The financial value of PR and why measurement needs a reality check

The financial value of PR and why measurement needs a reality check

Christian Sharp

Christian Sharp

The CEO said “Send out the sales team that have already smashed their targets. Tell them, don’t come back until our awareness has skyrocketed and every C-suite exec knows who we are.”

Did you do a double take? Good.

In the last few years, we’ve seen PR teams manoeuvre themselves closer to ‘core’ marketing skills. Copywriting, brand understanding and social media skills, as well as facilitation and project management, all make for vastly versatile comms professionals whose disciplines can be used and re-used across the team.

But sometimes this has drifted too closely into sales territory. Whilst the marketing automation revolution has led to a formalisation of marketing measurement for inbound, the concept of sourcing MQLs has led many PRs up the garden path.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with MQLs if they’re used correctly. Indeed, like most models, the sales funnel model is simultaneously intrinsically flawed and entirely useful. But when PRs - who for many years (and arguably still today) have been desperate for better measurement – were shown the concept of MQLs, which can lead to SQLs and ultimately business revenue, many made the jump that PRs can be directly involved in sales.

Again, this is true and not true.

What PR does is generate awareness in a market, so to measure success, we should aim to measure this awareness. In theory, this does fit into the sales funnel, and can even have a fractional sales value, as long as the whole thing is taken as a guide. And it should be a guide, because it functions this way for sales as well – you might have an incredible sales person who closes one in two deals, and a rookie who does one in four – but at an organisational level, you’re still using the same funnel and a conversion ratio of about one in three, because the maths works.

PR can certainly help with MQLs; a lot of PR-produced content can be repurposed for marketing, or the results of a PR campaign can be amplified through channels which has a lead capture mechanism in place, directly feeding MQLs and the sales pipeline. We also have a plethora of tools to help us measure the impact of social campaigns, contribution to search and website visits or downloads.

The problem is perspective. MQLs and fractional sales values are not a guarantee of revenue. Neither are SQLs. If they were, salespeople wouldn’t have targets, they’d just stroll through life getting huge bonuses. At some level, all marketers, PRs, salespeople – even investment bankers and traders – are playing probability games. But it’s absolutely vital to remember what you’re using the tool for – and in the case of PR, it’s to spread awareness and get your brand known as widely as possible, in turn supporting the sales team – not closing deals.

The other thing I want to talk about is AVE. I’ve never blogged about AVE before because it’s such a noisy space and the debate is generally pretty cut and dried. It’s a reasonably lazy and inaccurate way of measuring which forgets that PR works through a third party – an independent journalist, who filters your news and is far more trusted than an advert that people know you’ve paid for directly. It’s that trust, that filtering, which lends PR greater value.

Here at Firefly, we do a lot around search. Some publications will provide backlinks, which bring traffic to your home page, enhance your domain authority and push specific pages or the domain further up in the search rankings. We’ve never been able to formally quantify which inputs lead to which outputs, because every search term and brand is different – not to mention that Google and Bing change their algorithms weekly, if not daily.

But recently I’ve seen organisations offering ‘search’ advertising equivalent as a measure superior to AVE.

This is snake oil. Smoke and mirrors.

It’s the same thing.

‘Display’ (traditional) AVE works on the basis of how much your PR editorial is worth by looking at a display advert of corresponding size. Search AVE works on the basis of calculating the value of sending traffic to a site or sub-page using search advertising, and combines it with the likelihood of someone seeing your page to ascribe a corresponding value.

The problem is that this still misses the fundamental value of PR. We are saturated by adverts. We see a zillion every day and generally, we switch off unless it’s really good, clever or funny. But we’ll read editorial because it’s curated by journalists. That’s the value, and it’s simply not commensurable to compare it to advertising. It’s like trying to put a monetary value on your friends, your dog or cat. They’re not the same.

Avid readers may wonder ‘isn’t this a contradiction? Didn’t we just talk about sales value?’. I don’t believe so, but I’m open to a healthy debate. Our first discussion focused around fitting PR within a sales and marketing framework, and our second, the measurement of PR by comparison with a similar but different marketing discipline.

It may well be that the answer is staring us in the face. PR is about generating awareness, about creating debate, advancing ideas, presenting interesting stories and changing minds. For many of our clients, if it doesn’t lead to a sale at some stage, it’s not working – and that’s fair. But similarly, anyone who expects a prospect to read one story in press and instantly think ‘I must buy this SAN system’ – or who believe that the value of PR is the same as an advert prompting you to buy a SAN system – desperately needs a reality check.

What we really need is a more holistic understanding of attribution; one of our team tells a great story about trying to work out who is responsible for a couple marrying. After all, is it the minister / registrar who marries them? Or is it the friend who introduces them? Or someone entirely different? Allocating the responsibility for a sale purely to a salesperson is rather like answering that question with ‘the minister’, or looking at last-click attribution.

The reason why we buy things is dependent on a complex web of interactions, attitudes, and past experience – as well as good or bad salespeople – and we must firmly hold this in mind when evaluating any campaign, be it sales, PR or broader marketing.

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