Measurement: the weapon that makes PR deliver better results

Ninety years ago Claude Hopkins wrote “Scientific Advertising”. This showed that by measuring the sales resulting from particular advertisements, bad ads could be ditched and the best techniques learned.

PR practitioners, however, are only just catching up. In his book on measurement, Mark Weiner says that the PR industry has lagged behind because of “loosely defined professional standards, generally inadequate levels of professional education and talent development, and the self-perpetuation of the myth that PR can’t be measured scientifically”.

Actually, there are many difficulties with measuring PR – just as in any social science. But none are sufficient to justify pursuing PR without modern evaluation. Let’s face it: the old days when a PR campaign could be justified by the thickness of press cuttings is over. Funders of PR campaigns just can’t tell from a cuttings book if the coverage is genuinely achieving business goals, or merely acting as a vanity exercise.

Like it or not, we live in a mathocracy. Business leaders require data. And that data can be easy to collect. Weiner says that “audits” of the executives who fund PR activities find that what executives want is not coverage. Instead, they want to see results – easily measurable – such as how effective expenditure on PR has been (a) raising awareness and (b) delivering key messages to target media.

There are now several good books on the subject and the so-called “Barcelona Principles”, set in 2010, have spurred on many at the elite end of the industry. Some of the biggest agencies and companies – such as AT&T and Procter and Gamble – have been able to deduce the return on investment that their PR campaigns produce. They’ve done this with Marketing Mix Modelling, a useful tool for mid-sized and large companies.

What I find most useful about decent measurement is that it can redirect what PR practitioners work on. This is because companies often guess about what sort of coverage benefits them most. If they rely on this guesswork, without testing it, the PR  activities will fail to deliver the best results.

Although measurement costs money, it does not have to be outrageously expensive. Lowish-cost tools for PR measurement include opinion polls of awareness and favourability towards the brand (taken before and after a campaign), microsites for particular PR campaigns or publications, and “How did you hear of us?” questioning when people buy. There is a lot of good material on designing measurement plans in a book by Tom Watson and Paul Noble.

Of course, there are PR people who will avoid using good measurement tools, in the same way as some advertising creatives avoid Claude Hopkins. They will continue to work in the dark, unable to see which of their activities are working. For the rest of the industry, proper measurement will be a vital tool for increasing standards and ensuring that clients get improving results.