The notion that communications research is too expensive, too inaccessible and too complicated is a myth. And I’m as guilty as anyone in its propagation.
Since starting my career in PR research and analysis in the late 1980s, I’ve done my best to evangelize its value and promote “the science beneath the art.” I’ve spoken at conferences and written books, papers and articles, many on behalf of The PRSA and our members.
To do so in the most compelling way, I shared examples of companies that proved PR’s value and quantified its impact on sales and return on investment— even tying PR to millions of dollars in sales and billions of dollars in market capitalization. These examples brimmed with excitement and potential.
At least for me.
At a PRSA International Conference about 15 years ago, I presented my favorite topic of PR value and return on investment including perspectives, methods and case studies. I also fully realized that my cases were exclusively “big company” examples where the research really did cost a fortune; really was sophisticated; and really was available to only the very few.
The moment of truth came when a member of the audience raised his hand and announced, “I know PR can be measured and I know there’s a right way to show its value and ROI. But I can’t afford any of it. So instead of doing it wrong, I choose to do nothing at all.”
That floored me because I realized that we advocates spread the false impression — the myth — that research was only for the elite few. We, the great measurati, were holding the profession back.
This moment was my entry into PR measurement awareness. After the day ended, I happened to wander past a coffee bar blackboard which read, “Begin simply. Simply begin.”
My PR measurement mantra was born that day.
How to get started
The best idea is to start within your means and create an appetite for more among executive decision-makers. Organizations run on data and executives know this. Without data, your executives and your team will never know the extent to which — or even if — you succeeded and you’ll be consigned to the sidelines mired in a professional limbo.
Vague PR evaluation references like “we broke through the media clutter” or “we generated significant buzz” mean nothing. While more executives and the investors they pursue recognize the importance of a good reputation, many still regard public relations and reputation as “intangible assets,” which indicates it’s soft and can’t be properly quantified. Modern CEOs know that everything in the enterprise can be measured so strive to meet that standard.
What formula to follow
The ideal communications research and evaluation formula features answers: “What?” “When?” “Who? “ and “By how much” (for example, “Increase (coverage/awareness, etc.) in (Summer Salad Season) among (young mothers) by (5%).
Using this sentence structure not only provides a framework for evaluating communications, it enables you to set the objectives you’ll need to meet or beat to prove the value of your program.
• Measure Performance. Even if you’re no statistician, you can count. The basic PR measures are:
Quantitative: Quantitative metrics usually involve media frequency and reach (clips, likes, impressions, etc.). This is a good start. If you subscribe to one of today’s low-cost media analysis tools, then aim to take it a step further.
Qualitative: Qualitative metrics provide an evolved perspective based on the tone of coverage and the presence of intended and unintended messages. Some technology requires a lot of training to do this well but if you focus on just the most important media and markets, you may be able to reduce the level of difficulty.
Comparative: Comparative metrics tell you how you’re doing against: against past performance, versus your objectives and in light of competitors and best practice. Volumes are naturally higher because you’re tabulating more but, again, focus on what matters to reduce the cost and complexity.
• Prove Value. The easiest way to prove value is to assess the values your executives hold toward public relations: What activities do they value most (and least)? Which measures reflect success? If you ask them, they’ll tell you. Use a free survey tool like SurveyMonkey to gain anonymous and confidential responses, and be sure to provide explicit choices (rather than “what’s your preferred measure of PR success, ask them “rate the following on a scale of 1-5, and include the quantitative, qualitative and comparative metrics from the first bullet).
Give examples in case they don’t know enough about PR to answer. Once they answer, engage with each executive one-on-one to help them align with one another and with you! You don’t necessarily do what they say, but you engage in a negotiation to set objectives that are meaningful, reasonable and measurable, get authorization — and then beat them.
• Quantify Return on Investment. Unlike “value,” which is a subjective measure, ROI is a financial performance metric used to evaluate the profitability or efficiency of an investment relative to its cost.
Among PR-ROI metrics, the most alluring is to make the “PR-to-sales” connection but that can be very difficult to isolate within the marketing and communications mix. The most accessible ROI metric is “efficiency” or “doing more with less and for less.” Consider measuring your “cost per thousand” by dividing your out-of-pocket costs by your quantitative and qualitative measures from the first bullet. In this case, the lower the cost-per-thousand, the more efficient your performance.
To refine further, measure your cost-per-thousand positive impressions and cost-per-hundred key messages delivered. If you can divide, you can quantify your return-on-investment.
Your PR research and evaluation initiative may just be underway but you can deliver meaningful trends and insights using simple methods like these.
Before you know it, you’ll gain the respect and the resources you’ll need to take your communications programs to greater heights while enabling the business to make better business decisions.
Mark Weiner is chief insights officer at PublicRelay, a media analytics company for communicators and marketing professionals. He is also the author of “PR Technology, Data and Insights: Igniting a Positive Return on Your Communications Investment” published by Kogan Page in 2021.