PR is in a death spiral…and bad metrics are to blame

I just finished judging a dozen entries for a prestigious industry award program. Entrants were required to state a “business outcome” that the campaign was supposed to deliver. Most of them did write down a business objective. Sadly, only one reported results based on the business outcome. The rest (aka the losers) reported on inflated reach scores, impressions, and likes. I call these bad metrics.

Ever wonder why the boardroom ignores you, or your agency loses a pitch to a management consultancy firm, or the important functions get moved over to marketing? You might want to start by looking long and hard at your metrics.

For years, PR people have focused on activities, not outcomes. The problem with this is that you become what you measure. If what you report on is column inches or impressions or placements, you’ll spend most of your time trying to get more of them. In justifying one’s existence by using activity metrics like these, PR has come to be defined by what it produces, rather than the business value it delivers. So, when it becomes cheaper to produce those outputs in marketing, guess who gets that program (and the budget that goes with it).

All of which was fine in those halcyon days when there was no big data, digital and social analytics, or CRM. But while marketing and social media teams have embraced these new technologies and new metrics, PR continues to cling to outdated definitions of success like AVEs and impressions. These are bad metrics.

Ahh, you say, but AVE does show value, the value of space you didn’t have to buy with your advertising budget. But how many of those media outlets in which your clips appeared actually influence your stakeholders or target audience? Take all those that appeared in major media outlets to the CMO and ask them how many they would have been willing to pay for. You’ll be lucky if 10 percent make the cut.

The rest probably lack key messages, desirable visuals, recommendations, brand benefits, and most everything else that typically goes into an advertisement. The reality is that there is no evidence anywhere that an article in a newspaper or magazine has the same impact as a paid ad in the same publication. And there is even less evidence that an online story has the same impact as online advertising. PR and advertising are different, so you can’t measure them with the same yardstick.

Yes, but there is value to impressions, isn’t there?

Perhaps, but only if you can tie your business goals to them. Wells Fargo generated far more impressions than any other bank in 2016, but last I checked their business was down about 20 percent. And ask yourself: of those gazillion impressions that you are claiming, how many of them are people who can or would buy your product or service?

The reality is that there is tangible, measurable value in what PR does. I have clients that tag every piece of content that the PR department produces and calculates the actual dollars generated by PR’s effort. Sure, it may take a minute to insert the tags and set up a conversion value (learn how here) but isn’t that time well spent given that if you don’t do it, your budget (and job) could be in jeopardy?

The point is that if PR doesn’t change how it measures success, its budgets will continue to shrink, along with its credibility. The only way PR can save itself is to start reporting on the actual business value it delivers. And that means no more bad metrics.

Full of insights and experiences from Katie Paine’s three decades in the field of measurement, Stop Doing Stupid Stuff: Using PR Measurement to Make Better Decisions is an invaluable guide to using past PR performance to improve future PR results.

Get all the details on Katie’s six steps to better PR measurement – watch the webinar now.

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Katie Paine

Katie Paine

Katie Delahaye Paine, aka the Measurement Queen (@queenofmetrics), has been a pioneer in the field of communications measurement for three decades, having founded two measurement companies and written multiple books on the subject. Her latest book, Measuring the Networked Nonprofit: Using Data to Change the World, is the 2013 winner of the Terry McAdam Book Award.


  • TexasRick8444

    Excellent article and I couldn’t agree more. I have been a PR professional for almost 25 years and while I applaud our industry’s efforts to define and measure value, the results have been lackluster. Based on my experience, PR will always be seen as a cost item or even insurance in case something bad happens. The current trend of establishing ROI for PR has become a cottage industry as consultants look to help clients seek relevance from a business perspective. While perceptions can be changed, I’m not very hopeful that PR will elevate itself to being seen as a bottom line contributor. That’s not a bad thing, though. PR has an important role to play in developing and implementing strategic objectives. Even if it’s not part of the C-level club.

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  • Mark Stouse

    The irony here is that Earned and Shared drive much greater business impact than Paid and Owned in many companies, though all are typically necessary. The reason why this is not readily apparent is that the time lag, or Time to Impact, for stuff like PR is much longer than it is for advertising. But the “half life” of advertising’s business impact is also much less than the persistent impact of a company’s influence in independent channels. This is what Proof Analytics was built to resolve.

    • There’s definitely a lot more that goes into this discussion, as you point out. Different channels create different business value, you just need to make sure you’re measuring what matters.

      Thanks, Mark.

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  • George Stenitzer

    Katie, PR is morphing, not dying. In competitive content audits for marketing clients, we see the crucial role of earned and shared media. Many battles for customers’ attention are lost or won with PR. Consumers block more and more advertising. I see PR doing a long slow merge with content marketing, as I’ve blogged about.

    • There could definitely be something there if PR and content marketing become one.

      Thanks for your thoughts, George.

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  • Interesting argument but I fear the definition of PR has been missed. The essence of PR is about managing reputation. Just ask United Airlines. Having worked in the airline industry myself, I can imagine what it must have been like in the PR department recently. How will they begin to measure the effects of forcibly removing a passenger from his seat? Share price? Negative headlines? Ticket sales? PR and advertising are very different disciplines and must be treated as such. The value of PR to an organisation cannot be seen readily in metrics. In fact, its role in brand amplification, crisis management and earned profile has never been more important in a world where, increasingly, consumers have the ability to filter out adverts.

    • George Stenitzer

      PR and advertising are different disciplines that share the same purpose: to build reputation, brand value and business. This common purpose is the reason why the two disciplines will converge, first in enlightened companies and eventually in all companies.

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