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.

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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while marketing and social media teams have embraced these new technologies and new metrics, PR continues to cling to outdated definitions of success like AVEs and impressions.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.


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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.


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