How to tie PR to tangible business results

A substantive public relations strategy should incorporate significant investment in quantitative and qualitative data.

One of the most common questions PR pros encounter is some variation of “How do we connect our public relations efforts to business results?“.

This query is a disguise for a much simpler question: How does PR help me make money (or not get fired)?

Public relations is a tool for building awareness and trust. Those are our primary outcomes. When PR works well, people develop a favorable opinion about our company, our products and our services.

PR isn’t sales

Public relations is not a tool for selling things. We are not sales people. The problem that public relations solves is a lack of awareness and trust, not a dearth of conversions or revenue.

If conversions are the problem, you should invest in better sales training or enhanced marketing tactics. Do we help generate awareness of a product or service, which eventually leads to a sale? Yes. Do we help build confidence in a brand to nurture the selling process? Yes.

The analogy I often use is that we shepherd people to the front door of the shop. If the door is locked, we can’t fix that. If the sales person is on their break or out sick, we can’t fix that.

The impact of PR

This leads to the next question: “What is the impact of public relations if we don’t sell things?“.

The reason we struggle to answer this question, as an industry, is because we are unwilling to invest in the tools, techniques and strategies that lead to sound, effective measurement.

We use digital marketing tools in public relations to assess the quantitative impact of PR activities. We look at impressions, unique monthly visitors, website traffic, social media engagement, website form submissions, organic search keywords—every form of quantitative data available to us.

There’s nothing wrong with quantitative data in and of itself. The problem with this approach is that we try to use quantitative analysis to answer qualitative questions.

No amount of quantitative data will ever answer the qualitative question, “Why?“.

  • Why did the consumer make a specific choice?
  • Why did the purchaser buy two of an item rather than one?
  • Why did a customer pick up the phone and call us?
  • Why did our friend recommend a company to us?
  • Why did we open and read an email from a sender we didn’t recognize?

We cannot substitute quantitative data for the qualitative process of asking our customers why they behave the way they do.

The root cause of lack of PR impact

We struggle to measure public relations effectiveness because we neglect to answer the “why” questions.

What’s the cause of this deficiency?

Sufficiently answering “why” questions requires a significant investment of time, effort and money:

  • Qualitative studies take time—time for us to sit down with actual customers or prospects and talk to them one-on-one.
  • Qualitative studies take significant effort—from survey design to focus group administration.
  • Qualitative studies require money—either in soft dollars for our efforts or in hard dollars to market research companies to do the work for us.

If we lack these sorts of insights, there’s no way for us to put together an effective strategy to move forward. We need to answer these questions to accomplish our work of building awareness and trust.

We can quantify awareness to some degree, but we cannot see inside the heads of customers. To truly understand awareness, we need to ask prospective customers.

Unfortunately, we cannot quantify trust in any meaningful sense. Hence the need to do just as much qualitative as quantitative research.

Still, most companies are not willing to invest in thorough market research on an ongoing basis. Companies will, at best, do a qualitative research project once or twice a year. Accurately judging the impact of public relations requires ongoing study, so that we see changes in customer behavior and get a chance to ask them why their behavior is changing.

Once you have qualitative data, you can blend it with quantitative data to understand customer behaviors, then modify your sales, marketing, advertising and PR strategies accordingly. That’s how you generate true business results with public relations.

How much to invest in measurement

The rule of thumb I recommend is that for every dollar you invest in any form of marketing, advertising or public relations, 25 cents of that dollar should go toward measurement—both qualitative and quantitative.

Examine what you currently spend on marketing overall, and ask what percentage of that is spent on measurement. If it’s less than 25 percent, you are underinvesting in measurement and research, which means you may not be effectively spending the other 75 percent of your budget. If that’s the case, it’s likely you’re not maximizing the effectiveness of public relations, advertising or marketing.

The secret to growth—and effective public relations—is to invest in qualitative and quantitative measurement from day one.

Christopher Penn is Shift Communications’ vice president of marketing technology. A version of this post first appeared on Shift’s blog.

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