Measuring the value of PR

Blog Post - Measuring the value of PR

On return from a short break I came across the article on Measuring PR in Marketing Week published at the end of May, among the inevitable backlog of reference items one finds at such times. While most of the dross was duly binned I thought that this timeless piece of PR debate deserved some observations.

Reading the piece in question I found myself smiling as some of the discussions cited reminded me of Aquinas’s disquisitions on how many angels can balance (or dance) on a pinhead and similar medieval metaphysical essays. I have no doubt that while we now scoff at such topics, 13th century philosophers approached these issues with the utmost seriousness, probably throwing mud at each other in long illuminated manuscripts and – who knows – one or two may have even come to blows over it…. and so it seems now with the long debated treatment of ‘measuring’ PR.

That we live in a society obsessed with measurement goes without saying. Yet while some things can be measured, others – such as beauty – simply elude measurement. As many ingredients that make up PR involve issues that are by definition subjective, it’s obvious that attempting to convert it to a rigorous science doesn’t work, but I sympathise with the desire to create some order and to ‘box it in’ mainly so bean-counters with limited imagination can make sense of it.

I am not a keen advocate of AVE and I agree that its simplicity is also its downfall. In a previous incarnation – client side – I devised a statistical model that included some basic corrections to standard AVE parameters, such as weighing specific publications in terms of business potential and other factors that were of interest to the company I was working for. At the end of the day, although I may been hugely smug that the data I presented to my board was as accurate as possible and a true a reflection of how effectively our money was spent, including output/input correlations, it made no difference whatsoever. Whenever there was a crisis guess which budget was always going to be slashed first?

Now I am on the other side of the fence and I can see how things work across a variety of clients. For example, I have come across clients whose main concern is exclusively with the quantity of output (and subsequent publication of course), as their decision makers are simply interested in achieving greater column cm coverage than competitors. The fact that some of the competition may be misguided is seldom taken into consideration. At the opposite end of the spectrum there are organisations that wish to be seen only in exalted scientific circles and nothing else. Therefore, quite how you would apply a common standard of measurement to such subjective range of options and choices is beyond me.

My other concern about measuring PR is that a lot of the discussions are still focussed mainly around printed media (yes, I have read the article and I am fully aware that social media was mentioned!). But we are living in an era of changes. Editors are seeing their circulation figures drop by the minute and the entire marketing communications arena is being shaken to its core. Channels that were working (and could be more easily measured) a few years ago, have simply become obsolete and a quasi-anarchical status is now prevailing. Measuring any complex system such as online interaction in social media for example, especially as channels continue to diversify and mutate, will soon become as complex as predicting the weather, and meteorologists will tell you how laborious the whole process can be (despite the biggest computing power in the world being used by this profession, we are still far away from reliable predictive models). My own take is that the world of media will therefore become increasingly more chaotic, creating a situation where the study of its outcomes would be of greater interest to quantum physicists, rather than PR practitioners.

I have therefore no doubt that such complex scenario will keep academics and senior executives in professional PR bodies happy and in business for a while, but while at best some temporary standards may appear, how long would it take before these became obsolete? And, above all, what would be their relevance in the real world?

So while I am not saying ‘don’t bother measuring’, as clearly we are expected to demonstrate returns on investments to our clients, neither am I believing that having a common standard could possibly provide a panacea for our professional uncertainties and self doubts as an industry, or even a guarantee that our clients would make the right choices. History is indeed littered with evidence of choices at all levels that were often not made on mathematical evidence, but on mere perception of facts. In some instances we have to be grateful that was the case, or we may not now be around to write so freely.

Let us therefore value perception more, as well as having more confidence that if our professional standards can’t be measured as precisely as those of a chemist, we are nonetheless relevant to the business arena in which we operate and we can make a real difference, but only if we act with knowledge, passion and integrity we will provide relevance to our customers.


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