it should be a metric and should be factored in as one data point, among all other metrics that can be reasonably measured within the constraints of time and resources. I wrote a post on this topic expressing similar sentiments to what you’ve expressed here. To my amazement, that post provoked something akin to a minor controversy. Here’s a link to that post The folly of public relations measurement

    • Deni Kasrel says:

      Frank,
      Thanks for the link to your article, which brings up a lot of good points.

      Yeah, the ROI thing — you’re right it gets thrown around (and misused) a lot. In social media circles ROI has come to mean return on influence, which is a more accurate a description for how things work in that ecosystem, but as with many other PR measures, it’s difficult if not impossible, to translate it into to a hard dollar value. Like you, I agree that measurement is important, however, akin to the line in the MasterCard commercial, you can’t put a real price on human emotions or experience. Yet these things are at the root of many aspects of public relations.

  2. It really is something hard to quantify. I don’t think there will ever be a full-proof way to really size-up PR efforts, unfortunately.

    • Deni Kasrel says:

      LaNeshe,
      Right you are, there is no foolproof way of attaching a quantifiable number to PR outcomes. But that doesn’t stop certain people from trying to do so. Also, PR’s impact does not necessarily show up right away, which makes the measuring all the more difficult.

  3. WebPRpro says:

    Deni,
    You make a great point about SEO, we agree completely. Most CEO’s are strongly interested in moving the needle on SEO, and rightfully so. The better your ranking, the more likely you will be seen, and PR can play a major role in that. That’s why we always suggest 1) regular press releases (fresh content), and 2) distribution over news wires. Thanks for your article Deni, great discussion here!

  4. Peter Faur says:

    Great topic, Deni. I believe communications is a process, and there are several models that illustrate this. One is that people move from having their attention captured, to having their interest aroused, to having desire stimulated and, finally, to acting on the communications they’ve received.

    Value is being built all along the process, and degrees of success can be determined at each step. The only place that ROI can really be measured, however, is in the final step, when the money comes out and the product or service is bought or the cause is supported.

    We have to be sure that clients understand the process. If they believe – or are allowed to believe – that if sales aren’t increased overnight, then the communications process has failed, then PR and communication will be seen as ineffective or unimportant. If we can show them the importance of the process and building involvement and a relationship, we have a shot at being judged a success.

    • Deni Kasrel says:

      I just saw this quote in an article by Joel Postman in Social Media Today (http://socialmediatoday.com/SMC/125582) and I think it applies to this discussion, as well: “Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.” – Albert Einstein

      Which is to say, all things are relative 😉

  5. Thomas Scott says:

    People just don’t get it!

    I’m finishing up the franchise update conference in Chicago and the big disconnect is that PR generated only 3% of leads for franchise sales but contributed 11% of closed deals. More than 50% of franchise companies were not using PR at all and only a couple were using it correctly to generate sales and propel social media campaigns. Those that were creating good call to action PR were outselling those that were not.

    Go figure – you think the PR industry would wake up and change its ways….

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