It’s a good time to be in PR. Public Relations is in demand by a range of businesses, from startups to CPGs. Yet as an industry, we still struggle with one key issue. How should clients evaluate PR outcomes?
For years PR agencies and corporate communications departments measured results by literally “counting clips.” We evaluated success by calculating the value of earned media as if it were paid advertising. AVE, or Advertising Value Equivalent, treats an article, post, or broadcast segment as if it were a paid ad, valued according to a standard media rate card. In the old days we would even multiply that number by three or more for the “added credibility” that earned media presumably confers when analyzing our PR outcomes. Some agencies still evaluate earned media this way.
The problems with the AVE approach are obvious. For one thing, earned media and paid media are very different. AVE doesn’t account for quality of coverage; theoretically a glowing feature and a minor mention (or even a negative article) are considered equally valuable, which is absurd. And who buys according to a rate card? The AVE method irks PR professionals in part because they don’t account for the other functions of PR beyond earned media. Most importantly, they don’t offer any insights into PR’s impact on the client’s business.
PR Outcomes Are Moving Beyond the Ad Equivalent Model
In 2010, several PR industry groups finally grappled with the AVE problem. The ultimate result was the Barcelona Principles, a framework that has steadily gained traction since that time. The Barcelona agreement is a very positive step for PR and PR outcomes because it offers tools to educate clients about PR’s value and transition from evaluating “outputs” like earned media coverage to “outcomes” like product sales, reputation enhancement, or employee retention. But as useful as the Barcelona Principles are, they are merely a guideline for evaluating the impact of PR―not a tool or a formula.
AVEs persist as a success metric for a reason. For marketers, they offer the only somewhat standardized, dollar-for-dollar formula for evaluating a media relations program. Case histories that include PR generated media results in marketing mix modeling are educational, but not easily replicable for most clients. AVEs, on the other hand, are seductive. If you paid $250,000 to your PR agency and generated $2 million in “equivalent advertising,” why, that’s a home run in anyone’s book. It’s cheap, easy, and clear.
Five Tips for Measuring PR Outcomes
And highly flawed, of course. Today some interesting new models for evaluating PR outcomes are emerging. The way forward isn’t clear, and there will probably never be a standardized process that applies equally for all types of organizations. But below are five tips from best practices for marketers to consider in evaluating PR outcomes, as well as a plea to value PR for what it does well.
Common earned media metrics like reach, key message delivery, and social media amplification are quite valid, but they must be tracked against a PR absent baseline environment, or the closest equivalent. I’m always gratified when a client wants to measure PR driven share of voice against competitors because benchmarking against a close competitor can be not only useful in evaluating progress, but also for informing PR messaging and programming.
Go deeper on analytics for earned and owned media.
Website traffic resulting from links in earned media coverage is an obvious metric, and it works well for some programs. But it’s clearly limited for CPG and many other consumer categories where marketing wants to drive shoppers into stores rather than onto websites. In those cases, a simple Google Trends benchmark may actually be more valuable than site traffic, assuming that people who see that big Baltimore TV segment about the new alcoholic root beer are searching for where to find it around that time. For B2B programs where conversions are more easily attributed, the most useful analytics for PR outcomes go beyond page views and bounce rates to include unique visits and specific keyword analysis.
Consider regular surveys.
Market research can be expensive, and most qualitative research will exceed the 10 percent of PR spending that is the recommended yardstick for evaluation costs (and the yardstick itself is highly arguable, as Mark Weiner maintains here.). But, in the case of evaluation research, consistency matters as much as spending. Even a simple tool like an online awareness survey fielded through Survey Monkey, if properly designed and administered, can be a very useful metric over time.
Get beyond the numbers.
It may sound heretical, but any marketer is familiar with the downside cost of a negative review or an unflattering news feature, and there’s a growing body of research that shows that brand reputation has real value. All parties should agree upon important intangible objectives, like brand visibility, depth of story delivery, and corporate reputation enhancement, and set reasonable goals against those attributes. Again, benchmarking is key.
That’s what public relations is all about, right? This can be measured through research questionnaires, interviews, or attitudinal surveys, of course. But I’d argue that the number of high quality new relationships―with journalists who proactively contact a company, bloggers who review products, or influencers like industry analysts―is also a legitimate metric, and one that should be tracked over time.
Marketers today are driven to be ever more data-centric and to quantify every expenditure, but a prominent voice for the other side of the equation is researcher Jim Macnamara, PhD, of the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia. PR professionals will agree with Macnamara’s point that the most desirable outcome of a public relations program is to influence others―their attitudes, opinions, or behavior. Macnamara’s MAIE Model (for measurement, analysis, insights, evaluation), rests on the startling―but supremely logical― premise that PR is also a defensive tool. As explained in an enlightening post in The Holmes Report, “the value of measurement is to alert us to where reputation and relationship vulnerabilities lie, so we can work to strengthen them and maximize business value.”
At the end of the day, intangibles and qualitative data are at the heart of the typical PR “transaction.” The most legitimate and replicable way to evaluate the success of a PR program doesn’t come down to a single formula, but to an integrated model customized for a client’s specific needs and goals. These will nearly always involve a blend of quantitative measures, web analytics, and less tangible―but equally valuable―benefits that must be counted and quantified along with everything else to fully understand PR outcomes.