The practice of public relations is approaching a crossroads. Whilst IR, internal, and corporate communications are tripping along nicely, many professionals today see the need for change, and they are conflicted between reputation and marketing functions. Will the rest of PR end up reporting directly to the CEO or be subsumed under marketing?
The critical challenge of establishing or maintaining the relevance and reputation of PR among the C-suite lies in our ability to articulate value of what I call the ‘invisible assets’, that is, the credibility and trust that underpin reputation.
My recent work—at Precise Value, with the IPR Task Force on Standardization of Communication Planning/Objective Setting and Evaluation/Measurement Models, and on a U.S. research tour alongside Dr. Nathan Gilkerson of Marquette University—identified two principal themes: the need for PR accountability and the importance of sophisticated communications measurement. These present significant opportunities for organizations and professionals to position themselves at the forefront of PR developments.
This work also made it clear that a limited understanding of how communication creates value for the organisation is the norm rather than the exception. A lack of structure around value impairs all PR and communications functions, from planning and resourcing through to execution and evaluation.
Helping point the way are academic insights from Dr. Ansgar Zerfass of Leipzig University, who provides some enlightened thinking on how communications creates ‘potentials of success’ and ‘room to manoeuvre’ (Corporate Communications Revisited, 2008). Also, Dr. Don Stacks from University of Miami elaborates on how effective communications build better relationships through mutual understanding (Primer of Public Relations Research, Second Edition 2011).
Yet few communications professionals have taken the time to quantify the nature of their ‘invisible assets’. This results in uneven planning, with the norm consisting of tactical plans developed on the basis of untenable assumptions or missing facts. At the same time, ideation is often employed as the starting point of strategy, thereby sidestepping the real issues and running the risk of generating misguided foci without basis in facts.
With the merging of advertising, social, and PR gathering pace, previously distinct silos are merging as well. Evidence is mounting that most audiences cannot separate platform influence.
By integrating quality planning and objective setting with measurement and evaluation, innovative communications professionals can already plan and guide the focus of their efforts for optimal effect, then report results with meaningful numbers. This kind of innovative ‘dynamic justification’ feedback loop will garner greater access to the C-Suite or board than ever before. Not only that, but it empowers managers to know—beyond any reasonable doubt—which messages, media channels, spokespeople, or activities will yield the best business outcome for their organisations and to prove that through concrete results!
Be assured that this is not future gazing. A number of insightful PR professionals are already leading the charge, often quietly delivering exceptional results for their organisations through applied measurement and analytics. Moreover, prescient professionals are often relieved to note that, whilst the critical thinking, back-end analytics, data processing, and platform requirements can be complex, such measurement systems can be surprisingly easy-to-implement.
To illustrate, let me reference two cases from within my own client experience:
Case Study #1: Impact of marketing spend on brand consideration for a well-known non-profit
- The Challenge: Benchmark the extent of brand consideration uplift derived from a not-for-profit’s marketing spend.
- The Results: Our analysis for this client began by deriving a focus group understanding of supporter outlooks and category trends. We then reviewed market research studies, yielding results suggesting that each 1% increase in brand consideration cost an average $350,000 to achieve in marketing budget (mainly advertising). Thus we established a baseline benchmark upon which to judge the relative success of various communications mixes and levels of marketing and communications investments in years to come. This provides the clarity needed to identify the optimal marketing spend to achieve the levels of donations that are required to support the non-profit’s work.
Case Study #2: Determine marketing vs. PR value for a high profile tech organization
- The Challenge: How to separate the value of PR compared to advertising vis-à-vis purchase consideration? This corporation’s brand research showed an uplift in purchase consideration when prospects were aware of its Corporate Social Responsibility work. But what was the cost-effectiveness of delivering such uplift through the use of public relations in contrast with other above or below-the-line communications disciplines?
- The Results: By spanning all key marketing elements with custom-designed market research and metrics, we worked with this client to distill valuable insights from specific PR evaluation data. Analysis over time revealed the contribution of PR alongside advertising and sponsorship. Results showed that PR was more cost-effective. In fact, PR activity generated a return on cost at a multiplier of 2.8 times that of all marketing elements. In short, we provided quantified proof that PR had delivered results much more efficiently than other communications options.
It should be noted that each client scenario is unique, and insights are predicated upon the availability of sound data. As a result these outtakes may not be replicable even for organisations within the same industry sector. Having said that, other international cases have suggested broadly similar results.
Armed with a good structural basis of knowledge and a commitment to measurement, communication professionals can finally become a physician that can ‘heal thyself’. And, as a result of demonstrating value, such professionals will attract a greater share of resources and attain or retain roles as valuable members of senior management teams.