ROI in PR: the challenges of meaningful measurement

ROI in PR: the challenges of meaningful measurement

It is no secret that the PR industry has historically been criticised for not providing tangible ways to measure ROI. However, with the rise of social and digital and an increasing number of tracking and analytics tools available on the market, the practitioners’ toolkit has been significantly expanded.

But has the PR industry as a whole become any better at measuring and evaluating ROI?

Recently we hosted a ‘Put It To The Panel’ event at Macleay college on ‘ROI in PR: the challenges of meaningful measurement’ where we discussed some of these issues.

Our panel included:

  • Gemma Hudson | General Manager & Director @ WE Buchan
  • Claire Maloney | Co-Founder & Director @ The Bravery
  • Roberto Pace | Managing Director, FleishmanHillard & Eleven @ TBWA
  • James Wright | CEO @ Red Agency Asia-Pacific & Chief Commercial Officer @ Havas Group
  • Paul Cheal | Managing Director @ Honner

Still focusing on AVEs and not standing up for the business value of PR

Although some of the panelists agreed that things were definitely improving in measuring ROI, others were less optimistic. 

I think it is pretty embarrassing that we are still having this conversation 20 years on since I started studying and learning about PR — James Wright pointed out.

According to James, the problem is that everyone is telling PR practitioners what they should NOT be doing, but no one is saying what they SHOULD be doing. “We are told we shouldn’t be doing AVEs (Advertising Value Equivalency), without presenting us with any alternative. This is a problem for a client who needs to take something to the C-level board to justify their work.”

Paul Cheal from Honner agreed. He argued that one of the key reasons why the PR industry is doing a terrible job in measuring ROI is that it is in fact hard — which probably is the reason why many people still are stuck with the AVE.

However, it’s not just the lack of tangible metrics that is a problem. For Roberto Pace, the issue of measuring ROI lies even deeper.

As PR people, we don’t do very good job at standing up for the validity of what we do. We really owe it to ourselves to push clients to push us harder on the value that we bring to their business.”

Aligning PR goals to bottom line business goals

The alignment of PR efforts to business problems, rather than just measuring outcomes was a key discussion point raised by all panelists. James Wright particularly emphasised that the KPIs should be wrapped around the commercial challenge, and not just focus on measuring clips or circ (circulation) as many agencies/practitioners still do to this day.

However, this might sometimes be challenging, especially when the creative agency takes the lead of the brief, then ends up exceeding the budget and the PR is included in the final phase to ‘fix’ the problem, as Claire Maloney pointed out. Needless to say, it is significantly harder to fit the business objectives halfway through the production. As a solution, Claire suggested taking the time to talk to creative agencies and invest time and effort necessary to smooth out the process early on.

Gemma Hudson agreed with the need to focus more on business impact, rather than outcomes. The key for her was to find out how one can work with the clients to look at different measures and move away from just looking at clippings, reach and key message penetration. Instead, one should ask the client what other data they can get access to that can be used to overlay with the PR activities. It might be something as simple as getting access to Google Analytics to measure the success of the trackable links in the PR material. In other words, the key is to try and look for some simple tools that do not necessarily cost a fortune, as not all clients are willing to allocate that 10% of their budget on the measurement of the ROI.

A mismatch between clients’ expectations and KPIs vs What is realistic to achieve

It is not uncommon for the client and the PR agency to have KPIs and expectations that are not aligned, and there are a number of factors that might come to play. For example, James Wright finds it particularly irritating when the client asks the ad agency who takes the lead on a campaign, how much of the budget should be allocated to PR. To make it even worse, internal PR people are often not even present at those meetings, and as a result, just inherit the allocated budget.

But according to James, realistic expectations also need to go both ways.

“It is important for clients to be realistic too, so I always play back to them and say – what is going to make you look good, because if you stretch us too much and we don’t hit that, that’s bad for us, but it’s also not great for you either.”

As he made very clear earlier, Roberto Pace is not a fan of any relationships where there’s inequality.

“From the beginning, establish partnerships, and from the beginning establish rules of engagement that you are actually happy with. From the moment you are meeting with a client, you are setting a tone for the type of agency and type of person you are. If you bend over backwards from the start then they are going to take full advantage of that. So don’t do it. Stand up for your craft, stand up for your what you are good at, stand up for what you know is achievable because, at the end of the day, we are the experts in what we do — not the client, and not the ad agency who might hold the budget.”

Paul Cheal also agreed there’s a mismatch. And the mismatch often comes in form of the client’s expectation of 50 or 100 media clips, without understanding that what the agency does is a lot more than media clips and media coverage — it’s, in fact, the whole strategy to achieve the client’s business goals.

Need to focus on PR outcomes rather than PR outputs

Paul Cheal raised the issue of social and digital media, which is that we now have a lot more data and a lot more metrics to measure. It is nice to have a large number of followers but what kind of business impact (if any) does it actually have?

Roberto Pace agreed.

No one will ever say: these guys got us 100 hits. Who cares? What does that even mean? These are the conversations we need to be having with clients up front. If they don’t want to measure it, fight it out with them, they have to measure it, otherwise, it’s a one hit wonder, and you are not going to work with these people again. And clients who just want to evaluate you on outputs? You don’t want them.”

Gemma Hudson pointed out that although alignment to business goals is important, sometimes the outcome can also be something meaningful, like educating people about health issues or similar. She also said that when doing things for the first time, one can’t always look at metrics and data but one needs to make some assumptions too, but would then need to go back later and review those assumptions.

For Claire Maloney, the main thing was that although digital is exciting, she feels that PR people tend to forget some of the things that are in their toolkit. After all, the essence of PR is really all about influence and reputation. As an example, she mentioned that clients sometimes want to be in the digital sphere, but maybe more ‘traditional’ approaches are a better way to go.

What the future holds in PR measurement

Although it’s hard to predict the future, the panelists had some thoughts of what the future holds in terms of ROI and measurement.

Claire Maloney: “Triple bottom line reporting and measurement – not only measuring business outcomes, but also measuring the environmental objectives and the social objectives. Millennial audiences are particularly motivated around these topics of purpose.”

Gemma Hudson: “AI and automation will become a bigger part of the measurement process as those tools become more affordable. Today, a lot of work is still done very manually.”

James Wright: “As the different disciplines are starting to merge, we will start to work towards the same business impacts that the client wants, because there are so many grey areas between what the agencies do now. Agencies will not be called PR agencies, ad agencies or media agencies, they will just be called YOUR agency in the not too distant future, delivering on the same business outcomes.”

Paul Cheal: “The data analytics skill set will become more and more important. In the past, it was all about which journalist you knew. In the future, it will become more about how can you shift through all that data and be able to use it to secure good outcomes.”

Roberto Pace: “I don’t think the future is going to be very different from right now. As long as we are driven by our emotions, we will always have a need for really really great ideas. The battleground for ideas will intensify. Millennials or not, we are all anchored in ideas of some kind of purpose and social good, and that’s where we need to spend most of our time for the future. I agree, I don’t think there’s going to be PR agencies or ad agencies or creative agencies, it’s just going to be people who sell ideas, and people who are very good at quantifying the impact of those ideas commercially and how we felt about it.”



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