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Moving Public Relations Forward Through a New Level of Measurement

Why a focus on what’s been accomplished is a more effective way to measure PR’s performance

This article previously appeared in ANA Forward on March 3, 2020.

Measuring what has happened and what has been accomplished are not the same thing and, for public relations to cement its role as a lead marketing communications tactic in an increasingly digital world, the industry needs to recognize the difference and push for better, more meaningful data.

Effective public relations campaigns can sway opinion, put a company on the map, and get a newly launched product into the consideration set of key buyers. But in a business where success is increasingly determined by click-through rates and engagement levels, public relations is at risk of losing the credit it deserves for building brands, fostering positive reputations, encouraging trial, and generating traffic.

The public relations field needs a PR campaign that is rooted in the industry embracing a new wave of metrics.

Typical results reporting for public relations campaigns places a heavy emphasis on the inputs and outputs. On the input side, agencies do a great job reporting on how many press releases were issued, the number of media interactions, event attendance, and social media posts. On the output side, reports track key clips, quantify the amount of media pickup, and applaud gross impressions.

This reporting on what happened tells a story of how time and money were spent, but it is as far away from measuring what got accomplished — what is most important to true brand stewardship — as one can get.

Sure, reporting on activity is as important today as it ever was, perhaps even more so when agencies find themselves in a project environment, often driven by procurement-generated statements of work. After all, project managers on the client side want to be sure they got what they paid for according to the SOW. But if the metric is how many press releases were issued, then agencies are working toward the wrong goal. The SOW called for four press releases and they went out on schedule — so what? A communications function staffed solely with junior practitioners could accomplish that metric with little regard to moving the needle on things that are important to the C-suite.

Did awareness increase? Are consumers more likely to purchase a product or service? What is happening to reputation levels and is brand equity enhanced? Do key stakeholders hear the key messages? Are sales up? How is the stock performing? Are the right kind of new employees for the future being attracted to the company? What is the company’s share of voice compared to the competition? Do employees, distributors, retailers, and consumers feel connected in a more positive fashion to the brand? KPIs like these are more accurate measures of what public relations has really accomplished. And going forward this is the type of impact PR campaigns will need to prove they can deliver.

The good news for the public relations industry is that for decades tactics have been in place accomplishing these things and more. And PR has been more effective at accomplishing these goals than most other forms of marketing. The sad truth is that results from public relations initiatives are not soft, it’s the metrics used that have lacked the firmness required to excite CEOs.

Proper PR Metrics Focus on Impact

PR reporting needs to have three elements: inputs, outputs, and impact. The impact part of the reporting must be aligned with corporate goals and track outcomes that matter. These are the results that have bottom-line impact.

A successful public relations program for a company is not unlike a successful athletic program at a major university. When a school wins an NCAA championship, especially in a high-visibility sport like football or basketball, it receives a huge boost in earned media, social media mentions, and attention from influencers. The admissions offices at these schools will admit this results in a boost in applications, while development officers report that alumni donations are easier to come by. When the boards of trustees at these schools meet they certainly celebrate the athletic success, but the resulting boosts in awareness, applications, tuition, ticket sales, licensed merchandise income, and endowment fund balances are even more exciting and meaningful.

In certain public relations disciplines, measurement has already evolved to a state that looks at what truly matters. On the crisis side, there are really only three key metrics:

  1. How fast does the company get back to business as usual?
  2. Is there any lasting reputational damage?
  3. Did the event result in a loss of relationships, sales, or momentum toward specific corporate goals?

Each of these can be measured, with both hard numbers and anecdotal observations. PR’s ability to counsel a client through the steps necessary to weather the storm and limit the damage is measurable and valued.

As is the case with crisis communications, issues management can measure fairly simple accomplishments such as building coalitions and educating stakeholders to gain regulatory and public approval for controversial projects. Measurement is less complex when success metrics are straightforward. Did PR make the pain go away? Did PR help the brand avoid damaging communications mistakes? Did the messages help build trust? Is the company able to focus on doing what it does, instead of explaining why or how it does it?

The new wave in PR measurement needs to adopt a similar strategy of identifying what success looks like, defining metrics that track both a series of milestones and a set of goals. This will require more open and thoughtful discussions between brand managers and public relations teams. The sharing of data and a willingness to invest in tools to track KPI movement are critical.

When one of the goals of a marketing effort is to increase awareness, how often does anyone really know the current brand awareness level among target audiences? Having pre- and post-campaign tracking studies for things like awareness, purchase intent, sales lead generation, and brand preference requires both planning and budget allocations. These can be measured and tracked, but it takes discipline and commitment.

Prioritizing Accomplishments Over Activity

Moving forward, PR programs will continue to track activity levels and surface results, like impressions generated. However, increasingly there will be a separation in metric sophistication that enables some brands to leverage data. This differentiation in PR measurement will come in three key areas:

  1. Increased digitization of PR campaigns. Increasing portions of available paid advertising budgets are being spent online. Part of the reason for this is the increasing amount of screen time of both B2B and B2C audiences. And a familiar refrain is that digital ads are measurable, so marketers can track clicks and follow customers through the sales funnel. PR can employ similar tactics to track engagement with content and establish the value of organic social using a variety of metrics to prove its contribution to marketing results.
  2. A blending of paid, earned, social, and owned media. No other marketing function has the ability to see the entire playing field and manage an integrated PESO (paid, earned, shared, owned) media approach. Consumers engage with content entirely differently than they did a decade ago, and this continues to evolve. Making effective use of paid, earned, social, and owned media requires a strong reliance on data tracking so each tool can be deployed in the proper mix. What’s more, the creativity of public relations using owned media means going beyond the company’s website or newsletter to tools like events, webinars, sponsorships, podcasts, and experiences. Often overlooked opportunities like trade shows, annual meetings, and corporate functions can be effective in driving messages home with stakeholder audiences.
  3. Enhanced reporting tools and standards. Tracking accomplishments that matter requires a sophisticated business approach to metrics. There are a dizzying number of new software platforms that promise to track everything from social chatter to brand sentiment in real time. Most companies also have a treasure trove of data available internally that is underutilized because of silos in their organizations. Things like call center activity, open rates on outbound emails, monthly and year-over-year sales trends, employee turnover, and other data can help focus KPIs that have bottom-line impact. Brand managers and PR teams need to reach a consensus about both key objectives and the data points, along with credible and disciplined tracking methods. The positive development is that more and better tools are available to accomplish this task.

Despite the preponderance of metrics tools available, when it comes to setting campaign objectives and goals, nothing can replace a conversation. While data analytics can drive a more scientific approach to PR, there is still art in what agencies do for brands. Often the most effective communications require a set of soft skills that include knowing what to say, how to say it, and how loudly to broadcast the message. It’s critical for PR practitioners to discuss campaign goals upfront with their internal and external teams to ensure alignment not only with program tactics, but also with the corporation’s overall objectives. This critical planning step should generate a physical document that everyone involved in the project can reference as the measurement component of the entire campaign.

Every campaign should start with a success plan. This is an essential step, because the success planning process helps create KPI alignment that is clear and enables clients to identify program constraints. This creates the opportunity to resolve issues that can range from budgetary constraints to internal process, communications, or distribution roadblocks before a campaign is launched. The end result is a far greater opportunity for campaign success.

Going forward, measuring accomplishments will trump activity reporting in proving public relations’ value.