It’s an age-old question for PR pros, but one that has gotten more urgent in modern times: What is the value of PR for an organization?
In Muck Rack’s 2019 State of PR survey, 72% of respondents said measurement remains a top challenge. In short, PR pros are having a hard time showing their value.
PR pros say the best way for them to prove their value internally is to offer media coverage (73%) or measurable results (68%). However, just offering data and press clippings isn’t enough for many in the PR industry. According to the Barcelona Principles, PR pros should measure the outcomes they achieve, not the inputs or assorted tasks they complete.
In the modern media landscape, with all the business challenges today’s companies face, what are the purpose and worth of a PR pro?
The case for earned media
Many PR pros still believe in the value of earned media, despite newsroom attrition and consumers’ changing media diets.
Dick Grove, founder and CEO of INKinc Public Relations, says the more things change, the more they stay the same.
“Clients are demanding more and more accountability,” he says. “To some people that means results based on sales or leads or eyeballs or clicks to others.” However, he stresses it is crucial to offer a “tangible result.”
“They don’t want to just see their face on the cover of Forbes,” he explains. “They want to know exactly how many eyeballs and how that’s going to happen and what’s going to be merchandised and where it’s going to travel through the online world.”
However, there is a danger in claiming only the role of media strategist. Grove says earned media is just a part of the marketing mix, “therefore the result of a publicity placement, whether it be online or print or broadcast, has to do far more with a lot of other marketing elements than just the PR placement itself.”
So, on its own your media placement won’t be enough to show value, but earned media campaigns still offer unique worth that can’t be ignored in today’s marketplace. Grove phrases it with the word “credibility.”
“With an ad, you as a client can determine the size of your message, the content of your message, the placement of your message and the timing of your message,” says Grove. However, PR has value precisely because you have given up that control.
“It has value because it’s a third party,” Grove explains. “Classic PR is still a third party saying good things about you. … [T]hat’s almost unmeasurable.”
“I think the real value that PR has in 2020 and beyond is to really help clients—and specifically CEOs—drive transformation amid the unprecedented disruption we have going on in the industry,” says Steve Halsey, chief growth officer for G&S Business Communications. He asserts that corporations are changing at unprecedented rates and that being a leader amid the change is a perfect role for the PR pro.
However, being an agent of change doesn’t require learning a whole new skill set. Rather, Halsey says, applying established skills to address business challenges can reveal a PR pro’s distinctive merits.
“I think storytelling is more important now than ever,” he says. “Whether you’re trying to attract and keep an audience, build affinity or understanding, or if you want to move somebody to action, it really does come down to having a cohesive and clear story.”
How does that track to the age of disruption we live in? Stories have assumed a special role in light of the latest technology changes, according to Halsey, especially given how search engines and natural language processing with artificial intelligence have had an impact.
Investing in a good brand story can pay big dividends when you’re trying to execute organizational change as well.
Halsey says senior leaders often ask for the tools “to offer that clarity of story and explain why they’re transforming, how they’re transforming and giving those proof points.” Plus, a good story can help win over internal stakeholders as well as external consumers and investors.
“I think there’s comfort in a story in a period of so much a transformation, because it gives you clarity in terms of path,” Halsey says. “It’s not just hearing and responding to messages; it’s understanding them within a context.”
Other changes that play into the strengths of PR for Halsey are the rising number of communicators being tasked with owning the brand and the natural fit for PR pros to lead the charge of corporate social responsibility.
Taking PR seriously
Many PR pros are adamant that for practitioners to show value in the coming years, it will be important to fight for professional standards.
Michelle Garrett of Garrett Public Relations puts it this way:
PR pros can show their value in 2020 by helping clients understand that it takes time to do public relations right. It’s time for PR pros and the clients they serve to slow down and thoughtfully consider the best way to achieve the desired results. For brands to earn the trust they seek with consumers, they need to think about how to shore up their reputations and build credibility. PR can help with this, but it’s not an overnight effort. PR pros can bring a lot of value when factored into the process early and in an ongoing effort, versus being an afterthought.
Grove agrees, getting even more specific about how to educate clients about what PR is and what it isn’t.
“PR at its base is not paid media,” Grove says. “A good PR firm and a good PR practitioner can clearly delineate the difference—even though the client may want that offering—but offer it under a different fee structure and for what it is, and not call it PR.”
For Grove, what PR can do that no other discipline can offer is securing that coveted profile in a trade magazine or national publication. Even the clients that come his way from Silicon Valley, the birthplace of the digital revolution, still crave earned media.
“What they invariably ask me about when it comes right down to it,” Grove says, “they would still love to have their photo on the front of a classic wired magazine sitting on a coffee table in their reception room.”