Fiction: Public relations can’t be measured

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This is the next entry in our “Best of” series, in which we venture deep into the vault to replay blog opinion and insight that has withstood the test of time. Today’s post hails from January 2008. We welcome your feedback.

By Francis Moran

Francis’s favourite fictions is a continuing series of posts on common myths surrounding the practice of public relations. When I give this as a presentation, I subtitle it, “Everything I know that’s wrong about PR I learned from technology company executives.” Today’s fiction comes courtesy of a chief financial officer at such a venture who nixed her marketing vice president’s intention to hire us, saying, “I can’t measure marketing so I won’t fund it.”

Too bad; the company she used to work for is now out of business, taking a genuinely valuable technology advance and more than $30-million in investors’ money with it. Maybe now, she at least has a yardstick with which to measure the cost of not marketing.

It is an enduring myth, though, that marketing in general, and maybe public relations in particular, evades measurement, that there’s no way to calculate the return on investment for such an inexact science. As with many of my other favourite fictions, it is a myth perpetuated in large part because it serves many in the PR industry itself to do so. Theirs is a black box science, they tell gullible clients, dependant on things like “relationships,” and intended to “build buzz” and a bunch of other ambiguous terms deliberately employed expressly because they do evade objective definition.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

I can’t imagine that any client today will sign on to a program that doesn’t at least define a scope of work in clear and unambiguous terms. In other words, a critical path of activities that at least tells the client how much PR stuff they’re buying, how many news releases, analyst briefings, story pitches, trade shows supported, that sort of thing. We call that measuring outputs, and it’s as far as many agencies are prepared to go. We think it’s a good, but woefully inadequate, starting point.

Any agency worth its retainer should be willing to describe the results its efforts will produce in similarly unambiguous terms. If you invest in our exerting this much effort, dear client, you will see this much media and analyst coverage over the term of the program. We call this measuring outcomes, and we define it very clearly in terms of specific objectives for the program. We tell you which media outlets and analyst firms we’re targeting. This is not unusual. What is unusual is that we will then tell you exactly in what percentage of them we expect to generate coverage over the term of the program, what type of coverage that will be, and what sorts of stories, key messages and so on that coverage will contain. We break down our objectives by category of activity, setting success objectives for individual news releases, product launches, analyst tours, trade show briefings, speaking programs, and so on.

We like this approach because we’re not asking our clients to buy a bunch of PR stuff from us. Rather, we’re asking them to invest in a given level of effort, the outcome of which we have clearly defined. Now they only need to ask themselves whether those results are a good return on the investment we’re asking them to make. At the end of the program, our clients don’t need us to tell them whether we have achieved the objectives or not. They can tell, without a trace of uncertainty or ambiguity, for themselves.

If your agency or internal PR department won’t commit to setting those kinds of objectives, it’s time to find a new one.

But, as they say on the late-night infomercials, don’t call yet, there’s more.

Even if we achieve the outcomes we projected, is it worth anything if that media and analyst coverage hasn’t advanced our clients’ business objectives? Here’s where the wheat really gets separated from the chaff. I’ll write more about this in a future post.

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