It's Time To Talk Honestly About Measuring PR

tape_measureThere’s a struggle going on that nobody in PR really likes to talk about. In our business, it’s really hard, and sometimes virtually impossible, to “measure” what we do in the traditional sense. But the CFO and MBA types demand it, driving us nuts. Too often, what we give them to essentially justify our existence in their budgets is flat-out nuts.

Reputation is the most important aspect of business that you can’t see clearly in an Excel document. Unless you spend big money on reliable, scientific market research, you can’t see it clearly on a graph or in a Powerpoint “deck.” It takes a certain amount of “feel” and honest conversation to evaluate, something that the pace and hierarchy of business often doesn’t allow. A PR campaign is virtually impossible to fully evaluate using the common “scorecard,” “dashboard” and management-by-objective systems used to answer the corporate question cliche “What does success look like?”

So we try, often in vain, to fit into the rigor of the same tools used to evaluate objective business factors, such as revenue. Many PR programs spend significant portions of their budgets on entry-level firm or company employees just to manage “reporting” (that is, essentially, what junior employees at big agencies do all day). This ends up adding to the cost of a program that executives worry might be “too costly.” Some examples include:

-“The ad value of PR” – This is the business equivalent of believing in the Tooth Fairy. It’s an attempt to show PR’s cost effectiveness by using a formula to show how much news coverage “earned” through PR would cost if the equivalent time or space was purchased through advertising. It’s amazing that something so full of BS has continued in practice.

-“Potential impressions” – This is adding up the circulation or estimated audience for each media placement to boast about how many total audience members could have potentially seen the coverage. The rise in Internet news coverage and lack of reliable third-party data on website news consumption, not to mention the fact that not every audience member ever consumes every piece of content, have made this a very shaky approach.

-“Total number of placements” – Every PR campaign should absolutely track its tangible outcomes. But sometimes an obsession with tracking leads to trouble. When you “score” every placement the same, you lose context. For example, a newswire release picked up on the back end of a news website should ideally not count the same as a story that runs on the home page of a site that squarely targets your audience. Not all “hits” have equal impact.

-Quotas – Years ago, I worked with a client executive who demanded, from his relatively large, but previously sleepy, PR department, “1,000 Tier One News Placements” in a year. “Tier One” was defined clearly, but the department lost focus on communicating messages and just became obsessed with the quota. I have never seen so many bad, desperate pitches that I believe damaged the organization’s reputation inside newsrooms. The executive soon moved onto a job that had no PR oversight, with another company.

Social media has compounded this situation. The social networks now all allow us access to their “metrics,” which we try to convince our clients and/or executives are relevant to our strategy, even if they are not. The networks define for us what “engagement” means and then we try to sell that to financial decision-makers, hoping they let survive programs we know will ultimately be effective over time. Numbers should be a part of an evaluation, not the evaluation. We make charts and graphs but we rarely have the candid conversations about “Is this helping, gradually, to do what we wanted it to do?”

Ideally, that’s the answer. Put aside the grids and graphs for a meeting or two. Have and build trust. And this is the toughest part of all for the many, many organizations that live quarter-to-quarter – look at reputation, image and brand building over the long-term. Look at how it impacts other aspects of the organization, not alone in its own “silo.”

Pie in the sky? Probably. We are likely stuck with a measurement obsession shoved down our throats. In each situation, while gasping for air, it’s up to us to suggest some new ways of thinking that benefit the organization and won’t drive us nuts.