Advancing communications measurement and evaluation

5 Common Barriers to PR Measurement Adoption

Chip Griffin not long ago authored a piece exhorting PR to push back whenever it is suggested that marketing has all of the measurement answers. That marketing gets measurement right while PR flails is a common refrain, and there are many leaders across the field of communications pushing for PR to get with the program and start measuring more rigorously and more often.

Clearly there are strong arguments as to why PR should be measuring more, but rarely do the critics decrying the lack of measurement delve into a fundamental question if we, as an industry, are going to move forward: why does it seem to be taking so long for PR pros to really get on board and start measuring as a routine part of PR work?

After all, we can’t really expect a long-term solution to a problem if we don’t address the underlying issues. So, what are the foundational problems in PR that are preventing widespread adoption of measurement? The issues listed below are interconnected and cannot easily be divided from one another, but they may point us in the right direction to answer the “why” behind the lack of PR measurement.

Issue 1: Lack of time

Whether we are considering a large agency, a boutique specialty firm, or a small agency, PR professionals typically work long hours on multiple projects. A great deal of the work is intensive and it is not uncommon to frenetically jump from one item to the next—this is particularly true if social media and media relations are part of the mix. Virtually all PR professionals have to pay attention to 24/7/365 news cycles and social media in order to do their jobs effectively.

Real measurement, on the other side of the spectrum, requires a lot of forward planning prior to an engagement, substantial time reviewing and layering on additional data during a campaign, and significant time analyzing results and turning results into insights. Measurement can be time-consuming, and in an industry where clients have their own ideas on what successful PR looks like, selling measurement can feel a bit anticlimactic.

This is likely one reason why the industry has leaned so hard on data and numbers that don’t provide much in the way of insight, but are easy to gather and report. AVEs are quick to calculate and report, as are vanity metrics such as likes and followers. These provide the illusion of measurement without taking any of the time.

As monitoring dashboards get more detailed and are able to deliver more data, the impulse on the part of PR practitioners seems to be to simply report more of this data, but it’s important to remember that data collection is a component of measurement. Measurement that ties PR efforts to business objectives requires additional steps beyond simple data collection.

Issue 2: Limited budgets

Clients have always been conscious of the amount they are spending on PR, whether it’s an internal function in a company or when they use an outside firm. As noted above, measurement that goes beyond data reporting takes time, and time is money. Conducting the analysis necessary and establishing a solid measuring program—while continuing to do all of the work previously expected from PR—means additional resources. Whether a company is asking for measurement from an outside firm or adding it to the plate of its internal PR team, it’s more work, and that means spending more.

Spending more isn’t what most clients want to hear. So, PR pros get boxed into an unenviable corner: in an effort to make PR services more meaningful, they’ve been told time and again they need to measure, but when they pitch measurement there’s a bigger bottom line attached—which potentially makes PR a target to cut.

Issue 3: A lack of training and/or awareness

Up until recently, there really hasn’t been a lot of emphasis on training in PR measurement, other than in some college communications curricula. There are a lot of PR practitioners who enter the field through industry experience, rather than following a college major. For them, learning and understanding PR measurement is either something they seek out because they understand its importance or are interested in it; or, they are thrust into it when a client asks for it.

Whether they are willing or reluctant students of PR measurement, most are essentially on their own to seek out direction, advice, and examples on how to measure. Although industry groups like PRSA, AMEC, IABC, and IPR are readily available resources, not every PR professional is a member of one of these groups—they might not even be aware that such resources exist.

When firms are successful at what they do, there’s generally a certain formula that they follow for client programs. If measurement is requested by a client or even when it is suggested by the PR team, the compulsion is to tack measurement on to the already-tested programs. That isn’t always the best approach, because adding measurement usually means that you will be doing something new—like mapping measurement efforts back to business goals. Time-tested approaches don’t need to be scrapped, but proposals will need to be structured differently.

Issue 4: Limited demand

A lot of what falls under PR’s banner hasn’t traditionally been measured beyond clip counts. PR professionals are asked to: develop working relationships with members of the media, secure coverage, do community outreach, produce volumes of printed materials from newsletters to brochures, maintain social media channels, write case studies and white papers, produce content for websites…and more.

Most of the time these activities are conducted without a great deal of thought put into how each program element or event ties back to actual business goals (the first step in measuring effectively). When PR is tasked with the amorphous goal of “raising awareness,” rarely does it come with sufficient budget to conduct baseline and post-campaign surveys. So, PR departments continue to do what they’ve always done, separated from the “hard numbers” parts of the business. The only times PR is the center of attention is when the company has a nice media placement or a major media crisis.

Because PR has generally been viewed through this limited lens, there rarely is a push for numbers by clients beyond placement counts, vanity metrics, and faux measurement like AVEs. This is particularly true for clients with limited budgets, such as small businesses and nonprofit firms. These clients might choose to engage with a PR firm for very specific objectives, such as media outreach, where they have identified an internal weakness. To boil it down, if you don’t have the media relationships you need, a good way to jump-start that process is to hire a PR firm for that objective.

Things are a bit different at large PR firms, many of which have sophisticated measurement and data analysis practice groups in-house. While this addresses requests for measurement from clients, it also has created a bit of a silo effect, which limits the number of PR practitioners who actually do measurement work.

Issue 5: Responsibility overlap

This is one of the trickier aspects to measurement, when we look at the PESO model and crumbling walls between advertising, marketing, and PR. Put bluntly, this is the “who really gets the credit” question. Or, possibly, a “turf war” issue.

It can be difficult to pinpoint what exactly drives a customer to purchase. Anything from influencer marketing to traditional advertising to seeing a mention in a newspaper might be the final nudge that moves an individual from “interested audience” to “purchaser.” It could be a combination of all factors, plus a friend making a mention on Facebook. The last click gets the credit, but should it?

This isn’t an excuse not to measure, far from it. It does mean that more than one department might legitimately be able to tie their individual efforts to the same business result. This fact actually bolsters Chip Griffin’s argument that PR should work with marketing and other departments to come up with solid communications metrics.

Is then the answer to more effective PR measurement to have components of it combined into a broader communications measurement effort?

This could well be the direction in which we are headed. Over the next few months, we will publish a series of posts exploring each of the issues above and how to address them strategically and tactically so that measurement becomes a routine part of the practice of public relations.

Jennifer Zingsheim Phillips

Jennifer Zingsheim Phillips is the founder of 4L Strategies, and has worked in communications and public affairs for just over 20 years. Her background includes work in politics, government, lobbying, public affairs PR work, content creation, digital and social communications, and media analysis.
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