“So, what’s the impact of PR on my bottom line?” 

Sound familiar? It’s a question PR professionals are asked on a frequent – frankly, too frequent – basis. Despite the growing commitment to PR by the wise, experienced chiefs that make up the C-suite, this single question continues to frighten many within our industry. They know they need PR, they understand its important role and believe in it today more than ever before, and yet the question persists.

Perhaps we have our friends in other marketing disciplines to thank. They have successfully proved their value where it matters: the boardroom. They’re showing how their activities directly impact engagement and sales through statistics and data – thus enabling them to secure bigger budgets. Meanwhile, many PRs are still arguing that our impact is harder to measure and prove.

With results, impact and ROI becoming increasingly important to decision makers, the responsibility is on PRs to find an answer to this as soon as possible. The reality is that we’re losing out to marketing when it comes to budgets and there’s a risk that we’ll see purse strings tighten in future, in favour of higher expenditure on marketing and sales activities.

Yes, proving tangible impact is a challenge. Is it impossible? Far from it. There are a vast number of ways to effectively measure PR impact and bring together meaningful information and data to create a compelling argument in favour of PR to show its value. All you need to do is P-R-E-P!

P Prepare

By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail. A cliché we all roll our eyes at, but oh boy isn’t it true.

Measuring the impact of PR successfully won’t be achieved by looking back at the end of a campaign and piecing together a random selection of meaningless stats (here’s looking at you, AVE). It requires strategic thinking. Measurement needs to be considered during the campaign planning process – that way you can set objectives and tactics you can measure against through data.

Say goodbye to AVE and impressions and say hello to more insightful statistics. For example, reviewing spikes in website visits during and following a campaign will reveal how well a campaign engaged your audience. And if your aim is to raise awareness, analysing what proportion of those visitors were new to the site or returning shows if you’re succeeding; a higher ratio of new visitors shows the campaign has reached a wider, yet still relevant audience.

A word of caution: while you should make stats and data your friend, don’t forget that they can be manipulated and window-dressed to appear better than they are. High stats don’t necessarily mean great results or significant impact. Just look at click-bait. It drives high traffic, but it can be counterproductive and damaging. Tricking your audience will most likely have a negative impact on reputation and in most cases won’t to lead to sales or repeat visits in future.

R – Review

PR has come a long way since reports were solely made up of AVE and impressions – but there’s still further to go. Over the next few years we expect to see more and more in-house and agency teams turn to new software and services that offer the opportunity to efficiently measure metrics like sentiment. But if you’re not there just yet, focus on the what you can measure and work harder to exploit them.

One option, that we at Firefly strongly encourage, is to review the quality of a piece of coverage in more depth as part of a scoring system.

It’s a very simple process. Before the campaign commences, simply identify criteria that are important to your overall strategic focus, then when coverage comes in, assign a score against each criterion. Simply add up the scores and you’ll have a total that will reveal quality. The criteria you choose might include: positive scores for whether there’s a backlink to your website, tier of publication and how on-message the coverage is; and a negative score for mentions of a competitor.

This tool can extend beyond secured coverage. You can apply it to non-media work, such as executive speaker slots, performance of paid social media, analyst relations, and networking programmes – all of which can help prove the impact of PR.

These other activities are often overlooked in reporting, but they have a role to play in showing the worth of PR efforts, especially at present when the C-suite is increasingly focusing on executive profiling and networking.

E – Evolve

I’d like you to take a breather for a moment. While you do, ask yourself this: when is the last time you or your team deep dived into your results and analysed what could’ve been improved?

The reason I ask is because it’s so easy to get caught up in the 24/7 nature of PR and not stop to evaluate. Often, and this includes our colleagues in sales and marketing, PRs will celebrate victories and move onto the next campaign without reflecting on what could’ve been done better. It’s one thing to review results in more depth, but it’s another thing altogether to analyse what could’ve been improved and then act on it.

The next time one of your PR campaigns comes to a close, be sure to celebrate meeting your KPIs and then ask yourself and your team what could be improved on. Consider if anything could be done more efficiently or more cost effectively and think about the hurdles you faced and how you overcame them. This is highly valuable information – with it influencing your decision making, your future campaigns will evolve to give you the best opportunity to meet and exceed your objectives.

P – Prove

You prepared well, you executed your campaign with aplomb, you’ve reviewed and analysed the campaign, and the results are excellent – now what?

It’s time to bang your drum and get buy-in from the boardroom. This is where all that planning, measurement and analysis will be worth the time, energy and effort. This is your chance to earn a bigger budget – or at least retain the current one if you’re at risk of it being cut.

There are two important factors to consider before you report on results and make your pitch for more resources. First, speak their language. Senior decision makers react best to top level reporting, not granular detail, so focus on your outcomes and the impact on the business. And combine this with the second factor – provide evidence in data form – to do so. Show them the spike in new website visits that proves you’re raising awareness. Show them a summary of a sentiment report that shows the company’s reputation is being enhanced. Heck, show them anything that proves your point, so long as you establish tangible business benefits.

