Why it pays to be curious in PR

Having run a series of training courses in PR evaluation over last year, I thought I would share some of the key things I’ve learned from the experience.

Obviously the industry is obsessing with measurement right now, and with good reason. First the economic downturn and then the rise of digital have forced the PR industry to think carefully about how it demonstrates ROI.

However in attempting to ‘save the industry’, it seems we may have lost sight of the motivations of PR practitioners on the front-line, how they see measurement and how we might persuade them to use it more.

I begin each training session asking PR teams how much they use evaluation in their campaigns and also what the barriers are to more measurement.

The good news is most PR teams are using evaluation in some form or other. There is a recognition of the necessity to use measurement, albeit often at the request of the client, but most people want to demonstrate the ROI of their work.

If there’s a barrier, it is not ignorance of the need. It’s more complex than that.

Some of the things that PR firms aspire to measure require clients who are willing to share the relevant data. Not all clients can or want to do this. Clients are also often the ones requesting measurement using Ad Value Equivalency (AVE), even when teams know the metric is flawed.

But the most interesting thing I picked up was the nervousness that still exists within the industry about evaluation. The biggest barrier to more effective evaluation of PR is our own fears about what it might show, how it will be interpreted by the client and what it could mean for the account. In these circumstances you can see why AVEs are sometimes seen as a safe and simple way of managing feedback to the client.

Here the industry materials about PR evaluation are helpful only to a point. They are good for engaging in a high-level argument about why evaluation matters and why AVEs are bad, less helpful in pointing to practical ways PR teams can benefit from delivering PR evaluation.

In my training course I share a few simple ways that evaluation can help: • Using evaluation techniques before the campaign has begun are a good way of showing the client your commitment to an evidence-based approach. Focus groups, intercept interviews or desk research are invaluable in defining the target audiences, the issues they care about and the channels that can be used to reach them. • Capturing qualitative feedback from journalists during a sell-in is evaluation too! It doesn’t have any numbers but may provide some invaluable feedback and guidance on the story’s effectiveness. Social media postings can be used in the same way. • Creating normative data on your campaign inputs and outputs over time (for example, number of calls made vs journalists who cover the story) so you can evaluate the coverage of different campaigns relative to your actions. • Measuring outputs of the campaign on as broad a basis as possible – not just ‘opportunities to see’ but tonality, inclusion of photographs, mentions of spokespeople etc. Remember not all campaign outputs are quantifiable. A tweet or mention from a target journalist can be worth a thousand media impressions.

The Holy Grail of PR evaluation is the ability to show a clear business impact. Too often this is felt to be a mythical goal, but with a bit of smart planning and a co-operative client, it’s possible in lots of campaigns.

A recent award-winning example is Willoughby PR’s ‘Two Together Campaign’, helping to boost the sales of railcards through a creative media idea. WPR were able to show that their imaginative PR work generated sales revenue ten times the size of their PR budget. Which agency wouldn’t want to find out that sort of number?

Another is the in-depth marketing analysis done by Ketchum for Center Parcs, resulting in statistical evidence that not only showed the specific contribution that PR added to their sales but also that every euro they spent on PR was worth five spent on TV.

These examples are helpful but perhaps we also need to offer the next generation of PR consultants a less transactional message too. Campaigns should be evaluated not just because it helps us to win more work, makes clients more sticky and can justify greater PR spend. It’s also part of what helps us develop as communicators. One of the people in my training sessions said they liked using evaluation because it helped them learn and improve in their job. That should be a valuable goal in itself.

Communicators should be curious about the impact of their campaigns. I really liked how Pegasus PR put it when they constructed their Measurement Manifesto. They argued: “We recognised that we’re in the business of creating reactions so to flourish, we need to be really interested in what those reactions are and the impact they have.”

In the long run, it should pay for all of us to be really interested in the impact of our communications work. Not just as a justificatory means to a bigger revenue end, but because it will make us better PR consultants, wiser in giving advice to clients and ultimately more effective in what we do.