Opinion

Our metrics are a mess: Why PR must rethink measurement

Weber Shandwick's Brian Keenan argues that ever-tightening marketing budgets and the expectation of airtight ROI are leaving PR agencies with no choice but to sharpen up their metrics.

Ice cream. Massages. Flowers. Public relations. What do these things have in common? Once upon a time, they were all goods/ services bought solely because they made someone feel good.

In the case of public relations, our discipline existed for many years solely to make clients feel good when they opened their paper and saw themselves or their company in the headlines. For all the clippings counted, press releases written, media packs sent or samples distributed, the one metric that mattered was the client feeling good about coverage secured.

This is still true in whole for some PRs and clients, and in part for many others. A positive volume of earned media relations is and will remain a core part of the raison d’être for public relations agencies.

However, the ever-increasing integration of agency disciplines and fragmentation of content channels is forcing a much different expectation for measurement upon PR consultancies.

When agencies from many disciplines claim theirs is the best way to relate directly with the public, the capability to prove a client spent their money effectively is becoming mandatory for all agencies including public relations professionals. Emotion, once central to our measured success, has largely left the equation. Data is now steering decisions.

Ironically, this shift leaves many PR agencies and practitioners feeling some negative emotions – unease, uncertainty, confusion, dread – as they face the prospect of having to calculate hard value for not only day-to-day tangible outputs but also some of their most important intangible assets such as long-term relationships, sage counsel and earned media acumen.

Clients don’t want to hear it. Organisations across many industry verticals are slashing overall marketing budgets; even small projects require airtight justification and expected ROI for approval. For our clients to protect their budgets, and in some circumstances their jobs, all of their agencies must prove value – or they will find another who can.

A tough challenge, no doubt. And while I applaud the energy and effort of the PR industry to respond, I’d like to explain why I believe our current collective response is doing more harm than good for proving the value of earned communications and public relations within the marketing mix.

First, a caveat. This a long-term, complex challenge facing the entire public relations industry, one that we collectively are making great strides to answer. Innovation and vision are coming across the spectrum from lone practitioner to global agency, an encouraging sign. Collective investment in and endorsement of consensus standards on best-practice measurement, like the PRIA framework and Barcelona Principles, is essential to progress and should continue.

Now the bad news. In my experience and conversation across the industry, PR practitioners and agencies are still not measuring the right metrics to properly allow the value of PR to be compared against other disciplines.

While we are measuring more than ever, we are still measuring mostly or only things that matter to PR such as coverage volume, coverage sentiment, share of voice, earned impressions, earned engagement. These are all valuable metrics but when presented alone they make it difficult for clients to compare our value in the integrated environment.

As industry guidelines like the PRIA measurement framework suggest, we must keep striving to measure impact and outcome whenever possible. Not only because impact and outcome prove value but also because they are the gold-standard measures used by advertising, media buying and digital agencies.

Measures of impact and outcome – ie. sales, donations, votes, hires, stock price, public rating, endorsement, feedback – are the measurement battleground on which public relations may finally win a seat at the proverbial table with or even in front of other agencies.

It will not be an easy feat but I’m convinced that once PR can consistently measure against other disciplines, our true value will rise above the rest.

Brian Keenan is VP, planning at Weber Shandwick Australia

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