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Will clients support accountability push to prove PR’s value?

Written by Tarun Deo, Vice President – Asia Pac, Text 100 Published on May 16 2003 Slowly, but surely, public relations is moving up the marketing food chain. One of the key factors to have held PR back is the acceptance that it is virtually impossible to measure – a view amplified by agencies’ apparent unwillingness to prove otherwise. To understand how PR got itself here, let’s look at a few PR ‘foibles’.

The first is we’re a service business – our assets are people and the commodity we sell is their time, and that makes this product somewhat difficult to identify. Does it? But time is factored into the price of most products. It might relate to how many workers are required on production lines, or how long it takes to weave a carpet. With public relations, a client buys a number of hours at different levels, but should be aware of what that time will provide – press releases, media management, and so on – and finally what the payback from the purchase of those ‘products’ is.

These three parts of the PR equation – the input (hours), output (PR products) and outcome (results) are rarely defined in ways that are clearly visible and accountable for both agency and client. One common argument is that it is results and not tactics that clients pay for and those results are very difficult to quantify. How, for example, do you put a price on a result? What exactly is a result? A piece of coverage? A shift in customer perception?

To my mind, the key to making this process manageable lies in the integrity of the goal setting. Measurement is meaningless if criteria being measured are wrong, or metrics defined inappropriate.

PR practitioners traditionally balk at the concept of relating PR directly to clients’ top level business goals, but in reality that’s where we have to start – not marketing objectives, but sales figures, page views and new market penetration. Then the client and agency should look at which of those goals PR can support. The next step is to identify PR results which support client business goals. At our firm, we’ve pre-defined these and any PR campaign we develop involves a mix and match of these result areas that we then distil down into a menu of PR products. This product set is specifically designed to achieve what the client has bought into.

In this context, we can then review the results we achieve and their effect on the client’s business.

Exactly what to measure is another contentious issue? Media coverage.

It is easily identifiable and tracks neatly back to PR activity. However, media coverage is one component of the overall picture. Also, strictly speaking, it is an ‘output’ rather than an ‘outcome’ of PR work. Outcome is likely to be increased sales, shifts in perception, or dramatically improved customer relationships.

Measuring the effect of PR on all of these ‘outcomes’ becomes more complex and takes us into the realms of market research. However, if agencies and their clients are serious about measuring return on investment, they need to be willing to go together and look at all the important variables, not just those that are easy to see.