Over the last decade, the world of PR and communications has evolved dramatically - with the exponential rise of social media, the steady decline of print media and the blurring of lines between the disciplines of marketing and PR...
Over the last decade, the world of PR and communications has evolved dramatically. With the exponential rise of social media, the steady decline of print media and the blurring of lines between the disciplines of marketing and PR, the industry and its workers have had to adapt their methods of reaching and influencing audiences.
What was once a profession occupied with press releases and print coverage has since evolved to incorporate a range of digital tactics designed to build and manage the reputations of brands and businesses.
From social media and online press coverage to SEO content and influencer engagement, the definition of what constitutes “public relations” has expanded considerably and now tends to focus on the digital-forward ways in which consumers can be influenced. Rather than relying solely on the old-school strategies that resulted in a spread in a physical newspaper, newer and more trackable methods of communicating with audiences are taking precedence.
This isn’t to say that print coverage, in-person events and broadcast appearances aren’t still within the remit of PR professionals today – as part of an integrated strategy, these tried-and-tested approaches still hold up and have a place within the marketing mix. But things have changed, and consumers now behave in different ways.
People, businesses and brands are more online than they’ve ever been before – and the fight for their attention is one which requires diverse tactics, smart thinking, thoughtful precision, and a keen understanding of both online and offline channels.
We’ve entered the age of creative PR, and our strategies need to reflect the advancement of technology, the emergence of new platforms, and the appetite of audiences who lead increasingly online lives.
We use the term creative PR to reflect the many changes that have taken place across the industry in the last decade or so. PR has had to diversify its offering for clients and come up with new ways of demonstrating its value in the modern world.
We also use the term to reflect the creative thinking that should be present in campaigns. Whether this means using video and animation to move and influence audiences, infographics to break down complex information, or social media to create timely and shareable content, PR professionals now need to harness the power of creative content to bring stories to life.
As a discipline, PR fell out of favour for a number of years. While marketing and advertising have always had to demonstrate a return on investment against client or in-house spend, PR has often been viewed as something immeasurable – a spreading of the word, a sharing of information, but with no real clawback.
But for PR to bring itself into the future, to position itself as a viable and sensible route for businesses seeking to achieve certain goals and build brand awareness, it’s needed to teeter along enemy lines. PR has borrowed from its sibling, marketing, incorporating data-driven tactics to become more measurable and to justify its capabilities in supporting clients to achieve their goals.
Effectively – and accurately – measuring PR outcomes is important for demonstrating value to clients and supporting them to achieve their objectives.
Back in the heyday of the print press, before the real emergence of online media as we understand it today, PR professionals were primarily concerned with securing their clients coverage in print publications. But the ways in which this coverage was measured didn’t tell us very much about the actions taken by audiences or how those actions contributed to the client’s campaign and organisational objectives.
PR professionals were, at the time, measuring coverage by column inches, justifying client spend against the physical space they occupied in publications; brand mentions were painstakingly counted to show clients how many times they appeared, without any thought given to what these brand mentions really meant; PR coverage was collated, and its value determined in relation to the equivalent spend required to secure the space as an advertisement.
Advertising value equivalence (AVE) in particular is now a widely discredited method of measuring PR outputs; one which places an arbitrary monetary value on PR coverage and makes untenable comparisons between PR and advertising as disciplines. Securing media coverage for a client that would have cost them £50,000, had they purchased it, means very little to the bottom line and goes no way to supporting brands to achieve tangible goals. The value of organically achieving this position – and how this influences perceptions – is not accounted for.
Now, digital-forward strategies for securing coverage and boosting brand awareness make success easier to track and allow PR professionals to draw correlations between campaign success and broader organisational objectives.
In modern PR practice, how we measure PR activity should rest on what clients or businesses are trying to achieve through their efforts. Having clear, reasoned goals in mind is paramount to any successful campaign; without these already established before work takes place, the more likely you are to fall short of targets and fail to deliver something of value.
But these campaign goals should, where possible, align with organisational objectives. We should be asking ourselves the question: how does this campaign or piece of content contribute to the brand or business more broadly, and the overall aims?
These objectives need to be understood as long-term. PR outputs are less likely to yield immediate results – rather, as part of a broader strategy, they contribute over time to those organisational goals.
