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Bonus Online Tactics Column: Measuring the value of public relations: Tying efforts to business goals


August 1, 2006

Copyright © 2006 PRSA.  All rights reserved.

By David B. Oates, APR

Too often a vice president or director of public relations is pressed by a boss or client to justify the costs of a campaign or program.  Many times, the answer is vague and noncommittal. It, therefore, should come as no surprise to PR professionals why a great deal of their strategic time is spent justifying their existence and associated budget.  The problem is many of us cannot directly correlate initiatives to a quantitative business value, and, thus, are susceptible to being cut during lean periods in the sales cycle.


A professional phobia

There appears to be pervasive fear in our profession about having PR efforts measured by anything less than its effect on a business metric.  While quantifying the number of news articles placed and brochures distributed at a trade show is interesting – and at times ego-boosting – such initiatives, and some businesses, won’t be around long if it’s not clear how their efforts impact larger organizational goals, such as lead and sales conversions (or, in the case of nonprofits, membership and development quotas), investors and partner interest or other comparable objectives.

Ironically, many PR specialists find themselves caught by this phobia in a no-win situation. PR veterans will be able to recall instances when executives declared their top PR goal was to be in the Wall Street Journal or CNBC; despite the fact that the company was a privately held bootstrapped entity in an emerging business-to-business marketplace — not the sort of company that lends itself to public investment stories.

More importantly, even if the company were to get ink or air time, it wouldn’t support more immediate business objectives.  But instead of PR folks persuading these people that their efforts would be best spent on other initiatives — and having the numbers to back it up — they spent precious hours chasing a pipe dream.
 
Make no mistake — traditional metrics to determine the success of a PR campaign are important, but only as initial data points to indicate where to further measure campaign initiatives against business objectives. These metrics will show how PR programs generate long-term benefits, not just short-term responses. To do this, (a) PR professionals must think and act strategically to measure success of their programs, (b) target audiences and messaging must be aligned to these metrics and (c) execution of PR initiatives will require changes in leadership. 


Strategic thinking and action

Quantifying the value of PR initiatives is not new, nor is it revolutionary.  In October 1996, The Institute for Public Relations chaired a PR Evaluation Summit in New York City, gathering some of the top leaders in PR research at the time.  A subsequent booklet was published in 1997 (later revised in 2002) entitled “Guidelines and Standards for Measuring and Evaluating PR Effectiveness.” 
 
The most interesting part of this booklet is how it differentiates the terms “PR measurement” versus “PR evaluation.”  While most agencies and corporate communication departments determine success based on the measurement of visitors to a Web site or percentage of “top of mindshare” in a survey, few will evaluate the effort against an established set of objectives.  And though it is nice to see traffic on a Web site go up or a large number of people voluntarily take sales materials from a company’s trade show booth, it doesn’t mean those responses generated long-term interest and calls to action.

With this in mind, the first step PR professionals must take to measure the value of their efforts is to stop thinking like a PR professional and start thinking more like a business manager.  Before goals and tactics are drafted, PR directors must thoroughly understand their organization’s business plan. This includes, but is not limited to, other department’s goals and objectives.  This is critical. By understanding each unit’s objectives, PR professionals will be able to align programs and resources to support their goals.

Lastly, corporate communicators must also be aware of how the executive team and board of directors measure success.  While sales may be the most frequent answer, other aspects may also be as valued, such as:

• Profit margins
• Distribution and technology partner agreements
• Investor (private or public) interest
• Rate of customer acquisition
• Strategic product road map
• Average sale price per customer

PR professionals will fail if their evaluation differs or contradicts the criteria of the organization as a whole.


More emphasis on action than definition

Most PR professionals tailor messaging for each audience segment they target.  That’s no surprise, however, many stop at understanding the unique communication barriers of each group and not what will call them to an action.  For a campaign to reach its goals, communications directors must understand the interdependencies of each stakeholder group (decision- makers, influencers, end users) and how their organization can solve their problems or address their needs. 

Moreover, campaign and corporate messaging should include statements or taglines that will generate long-term value.  This does not mean every value proposition must sound like an advertisement, but rather each message should endear the audience to the organization.  Nike’s “Just Do It” and the California Milk Processor Board’s “Got Milk?” tag lines are prime examples.


Obtain buy-in from others

Corporate communications experts must quantify the objective of each campaign and set realistic timelines for them to occur. Such metrics could include the number of leads obtained, costs per lead/customer acquisition, number of potential qualified strategic investor or partnership groups identified and engaged, and so on.

Achieving this may be tough because it requires close, mutually beneficial relationships with other business units like the sales department, which must buy into their goals and initiatives as well as play a key role.  This requires executive-style leadership on the part of the PR department.  Doing so will create synergy between departments as well as uncover resources to help you reach strategic objectives.  Strong, interdepartmental relationships give PR professionals an inside scoop on what’s happening on the front lines and behind-the-scenes. This is critical information for PR practitioners seeking quantifiable metrics.


Obtain feedback and evaluate

While some strategic aspects of PR initiatives will change with this new line of thinking, seeking and receiving feedback on a regular basis will remain a critical part of any initiative. 

Traditional methods still apply, such as focus groups, online feedback studies and Web analytics. However, win-loss surveys, “How did you hear about us?” questionnaires and integration with business process/customer systems, like customer relationship management (CRM) software should also be considered to quantify results.  Some will require budgets and some may not, but nearly all will require integration with other business units, such as training sales staff on getting this type of feedback. 

Also consider reviewing industry trade and independent research analysis to provide targeted insight at a fraction of the cost in doing it yourself.  Just make sure the research firm is unbiased and not tied financially to a competitor, such as through retainer or advertising contract.

Fine-tuning will always be a part of any strategic plan.  Variables, such as resources, audience preferences and competitors will change. Regardless, feedback and subsequent actions should be placed in context with how other business units are tracking in terms of their goals.  Just as the programs were aligned strategically from the start, so should the feedback received.  Remember, no business decision occurs in a vacuum. PR program initiatives should be designed accordingly. 


Staying competitive

Our profession is changing for the better.  As more PR professionals measure their efforts on how they impact business goals, more benefits will come.  Those who embrace the new strategic drive will not only succeed, but find themselves with a sustained competitive advantage. 

Moreover, communicators will also find themselves spending more time in the strategic service of their organizations, and less time explaining our value.  In essence, PR professionals can commit to achieving results that matter – and being rewarded as a result.


David Oates, APR, is the director of marketing and public relations for Financial Profiles, Inc., a software company in San Diego.  He has more than 12 years experience in Marketing and PR.  Interested parties can contact him at doates@profiles.com.


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