The #1 reason PR pros get no respect? Bad metrics

Ever wonder why the boardroom ignores you? You have no credibility without measurement.

To most people, PR is that somewhat shady process of getting the media to pay attention to what you’re trying to push on them, while distracting them from the bad stuff your organization is probably doing.

Then there’s PRSA’s lofty definition: “Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”

Notice a perception gap? That’s the result of decades of stupid metrics and bad measurement.

For years, PR people have focused on activities not outcomes. They’ve measured value in column inches and the height of a stack of press releases. The latter is the famous “Thud Factor,” as in the decibels the year’s clip book produces when it lands on the boss’s desk—the equivalent of how many likes you got on Facebook.

PR has come to be defined by what it shovels out, rather than by the relationships it builds.

It’s time to clean out the cobwebs and start fresh.

Let’s begin with relationship building. The need for good relationships with your publics is stronger than ever. Social media has given PR the ability to talk directly to and build relationships with all your stakeholders, not just the media. Relationships today are more likely to get established via a conversation on Twitter, a connection on LinkedIn, or a video on YouTube than they are through traditional media.

Good relationships bring value to your organization by lowering costs for your business. The local community stops bringing lawyers to every meeting and neighbors raise fewer objections to your expansion plans.

Your sales force spends less time explaining your company to customers, and listens better to the needs of the marketplace. Your sales cycle gets shorter. Your turnover rates go down. You spend less on recruitment.

Fostering good relationships makes sense, doesn’t it? Then why not measure relationships instead of the nearly universally discredited metric of Ad Value Equivalency? (AVE). AVE puts a “value” on a story based on its length and what it would cost to buy that much space.

The standard reason for using AVE is, “Clients demand it.” Or, “It’s easy for clients to digest.” To which the smart Alec in me responds, “If clients demanded heroin would you provide that as well?” French fries and hot dogs are easy to digest, but that doesn’t mean we should rely on them for nourishment. Like a diet of heroin and French fries, the consequences are pretty unpleasant.

One of the realities of life is that you become whatever you value and measure. And PR has gorged itself on AVE for so long that it has created a single-minded focus on making that stack of clips higher. Is it any wonder that senior leadership thinks that’s all PR is about? Isn’t that why PR budgets are always the first to be cut? Isn’t that why senior management never has time to meet with you? Isn’t that why leadership puts PR on the bottom of its meeting agenda? Isn’t that why PR items are likely to be put off to another day?

AVE is not what’s valuable to senior management.

What matters to management are things that make a difference to the bottom line, like value and return. No matter how pretty your charts, if all you show is impressions or Twitter followers, then it’s just not that important to senior management.

Ahh, you say, but AVE does show value: The value of space you didn’t have to buy with your advertising budget. But how many of those media outlets that your clips appeared in actually influence your stakeholders or target audience?

My challenge to you: Take those stories that appeared in major media to your CMO and ask how many he or she would pay for. You’ll be lucky if 10% make the cut. The rest probably lack messages, desirable visuals, recommendations, brand benefits, and most everything else that goes into an advertisement.

The reality: There is no evidence that an article in a newspaper or magazine has the same impact as a paid ad in the same publication. And there is even less evidence that an online story has the same effect as online advertising. PR and advertising are different. You can’t measure them with the same yardstick.

Yes, but … There is value to impressions, isn’t there?

Perhaps, but that’s where you need good metrics. Getting the word out may or may not help your business. I can generate a ton of impressions at relatively low cost by tattooing your logo on a naked female’s butt and have her run through the streets of Dubai for a day. But will that sell product? You have no way of knowing unless you actually measure the results. Consider these examples:

  • Lululemon generated a ton of publicity in 2013, but in the end its stock price fell, it pissed off its customers, and the CEO stepped down.
  • There was no shortage of publicity for BP and the Gulf Coast as a result of the oil spill, but the outcome measured by stock price, tourism revenue, or the shellfish market would hardly be called successful.
  • In 2012 Komen for the Cure was among the most talked-about charities in the country. But when its battle with Planned Parenthood was over, Komen had lost millions in funding and participation in its races was down 20 percent.

Still think impressions are enough? The reality is that you need more than exposure and column inches. You need to know what effect you had on the business, and what management expects that effect to be.

Katie Delahaye Paine helps companies define success and design measurement programs for their PR, social media, and communications programs. A version of this article first appeared on PainePublishing.

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