In an increasingly digital arena, in which SEO tactics have become a central part of securing online coverage, the focus is now on how PR can help clients to be found by new, relevant audiences, including improving their Google search rankings for example. As such, the kind of measurable results we’re often looking for are:
But alongside this, more traditional methods of measurement are used to evaluate a campaign’s success. This could include:
The methods we choose to measure the success of PR activity ultimately rest with the goals set at the very beginning of a campaign, and how they sit within organisational objectives.
Brand awareness is a common PR goal, and the amount and quality of coverage can be used as a measure of success if this feeds appropriately into the wider objectives of the business. But alongside this, the more digital-forward tactics available allow PR to be more trackable and provide increased insight into the audience journey.
When we’re planning campaigns and seeking to understand the impact our PR outputs are having, it’s important to have a framework to work with, helping us to set realistic and achievable goals and to refine and evaluate our approach.
As the benchmark in global PR planning, the Barcelona Principles outline the best practice for industry professionals.
At a 2010 summit in Barcelona, hosted by the International Association for the Measurement and Evaluation of Communication (AMEC), 33 of the world’s PR practitioners met to set out the first standardised framework for the measurement of effective PR and communications.
The resulting framework, the Barcelona Principles, placed renewed emphasis on outcomes, rather than outputs, denounced the outdated practice of measuring against advertising value equivalence (AVE) and recognised the value of social media in communications campaigns.
But as the landscape of PR has continued to change, the principles have twice been revised, in 2015 and 2020. In their third iteration, the Barcelona Principles acknowledge that the best practice previously set out has become quickly outdated, and the revised principles now reflect the growing scale of campaigns and acknowledge the rapid social and technological advancements which have emerged.
1. Setting goals is a prerequisite to comms planning, measurement and evaluation
In a nutshell, the founding principles of SMART (specific, measurable, actionable, relevant, and time-bound) goals as a foundation for communication planning has been promoted to an essential prerequisite for any PR activity being undertaken.
2. Measurement and evaluation should identify outputs, outcomes and impact
The focus is now on outcomes, rather than outputs. This means that rather than focusing on what we are producing (for example, a press release or a social media post) we should be looking closely at how that piece of content has been interacted with and the impact it’s had.
3. Outcomes and impact should be identified for all stakeholders
Rather than just observing metrics like sales and revenue, we should be measuring PR performance against other impacts such as employee retention, lead generation, or behaviour change, for example.
4. Measurement and evaluation should include qualitative and quantitative analysis
As well as analysing data such as impressions, reach, engagement and sharing of content, we should also look to sentiment analysis, endorsements and channel relevancy to provide an overall picture of campaign impact.
5. AVEs are not the value of communication
Costs do not play a role in the value of campaigns. AVEs do not accurately measure PR activity and using them misleads and misrepresents values to stakeholders.
6. Holistic measurement and evaluation includes relevant online and offline channels
Integrating all appropriate online and offline channels will allow PR professionals to determine engagement, conversion, behaviour change and other meaningful actions.
7. Measurement and evaluation are rooted in integrity and transparency
Ethical practices should sit at the heart of the industry. Work to ensure that privacy regulations are complied with and that all variables that could impact on results or findings are understood. Measurement and evaluation should also drive learning and insight.
More information on the Barcelona Principles and the most up-to-date best practice in the PR industry can be found on the AMEC website.
To understand how different PR professionals navigate the complexities of measurement and evaluation, we’ve collated some valuable insights from industry experts. Here are a handful of perspectives on measurement and evaluation, its importance and the best practice to ensure industry professionals continue to deliver quality for those they represent.
Why is it important to set clear objectives for PR activity?
Without clear objectives, you have no way of measuring and determining the value of a campaign. Also, objectives with no key results are not really objectives. For example, “raising awareness” – unless there is an associated key result (measurable increase in brand search), then it isn’t a real objective.
Part of the challenge for PR is that a lot of its output is “upper funnel” – in other words, it won’t result in an immediate action or conversion. However, Les Binet’s work around marketing effectiveness has shown that marketing resources should be weighted towards awareness and visibility rather than activation conversion (60:40 is the golden ratio).
PRs often conflate reach/opportunity with awareness (we got coverage on BBC.co.uk – it has 600 million visits a month, so potentially we’ve reached 600 million people). If brand awareness has been raised as a result of PR work, then brand search on Google will rise (a measurable and revealed behaviour).
Thus, it is important to distinguish between PR objectives and the business/organisational objectives they are intended to support.
Why is AVE a discredited method of measuring PR outputs?
