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At the recent PR Measurement Summit, the discussion was not whether to measure but what to measure

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On 13 October, the PR Measurement Summit returned to Dubai for the first time in several years. But the themes were familiar. Many speakers at the summit were still lamenting the prevalence of advert-
ising value equivalents (AVEs) as a measure of PR success.

Mazen Nahawi, CEO of Carma, the measurement firm that organises the summit, was asked by one speaker to estimate the prevalence of vanity communications. He quipped that it is still as high as 50 per cent.

That is, half of public relations is driven by clients whose primary motive is to see themselves in print or on other media channels.

To attribute this to vanity might be a little harsh. Speakers at the summit conceded ignorance has as much of a role to play.

For the PR industry the challenge is to persuade its clients that column inches, big photos and front-page mentions are nothing if they do not return measurable business results.

One speaker, managing director of BPG Cohn & Wolfe Kevin Hassler, believes that marketing managers are now more educated than they used to be and do understand that there are more useful outcomes to measure than simple coverage. However, procurement departments still demand fast fixes to make PR suppliers accountable. This means the solution often has to be parallel measurement: keep measuring AVEs for the procurement teams and collect more appropriate proof points for marketing managers who have a better awareness of what they are asking agencies to do.

Hopefully procurement will be won round in time as they realise they are purchasing a service that can evolve in line with business objectives rather than paying for three press releases a month, added group managing director at Four Communications Ray Eglington.

There was a degree of machismo on stage. “We as PR people have traditionally done everything,” Jim Donaldson, UK and Middle East CEO of FleishmanHillard, told the audience. “We have always felt that we can pitch a great idea, we can write a great piece of copy, we can do some presentation training. And we’ve got to get smarter than that. We’ve got to get to the stage where we are comfortable dealing with a whole range of data analysis and sometimes saying no. Sometimes saying that’s not what we should be doing. Yes it might get you another 10 pieces of media coverage; that’s not the point. We need to be doing things that make a difference, that create a change for our clients.”

He went on to encourage PR agencies to reject work that has no clear business objectives defined in the brief. “Or else we will just cease to be important as an industry,” he said.

Few in the audience – or even on stage – sounded as confident at kicking back large contracts because of a lack of measurable objectives.

And even Donaldson conceded that perhaps the industry’s disdain for vanity PR might be misguided. It’s not vanity, he said; it’s ignorance that drives clients to focus on old-school press relations.

The PR industry, he said, must do a better job of PRing itself and of showing that it can contribute to more than awareness of a client and its announcements and activities. Communications agencies can become serious business partners to their clients, helping steer their strategies and drive their results.

With so much data available in the digital age, much more can and should be measured.

Jim Macnamara, associate dean at the University of Technology in Sydney, had opened the conference by saying that “measurement is only part of the answer; the real challenge is evaluation.” This means systematically asking the
right questions.

It also means focusing on what is relevant. Over the years, and in no particular order, the PR measurement industry has looked at outcomes, outputs, objectives (smart and otherwise), evaluations, learnings, insights, outgrowths, effects, outflows, results, outtakes, impact and responses. Even Macnamara, whose academic specialism is in measurement models, admitted that the terminology can get in the way of seeing how well PR works.

The key seems to be to focus on outcomes (that’s wider business objectives) rather than outputs (the number of press releases, the column inches they achieve, and the AVE of that coverage). And to ask the right questions.

After a day of debating the confusing and infuriating world of PR measurement, the key takeaway seems to be to know at the start what the aim of any PR campaign or strategy is (and ensure this makes sense to the client’s wider business objectives), and to find the best way to measure whether that goal has been achieved.

If PR professionals are able to show good, meaningful results, their clients will take notice of those results and stop demanding outdated and irrelevant metrics. Until that time, the industry will need to fulfil its own measurement demands and those of its clients in parallel. And it will have to track how well it is communicating the message that measurement matters. If only there were some way to assess its progress.

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