The secret to great PR measurement? You have to give a shit

The exact value of earned media is still treated as an unquantifiable, unknowable thing in PR, argues Istories' Lee Robson. But continuing to accept guesswork will only tarnish good work, and the overall industry.

The longer I’ve spent in PR, the harder I’ve found it to accept the difficult-to-measure aspects of the work we do as fundamentally unknowable and just ‘part of the job’.

Whether you’re a plumber or a brain surgeon, you wouldn’t count luck or guesswork among the tools of your trade, yet many PRs will turn up to work every day doing just that.

Of course, there are many defences of the need to account for outside forces when working in the capricious world of earned media.

‘The solutions exist, but you have to care enough about the problem to go looking for them’

But it’s the persistent and pernicious idea that the exact value of coverage generated is either unquantifiable, or should be bundled in and measured using metrics borrowed from other disciplines, that tarnishes so much great work and continues to damage the industry’s image.

In too many cases, PR is still practised as a numbers game: If you throw enough darts at enough dart boards, eventually you’ll hit a bullseye. Yet somewhere around the fourth and fifth throw, you’ve almost stopped aiming and are just relieved the moment something hits the board. And that’s understandable. It doesn’t take long for the pressure to deliver results to supersede the original intention to convey a meaningful message to largest number of potentially receptive people.

In the warm afterglow of a successful project or campaign, everyone simply knows it was a success. At that point, any failures in the ability to accurately measure performance are swept aside by a steady flow of impressive numbers being thrown around, to everyone’s back-slapping delight.

Conversely, a PR campaign’s failure is almost always defined by a lack of coverage, either in terms of the number of articles generated, size of potential audience reached, or both. But that ‘failure’, in most cases, is still measured against a predetermined KPI based on a volume output, using a figure almost arbitrarily decided by someone using prior experience as a subjective benchmark.

No two pieces of coverage are identical; let alone two complex campaigns, deployed at different moments in time, by different teams and with different messages to share.

This truism is measurable, but the process of getting there involves letting go of the assumption that earned media results are fundamentally unquantifiable, now that AVEs [advertising value equivalencies] no longer have any sway or relevance.

Coverage may be presented as a work of art when it’s hung up for the client or CEO to marvel at, but take a more dispassionate and objective look and it’s simply a sum of component parts, the anatomy of which can be broken down, examined and evaluated.

The problem for many arrives with the pressure to come up with a number for an upcoming report, which is where most evaluation will either stop or revert to vanity metrics and guesswork.

Consider, instead, that once any piece of coverage has been broken down into pieces, it can be rebuilt as a tower of numbers based on each component’s relative value. How each tower is built should be tailored to each individual client and campaign but there are underlying principles that will determine how that is achieved.

Let’s give it a go.

Think of the best piece of coverage you ever generated and give it a number. Now think of all the things that made that dream piece of coverage so breathtakingly awesome. Some will have played a bigger part than others, so give each component their own score based on their relative contribution, ensuring the sum of all these numbers adds up to your first.

Congratulations, you’ve not only just taken your first step towards being able to determine the relative strength of every piece of coverage you will now generate for this campaign, but you will be able to explain why each piece of coverage performed well or badly next to one another and within the context of an entire campaign.

Still with me? Great. But now you’re thinking, ‘Well that’s awesome in theory, but how the fuck am I supposed to do that for every piece of coverage we generate, every day, for every campaign we ever do and for every client and project we manage?’

The solutions exist, but you have to care enough about the problem to go looking for them.

I did, but I had to care enough to invest a big chunk of time this year studying data analytics and applying those techniques and skills to a career spent trying to bring precision to what too many still find easier to believe is an unquantifiable art.

No one in PR and communications gets into the industry to spend their time agonising over numbers; nor should we be spending more time on analysis than on devising and delivering persuasive and impactful work.

The goal should be to invest time in smarter objectives setting and evaluation processes, so that when it is time to either celebrate successes or consider what we can do better next time, we’re doing so with the rigour of insight and professionalism that the discipline of PR deserves.

Lee Robson is founder and chief storytelling officer at communications agency Istories


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