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Head to Head: Should PR be directly tied to brand performance and sales?

In this series, Mumbrella invites the most senior PR professionals to share their opposing views on the industry's biggest issues. This week, Red Agency's Grant Richmond-Coggan goes head to head with WE Buchan's general manager Gemma Hudson.

This week’s debate asks: should PR be directly tied to brand performance and sales? Red Agency’s Richmond-Coggan argues yes, stating that although measurement of PR impact is difficult, it must be able to prove its worth beyond the headlines.

On the contrary, WE Buchan’s Hudson says public relations does much more than drive sales, including issue management, crisis communication and building relationships with stakeholders.

Who do you agree with?

Should PR be directly tied to brand performance and sales?

Yes, argues, Grant Richmond-Coggan, business director, Red Agency

“I’m not quite sure how any senior PR can walk in to a CMOs office and justify their budget if they can’t or won’t align that spend with delivering on brand performance and sales. Our profession has often struggled with credibility precisely because we have been unable to justify genuine performance ROI or even frightened to link what we do to sales.

“It would take us back years.

“So, the answer is obvious, it simply has to be yes. And more than that we should embrace it.

“Now don’t get me wrong, measurement of direct PR impact is not easy and something the industry has been grappling with since its inception, but that does not mean that we should not strive – in partnership with our clients and fellow agencies – to implement capability to measure not just media output, but also real business outcomes and impact. This need for measurement and accountability has also been reflected in industry award entry standards and requirements across the gambit.

Richmond-Coggan says PR can’t work without proving the investment by marketers drives sales

“The approach must begin with the agency investing time to truly understand their client’s business and organisational objectives as well as their marketing KPIs. As communications professionals, if we don’t know why the client has appointed us, what business problems we are helping to solve, and how that is going to be measured, then we shouldn’t be taking their money. It is a road many contemporary agencies have been on for some time – a journey from fluff to tough.

“If PR wants to stay relevant in today’s fast-paced and multi-faceted marketing world, where attribution is spoken of daily, it must be able to prove its worth beyond headlines. We must set up for successful measurement from the get go, and do it in a collaborative and integrated fashion by working closely with our clients as well as their other partners from brief to optimisation.

“Ultimately, if any agency in today’s market cannot link their work to creating brand or business value then what is the value in having an agency partner in the first place?”

No, argues, Gemma Hudson, general manager WE Buchan:

“While I agree that PR can play a role alongside marketing as a driver of brand performance and sales, I disagree that it should be its sole purpose or evaluation metric. The practice of brand communication and brand storytelling aims to achieve a far broader range of outcomes for a business, and to measure a PR campaign simply on the metrics of sales alone would be to ignore the very heart of public relations – to communicate with, and build relationships with stakeholders.

“In today’s disrupted environment, consumers are looking to brands for much more than transactions as we discovered from our recent proprietary Brands in Motion study. Australian consumers are increasingly looking to brands and businesses to provide stability, and 68% of Australians agree that brands should take a stand on important issues. A good PR plan is vital in helping brands achieve this, whether it is by showing they take a social or political stance, or can show they are simply providing stability. Focusing on just the bottom line and ignoring this would be completely detrimental.

Hudson says there are metrics much wider than just sales and brand performance including crisis communications and social responsibility

“Now, let us talk about PR for social good. Our findings also discovered a trend we have labelled The Unilever Effect, named after CEO Paul Polman’s ambitious vision for Unilever to increase focus on providing positive social and environmental impact, and implement long-term, sustainable business strategies. Our data found that 69% of consumers in Australia expect brands to provide social good in addition to functionality. The Unilever Effect tells me that PR campaigns are not always about increasing ROI, sales – but can and do deliver a strong impact on overall brand sentiment and perception.

“Finally, another non-sales function of PR is issues management and crisis communication. While consumers may love a brand, they have no qualms in shaming it if it steps out of line. For this reason, it is critical that every brand has a crisis communication plan at the ready.

“So, while I agree that PR must demonstrate ROI and can definitely support marketing to increasing sales and brand performance, it is also important to look at much wider metrics than just this in isolation. We need to also put value on relationship building and brand perception. With such short attention spans, we can’t afford to ignore how important this is.”

  • As told to Abigail Dawson. If you’re a senior PR professional who would like to take part in a future Head to Head, please email abigail@mumbrella.com.au
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