Advancing communications measurement and evaluation

As Silos Come Down, Barriers to PR Measurement Can Go Up

The common barriers to PR measurement we’ve examined thus far relate directly to PR as a separate entity within an organization. By this I mean that time management, funding, and training are all issues that tie back to PR as a distinct practice within an organization.

However, the two barriers this piece examines are heavily affected by how PR, marketing, and advertising are now bleeding into one another’s space, primarily due to the rise of digital. Silos are coming down, but that can complicate measurement.

Why demand for rigorous PR measurement is limited

The role of public relations in many organizations is dominated by media relations. In fact, this is what most people outside of the business think of when they hear “PR.” Although PR is much, much more than media relations, the simple fact is that press coverage—monitoring it, getting placements in it, responding to it, and managing it—is central to a lot of PR practitioners’ jobs, and has been for a long time.

In many ways, this makes sense from a historical perspective. For better or for worse, the dominance of earned media coverage has dictated how PR practitioners approach measurement. How to assess earned coverage evolved separately from the numbers-heavy marketing and advertising departments, and because so much of what PR originally sprang from was deemed too ephemeral to measure—how does one assess a value of a relationship with a reporter, for example—PR had a tendency to rely on counting placements as a measure of success.

While that was one method adopted, there was still the question of the value of placements, which is where AVEs sprang from: assessing a dollar value to an earned article, based on the cost of the equivalent sized advertisement. As over-simplified as that idea was, it was taken one step further when someone decided to add multipliers to the equation to address the criticism that a paid-for advertisement was of lower value than an earned media placement. Despite the completely arbitrary nature of this data point, people accepted it, and the profession has fought to shake it off ever since.

In fact, usage of clip counts and AVEs are so entrenched, they are the de facto benchmarks that exist in many companies. When the same data points appear year after year in reports, and comparisons are made year-over-year on those metrics, moving away from them feels risky—even if they haven’t been providing useful information.

The net effect of this is that clients who have used these data points for years are unlikely to be proactive in pushing for more rigorous measurement, particularly if it is going to cost them more money. This means that advocating movement to better measurement will often fall to the PR team, whether it’s an internal group or an external PR firm.

Addressing limited demand means that PR professionals are going to need to “sell” measurement, and the most direct way to do this is to demonstrate its value. Case studies, pilot programs, and good old-fashioned competition (such as pointing out it could help get a leg up on competitors) are possible starting points.

How responsibility overlap and attribution affect PR measurement

As PR has expanded, measurement requirements for its book of work have not kept up. PR practitioners do far more than media relations: there’s internal communications, public affairs, audience identification and targeting, elements of paid media work, content strategies, and following a PESO strategy.

Because PESO (paid, earned, shared, owned) contains elements that used to live exclusively in other departments, particularly in advertising and marketing, attribution—a key part of accurate measurement—can feel more difficult.

Put more negatively and more bluntly: it can feel like PR is treading on the turf of other departments. (Anyone who doesn’t see the potential for friction here probably hasn’t had to compete internally for budget.)

We put a great deal of emphasis in measurement on tying PR activities to business goals. Sometimes those business goals may be exclusive to or heavily fall to PR—say, if a business goal is improving corporate reputation in the year following a major crisis. While advertising and marketing will have roles in this business goal, repairing image is solidly in PR’s wheelhouse.

In other cases, the business goals tied to PR activities will present a more evenly shared objective, such as selling more product. Whether a company is selling candy bars or couches, digital subscriptions or software, one of the business goals is always going to be increasing sales.

If a potential customer sees a television advertisement, interacts with an influencer on social media, reads a profile piece published months ago about the CEO’s CSR efforts that mirror her views, and then decides—on a word of mouth recommendation from a personal friend—to purchase, which department gets to count that sale in their measurement data? And perhaps more importantly, how is that information being captured?

For large companies, the volume of sales and data collected smooth out some of these issues, and can provide some answers. Because of the size of the data sets, individual cases such as the scenario set out above have less of an impact on measurement outcomes.

In smaller companies, one would expect the ability to attribute the sale would be easier to see because of the smaller data set. Instead, it’s harder because advertising, PR, and marketing all can make some claim on converting that member of the targeted audience into a purchaser, and in fact they probably all have data that captures that consumer’s separate interactions.

Consolidated communications metrics

Measurement is necessary to improve business outcomes and make smart decisions. As digital has become a dominant means of communication and entertainment, our ability to draw bright lines between measuring streams of data that can be easily attributable to one activity or another has eroded.

The answer, it seems, is in recognizing that a blended approach to data analysis is necessary. While there is and will continue to be a need to measure specific marketing, advertising, and PR activities separately, there is clearly also a need to see how these activities collectively impact communications.

Consolidated communications metrics are also a potent response to overcoming PR measurement barriers. By making the case that combined communications efforts must be measured, the case is also made that PR must be measured independently—just like marketing and advertising are.

This is the final post in the series on PR measurement barriers. If you’ve missed any of the other posts, here they are:

5 Common Barriers to PR Measurement Adoption

Making Time for PR Measurement

Measuring When There’s No Budget for PR Measurement

PR Measurement’s Big Obstacle: Expanding Awareness


Jennifer Zingsheim Phillips

Jennifer Zingsheim Phillips

Jennifer Zingsheim Phillips is the Director of Marketing Communications for CARMA. She is also the founder of 4L Strategies, and has worked in communications and public affairs for more than 20 years. Her background includes work in politics, government, lobbying, public affairs PR, content creation, digital and social communications, and media analysis.
Jennifer Zingsheim Phillips
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