Richard Bagnall, AMEC chairman, long ago provided the most comprehensive set of reasons as to why AVE isn’t a great measure of PR success. However, last year’s ICCO global PR report had some disappointing findings:
“A shocking 52% of ICCO’s survey respondents state that they use AVE as a metric, despite all the education work that has been done in the industry by the likes of AMEC, the PRCA and ICCO to eradicate its use. Since 2010’s Barcelona Principles, AVE has been globally acknowledged as an invalid metric that is not worth the paper it is written on.”
AVE may be discredited, but is still (along with counting media clips) the most commonly used measurement metric in PR.
How do you predict that best practice in the measurement and evaluation of PR will evolve further?
Gaining a better understanding of the role of PR outputs in audience decision making. A good example is media coverage visibility in Google search for non-brand terms, as per Visably’s research:
“Media coverage is far more likely to rank for key generic terms than brand related content – and thus far more likely to be encountered by users at the beginning of their decision journey.”
As Visably suggests, prospects are more likely to learn about, and be influenced to make a purchase decision about your brand, on a third-party website.
This also ties in with research showing that 60% of marketing resources should be spent on building brand visibility/awareness and 40% on activation/conversion.
Brand advertising is typically used to help drive awareness and visibility – but media coverage can not only impact awareness at time of publication but can in some cases continue to gain visibility via organic search days, months or even years later.
Dominic Beaumont is the communications manager at TATE Liverpool, one of the country’s leading art galleries and the heart of Liverpool’s cultural scene.
As an arts organisation, how do you go about setting objectives for your PR campaigns?
We’ll keep tabs on the breadth of coverage; the type of coverage such as interviews, previews, listings, features and reviews. Linked to that, we’ll also look at the quality and size of the coverage, such as the length of time for a broadcast piece and how long a print or online piece might be. We’ll also note the sentiment in those pieces of coverage.
All of these are more qualitative measures rather than simple metrics and any reporting on them reflects this. We don’t really use coverage tools that spit out all sorts of stats about potential audience reach as these tend to overstate the reality of how many eyes have seen the articles.
As an example, for a recent exhibition at TATE, a measurement tool we used stated that the online readership of press coverage for the show had been 5.11 billion. Although the campaign had been very successful, it’s a frankly absurd figure that can’t reflect how many people actually read about that particular exhibition. With that in mind, I can’t see how any campaigns, of whatever size or success, can be genuinely and authoritatively measured in this way.
Although it’s often difficult to make direct correlations, as there’s the full marketing mix to consider, in many ways, the only true measure of success is whether you’ve been able to convert the coverage into more visits, tickets sold or other business that is generated.
How has the measurement and evaluation of PR changed most in recent years?
When I started out, campaigns were usually measured in column inches and, most frequently, in equivalent advertising spend. What that tells you is that it was all based around traditional print media. Often, if a journalist ‘didn’t have space’ in the paper you’d be given a second-best option of ‘we could put it online for you’.
Obviously changes in the industry mean this has been thrown on its head, not just in terms of the changing priority for online, and the impact that has on the metrics, but that media outlets are now looking at what was equivalent advertising spend and acting like marketing companies themselves; using access to their audiences in a different way to sell advertorial which leaves less and less space for traditional, pitched features and news.
How do you see measurement and evaluation evolving further?
Having evaluation tools that can accurately reflect the true reach and value of media coverage would be a tremendous benefit to the sector and only then can a true evaluation based on metrics become worthwhile.
With data capture and the need to register with more and more media sites, measurement and evaluation tools which are able to report on whether pieces are truly connecting with target audiences will continue to evolve and be used more widely and will be the next most useful step in the industry.
PR plays an important part in growing and protecting reputations – and it can be cleverly used to reach new audiences, send powerful messages and build communities. How you choose to wield the power of PR is up to you, but you’re not alone on the path to effective measurement – people are constantly testing, and reporting on, the best ways to measure PR efforts.
We can see that there is no single catch-all correct answer, instead there are multiple options with different contributing factors – the important thing is knowing your ultimate objectives and understanding how you will collect the data you need to demonstrate effectiveness and optimise future campaigns.
Know your options, understand the real goal, present outcomes using a number of measurement tools which keep the bigger picture front of mind, and keep reflecting and learning so that each effort will be better than the last.
If you’d like to learn more about effective measurement and evaluation of PR outputs, watch our video on the topic here.