Being asked to prove the worth and impact of PR can be daunting at first. But as you can see, when tackled bit by bit as part of a clear, logical process it quickly becomes straightforward and manageable. So, what’s holding you back? Go out there and P-R-E-P!

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.

Value: it’s a subjective measure, but one that’s important to everything we do in business. Typically, in business, we correlate value with money spent for goods or services. Something’s expensive? Well it must be great quality! Something’s free? Great, I’ll take it, but it doesn’t matter what happens with it since it didn’t cost anything.

I like to think about it with a newspaper analogy. If you step onto the London Underground during morning rush hour, you’ll no doubt see dozens of copies of the Metro littering the carriages, yet you never see a copy of the Financial Times or The Daily Telegraph. Why? Most likely because one is free and the others are not. People do not value the free content as they do the paid (even if they read it more).

This kind of thinking is common, but not always correct. If you’re a PR agency keen to win a client over, you might over-service or provide some free project work – but what does that say about its value? If you’re in-house and take a good deal of time on some PR work due to time constraints, how likely is it that it will hurt you later, if the work is substandard?

The problem is that marketing and communications services can seem to be intangible. But this is not the case. At the end of the day, agencies and in-house PR people alike, need to each value what they do and deliver measurable campaigns against clear goals.  Here is something I wrote previously on preventing PR scope creep, minimising over-servicing and how to keep everyone happy. In this piece I’d like to explore ‘worth and value’ more by giving advice about the quality vs. speed vs. value play-off, the yin and yang balance between client and agency, what value really means and why write is right.

  1. There’s three sides to every story

You may have heard of the business triangle before, and it’s something that continues to reign true. This triangle has three sides: speed, price and quality, but in a business transaction you can only pick two of these sides.

You want something done that’s high- quality and fast? It’s going to be expensive. You need high quality but cheap? Well, it’s going to take time. Fast and cheap? It’s probably not going to be the best quality.

This is a good one to remember as someone paying for PR services. You need to consider the repercussions of a bargain deal and whether it will cost you elsewhere. Equally, paying too high a cost is unnecessary and wastes budget that could be used for other projects. It’s a delicate balance.

  1. The balance of yin and yang to operate as one

Whether you’re in-house or agency, don’t take advantage of one another. Work together towards common goals. Every business deal has scope for negotiation, but pushing too much from either party can sour relationships, and one party can feel taken advantage of at the end. You need each other and you need to achieve the right balance.

From the agency side, it’s important to set the price so it correlates with the standard you can deliver in your given timeframe. Your client might have a small budget, but if you cost a project too cheaply and then you can’t deliver quality, it can damage your credibility and relationship with the client. It can also compromise your client’s reputation – personally within their organisation and externally as a brand. Do you want to be an agency that puts your client at such risk? Does this really deliver a great service? I doubt it.

From the in-house side, remember that your agency is a business with rent and salaries to pay, and is balancing a portfolio of clients, with various levels of demand and spend at any given time. If they’re performing well or exceeding expectations, ensure you make the case to pay them an appropriate budget by negotiating with the budget holders and decision makers at your business. If they keep over-servicing your account without yielding the commensurate fees, they may not be able to stick around much longer. Agencies run the risk of going bust doing this. Do you want to be the kind of client that grinds your agency into the floor? I doubt it.

  1. Communication is everything

It’s all very well to suggest these costing methods in the above point, but determining a price for the value desired can’t happen without a clear understanding of what’s expected between both parties. So talk to each other!

If you’re working in a business where you know the CEO won’t be interested in any PR efforts unless it’s in a broadsheet national newspaper or on a national TV station, then make sure your agency knows it. Likewise, if your marketing KPIs are based on lead generation or sales conversions, make it clear to your agency that PR efforts need to display a return on investment in this area.

Agency side, always ask your clients upfront what value means to them. It’s different for everyone. Where would your client like to be in a year’s time? What result would make them want to pop open a bottle of champagne next quarter? Find answers to these kinds of questions, and you’ll be able to plan a valuable campaign.

  1. Write it all down

Now you know what value means to one another, write it down in detail and reflect on it regularly. It’s not unknown for agencies and their clients to make ambitious plans at the beginning of the year, only to realise at the end of the campaign that what was agreed was not what’s been delivered.

Likewise, one party may have a change of heart on KPIs during the campaign timeframe, but if you’ve made a detailed and clear plan for objectives and results, this serves as a proof point and stops agencies under-delivering or clients expecting too much for their budget.

There has to be some room for flexibility here, but it needs to be within reason. It’s highly likely that someone at the C-level will suddenly change the business focus, or maybe the finance team will decide they don’t have the budget to fund your PR work anymore? We all need to adapt. These situations need to be dealt with as they arise, but a plan will help show what can be scaled up and down if this occurs, and ensures you’re on track otherwise.

None of us have a crystal ball, and we can’t predict what will happen in any business in the course of a year, or even a few months. However, planning and communicating what’s important to each party and reducing ambiguity will ensure you have a good chance of providing the value you set out to.

Stay on course and deliver that value so you are not like the discarded newspaper that gets left behind.

Is it time to shape your reputation?

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