Why evaluating PR success is an essential ongoing process

This fourth quarter of the year sees many shipping and energy professionals developing strategies and planning budgets for 2018. For those responsible for a roster of projects and suppliers, the final three months of the year are a natural time to reflect, summarise results for the year so far, and reaffirm priorities.

The relationship between PR consultancies and their clients is no exception to this process. Indeed, BLUE will visit many clients to report on progress from Q1-Q3 2017 and provide initial recommendations for 2018 PR strategies. Ahead of these meetings, our consultants use regular discussion and reporting to gain a strong sense of sentiment towards BLUE’s work.

Evaluation and ROI is one topic that remains a continuing challenge for the whole communications industry, and the debate over how to accurately measure PR effectiveness is increasingly dominant. It becomes particularly prevalent when working with PR budget holders with a professional background outside the confines of our immediate industry in fields such as finance, technology and engineering or – to a lesser extent – marketing.

It’s absolutely right for clients to have appropriate checks and balances in place, and evaluation is key to this; driven by the PR consultancy. Moreover, evaluation is not a new subject for the PR industry and is a topic that BLUE believes should be discussed regularly and candidly, especially at the outset of a new consultancy/ client relationship.

However, a common challenge can materialise when the evaluation metrics agreed at the outset of a PR strategy are changed suddenly and, without prior warning; the PR consultancy is faced with a client pushing for performance to be measured using a different metric(s).

Most commonly, the new measurement metric is borrowed from the industry the individual asking the question specialises in. For example, a marketing professional may ask ‘how many sales did your campaign generate’, or a finance director may ask ‘what is the direct link between your work and our bottom line?’

This is an important question that PR professionals should not be afraid to address. Most recently, in a blog for PR Week magazine, Francis Ingham, director-general of the PRCA, acknowledged, “we need to prove that epic ideas lead to epic results”. Reputation is linked to the strength of a brand, which can be quantified as part of enterprise value. However, it’s not something that can be measured in the same way as leads or clickthroughs. Speaking at a recent PRCA event, Neil Wholey, Head of Audiences at the UK Government’s Cabinet Office emphasised the need for a ‘basket of signifiers’ to be used in evaluating reputation and attitudinal shifts rather than looking for one ‘killer metric’.

Evaluation is a long-term process that needs to be agreed at the outset and then measured on an on-going basis. It’s no good asking ‘how did we do?’ against a new KPI 12 months after a reporting and evaluation strategy has been agreed. Even the best-intentioned PR consultants who attempt to deliver retrospective analysis are unlikely to deliver meaningful results.

So, how should I evaluate?

It’s fair to say that the PR world is still hotly debating what best measurement practice looks like, particularly as new digital tools rapidly allowing the capture of new metrics and indicators. BLUE is keenly following the debate, most recently attending an event on PR evaluation hosted by the PRCA in September 2017.

In the immediate term, if you are a business thinking about evaluating your PR consultancy’s performance, here are three top tips:

  • Ensure your PR consultancy works with you to agree on a reporting and evaluation strategy at the outset of the relationship. Bear in mind, not just the metrics you would like to see performance measured against, but also those that will be meaningful to your wider internal stakeholders.
  • Sophisticated evaluation takes time and requires a budget. While evaluation in the PR industry is evolving, BLUE’s current advice is that the best way to truly measure the success of a campaign is via a reputation audit, tracking perception changes over a period of time. The audit should examine points including: 1) changes in awareness level towards your business/product 2) changes in attitudes or opinions 3) changes in behaviour. This requires time, resource and investment for activities including attitude surveys, focus groups, tracking web or social networking traffic and content, and individual interviews. For clients wishing to go down this route, evaluation must be valid and demonstrably reliable if it is to be taken seriously. Setting aside the right budget to achieve this is key.
  • More basic evaluation is fine, but don’t use advertising value equivalent (AVE). For those who buy into the intrinsic value of PR, more basic elements of evaluation such as monthly activity reports updating on progress against objectives may well suffice. It may also be the only option available for a client’s budget. However, if that’s the case, leave the AVE out of the equation. It’s a dated mention of evaluation that organisations such as the PRCA are rightly trying to abolish altogether.

Ultimately, PR and communications is no different from any other business function. It needs to be able to demonstrate that it adds value to the organisation and delivers adequate return on investment. However, just as building a reputation needs attention to detail and care over a long period of time, so does measuring it. True evaluation requires discussion and agreement between a PR consultancy and its client at the outset, and a long-term delivery plan underpinned by agreed objectives and resources.

By Clare-Marie Dobing, Senior Consultant