By Lucy Siegel | August 26, 2020

It takes money to make money.

When management makes a decision to allocate budget, it’s all about return on investment – ROI. If we can prove an expenditure will result in decent ROI, we have a good chance of getting the budget for it.

The caveat is it’s never been easy to prove the ROI of public relations. Before the digital era it was just about impossible. There was no way to reliably quantify PR results, especially when PR was used in conjunction with other communication methods. How could we show that an increase in sales was caused by our successful PR efforts and not by advertising or other forms of marketing, or by better sales force performance?

No wonder it has often been difficult for communications departments and PR agencies to get adequate budgets, especially when compared to other more easily measured communications disciplines. A recent survey of public relations professionals by the U.K.’s Chartered Institute of Public Relations showed they feel that “…the top two challenges facing the profession are now identified as the under representation of PR at board level and not being seen as a professional discipline.”

A variety of digital tools are now available to help with PR measurement. However, one complicating issue is the shifting definition of public relations. Often businesspeople think PR is just about getting media coverage. However, PR is not just media relations (earned media), it also encompasses many other forms of communications. That includes owned media (content creation and distribution), shared media (social media) and some paid media (advertising and paid content) as well.

Measurement of PR results gives feedback on what works.

The truth is, PR has never been just about media relations, it has always included communications counselling and relationship building with key audiences. But PR pros didn’t have a way to measure the value of those services. Why bother, anyway, when clients and bosses were happy just knowing how many articles and radio and TV shows had covered the company or product?

This is not a rhetorical question. The reason for PR measurement is not just to determine the ROI of PR. Measurement is also research to see what’s working well and what isn’t. With that information, adjustments can be made to improve future PR outcomes.

A monthly PR report used to consist of a cover memo attached to a sheaf of media clippings. The report typically listed all the work that was done: press releases written and distributed, email campaigns developed, newsletters produced, events planned and executed, etc. – in other words, the work output. The most common way the ROI of PR was calculated in the past was using an “advertising value equivalent” (AVE), meaning what the company would have had to pay for ads that occupied the same amount of space (or broadcast time) as the media coverage generated by PR. That method was thoroughly discredited 10 years ago at the 2nd Annual European Summit on Measurement. About 200 delegates from 30 countries gathered at that meeting in Spain to agree on an international structure for measuring the effectiveness of public relations. The Barcelona Principles were developed and accepted at that meeting. (Read the just released Barcelona Principles 3.0, the updated version of these principles, to understand the arguments against using AVEs for PR measurement.)

The Barcelona Principles state that PR outcomes are the most important thing to measure, not the output of work, as described above.   Examples of outcomes are whether and how much:

  • The PR program affected the company’s bottom line.
  • Public opinion of the company or its products was more positive.
  • The number of sales leads increased.

These are the kind of PR results that senior executives really care about.

Because digital communication has enabled measurement of many types of outcomes, senior management in more and more companies now expect quantitative  information on outcomes that can objectively measure the success of communication work.

First, define the goals of PR.

What you decide to measure depends on your public relations goals. Once you’ve defined your PR goals, you can prioritize them and decide on the best methods of PR measurement to show the outcomes for the most important ones.

One company’s PR goals may be very different from its competitors. For example, an unknown startup’s PR goal may be to attain some awareness of the company and its potential, while a company that has had a crisis may set a goal of correcting negative public attitudes. A company launching a new product into a crowded field will have the goal of positive differentiation of the product from its competitors, while a company launching an entirely new product with no competitors will have goals of establishing awareness of the product and educating potential buyers about its benefits.

Next, decide what to measure.

There are many choices, including (but not limited to) the following:

  • Increasing “share of voice.” That is, the amount of positive attention a company receives in both traditional and social media and by influencers, compared to competitors, and whether and by how much it has grown. Software packages such as Cision and Talkwalker track and measure media coverage.
  • Positivity or negativity of public “sentiment.” Sentiment is the way a company or brand is perceived. One way to measure sentiment is to listen to what people are saying on social media. There are software programs available such as those mentioned above that analyze the sentiment in the media coverage they track and measure.
  • Inclusion of key messages in traditional and social media coverage. A mention of the company isn’t very helpful unless it contains one of the messages that you’re aiming to communicate.

The above factors help measure attitudes and perception – arguably PR output measures and not outcome measures. They don’t capture hard data leading to sales but are crucial when the goals of PR are to change attitudes and perceptions.

  • Increasing number of website visits. Website visits can be generated from search or from paid, earned, shared or owned media. Web software such as Google Analytics measures website visits and tracks the quantity of visits by origin. For example, PR points would be scored if a high percentage of monthly website visits were referred from a media article that resulted from PR outreach to a reporter, or from the PR agency’s or staff’s social media postings.
  • The clickthrough rate to a website, a piece of content or an online form, from an email, social media post or paid content, shows how successful that email or paid content was in bringing people to the site.
  • Increasing the number of sales leads coming from paid, earned, shared or owned media. Many types of content can contain links to online forms for people to get more information. The number of forms filled out coming from a particular piece of content shows the success of that particular content in generating sales leads (such as a website offer of a whitepaper or brochure, an email or sponsored content at an online news site). Marketing automation software such as HubSpot and Marketo helps build the infrastructure to collect this type of data.
  • Improved search engine optimization (SEO) – increasing positive vibes about and awareness of your company or client can lead to a jump in the number of searches, which in turn will increase website traffic and search engine rankings. (A search engine ranking is how high up a particular website shows up in the results of a search. Studies have shown that most people don’t bother going further than the first page of results in a search, so this has a vital effect on website traffic.) Comparing search rankings before and after a PR campaign, when other communications factors have remained steady, can be one indicator of the effectiveness of the PR. The following are additional ways to measure contributions to website success (click on the hyperlinks for an explanation of these terms):
  • Adding significantly to the company’s database of prospects – those forms mentioned above that serve as sales leads also help build and grow a prospect database.
  • Event outcomes – if planning an event is central to the PR program, then attendance at the event, evaluation of the event by attendees, number of new potential customer contacts made (helping build a sales/marketing database), and if desired and possible, media coverage of the event are several measures of effective planning.
Then decide how to measure.

Digital tools are available for measuring most of the above. Some are very costly, out of reach for companies with small PR budgets. Some are free. Some offer a minimal level of functionality free, but charge when you go beyond that.

Tools are only as good as the skill level of those who use them. All software, no matter how user-friendly, requires some learning time, and takes time to use.  Almost all the companies that sell the measurement tools provide training in their use, usually free.

There are professionals and companies around the world that specialize in doing communications measurement for you. There are several reasons why they thrive. First, people who do nothing but communications measurement all day are savvy about helping their clients decide what to measure, how to measure, and are more efficient using the digital tools. Secondly, measurement consultants and companies are neutral and independent, and they have no reason to inflate the positivity of results. Most of them belong to the International Association for Measurement and Evaluation of Communication, which has chapters around the world. A company that is spending a relatively small amount on PR would not pay for independent measurement professionals. However, those that are spending millions of dollars/pounds/Euros on a PR program can and should carve out a small percentage of the budget to spend on measurement.

As this blog post shows, there’s a lot to learn to do a good job of measurement. To measure successfully, the PR planning phase must build measurement into the process. For example, search engine rankings, database size, share of voice and sentiment must be measured before a PR campaign begins to determine improvement after it finishes.

Below are some useful resources that will help educate you: