A PR quandary: Measuring is key, but how exactly?

In a bottom-line world, pros differ on how best to gauge their efficacy.

In a bottom-line world, pros differ on how best to gauge their efficacy

With budget cuts still looming across the corporate world, measurement is the word on every communicator’s lips.

Favorable return-on-investment statistics and a way to link a large Twitter following to the bottom line are key to keeping the communications department off the company chopping block. But not surprisingly, there’s no consensus on which method is best.

A recent study of PR professionals worldwide found that 77 percent measure their work, up from 69 percent five years ago. A high percentage, certainly, but the 520 respondents to the survey didn’t agree on how to measure PR effectively.

The survey was conducted by Benchpoint for the Association for the Measurement and Evaluation of Communication, and the Institute for Public Relations

The top five tools reported were clippings—the majority at 17 percent—followed by internal reviews, advertising value equivalency (AVE), benchmarking, and media evaluation tools at 9 percent to10 percent each.

Clippings, AVE and the like aren’t effective, says Katie Paine, a longtime expert in PR measurement. Such gauges matter only if they tie communications to the bottom line or to organizational goals.

“The fact that people—professional PR people—are saying they think that measurement is collecting clips and calculating AVEs, we’re doomed as a profession,” says Paine, CEO and founder of KD Paine & Partners. “There’s absolutely nobody at the board level or CEO level of any organization that would accept any of the measures that these people seem to think are measurement.”

Problems with measurement

It’s clear that measurement is important—70 percent of those surveyed strongly believed it’s an important part of the PR process (up from 61 percent in 2004).

Clippings are one of the oldest and most-contested methods of measurement. Most survey respondents listed clippings as the most effective tool, at 77 percent, while a close 66 percent cited media evaluation tools. However, among respondents who actively measure PR, just 60 percent said clips were effective.

Jill Wellskopf, director of marketing at QPS Companies, a Wisconsin and Illinois-based staffing firm, counts clippings. She says the PR professional at the company tracks on a weekly basis the subject of press releases, where they were sent, and the number of sources where an article was printed about the release. Management doesn’t ask for the report, but it does receive a copy.

“Due to the report, there’s been quite a bit of buy-in on a lot of these marketing campaigns, because they are measurable, and we can track metrics, and we can see increases and decreases in which resources we should put more of our time into,” she says.

Paine says clippings are simply too limiting. They don’t tell you who read an article or what they did as a result.

“You can’t just count clips, and you can’t just count AVEs, and you can’t just count impressions; you have to look at the quality of the content, you have to look at the comparison to your competitors, and you have to tie it all back to the organizational goals,” Paine says.

She recommends speaking to the CEO or board-level officer at your company and figuring out their goals for your department.

“Say, ‘What do you expect PR to do? If I hit it out of the ballpark and score 1,001 percent, what’s the goal? What did you hire me to do?’ If they say, ‘We hired to you improve relationships with stakeholders,’ you say, ‘OK, I’m going to measure our relationships.’ If they say ‘I hired you to get good ink,’ the next question is, ‘How does that benefit the organization?’ ”

Sinickas, president of Sinickas Communications, says counting clips is better than counting nothing, but doesn’t tell the management how coverage impacted the bottom line. For consumer companies, she suggests comparing clips in each market to the sales in those markets.

“You start by counting clips, but then you want to see the difference between those places that have clips and ones that didn’t—that doesn’t cost anything,” Sinickas says. “I don’t know why more people don’t do that, especially if you’re in a business where you have a consumer type of product or something else where the sales cycle is short; you can see the impact.”

Another popular old method was AVEs—counting the number of inches of news coverage and calculating how much it would cost to run an ad of the same size on the same page. This method was deemed effective by 35 percent of PR professionals surveyed, presumably because it’s not real money that’s being counted.

Sinickas says, “An executive might buy it, but then they say, ‘Wait a minute, did we actually cut down on advertising costs because we got this coverage?’ The answer’s always no. It looks like it’s money, but it’s not money at all; it doesn’t affect the bottom line.”

Jeff Burdick, communications manager at Commonwealth Edison in northern Illinois, says each of the company’s marketing professionals track whether their press releases turn into stories. That he says, measures proactive PR versus unsolicited coverage the company gets because of big storms and power outages.

This helps communicators determine whether they’re putting enough information out there. They also hire out to a media analysis firm for more in-depth quarterly reports on the total news coverage and its content, positive or negative.

Burdick says that sometimes just making an effort at measurement is enough because it shows the communications department is part of the organization, too.

“Every other part of the organization is very metrics-driven, so not making an effort would be counterproductive with our team,” Burdick says. “To not be trying to reflect the company culture could increase the chances of your not being at the decision-making table.”

Media isn’t the only thing out there to measure, but the good news is that most PR functions have a “demonstrably positive impact” on the bottom line. Paine says PR “has an impact, saves money, lowers legal costs, speeds up the processing time; all those things have tangible bottom-line impact, that’s what we should be measuring.”

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