Why PR Gets No Respect: Stupid Metrics

measuring thickness of notebook with tape measureI’m frequently asked why PR people should care about measurement. The short answer is that you have no credibility without it. Ever wonder why the boardroom ignores you? Read on.

To most people, PR is that somewhat shady process of getting the media to pay attention to whatever it is you’re trying to push on them, while distracting them from the bad stuff your organization is probably doing. Then there’s PRSA’s lofty definition: Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.” Notice a perception gap? That’s the result of decades of stupid metrics and bad measurement.

For years, PR people have focused on activities not outcomes. They’ve measured value in terms of column inches and the height of a stack of press releases. The latter is the famous “Thud Factor,” as in the decibel level of the sound of the year’s clip book when it lands on the boss’s desk. In today’s terms, that’s the equivalent of how many likes you got on Facebook. One result of these over-inflated stupid metrics is that PR has come to be defined by what it shovels out, rather than the relationships that it builds.

It’s time to clean out the cobwebs and start fresh. 

Let’s begin with that concept of relationship building. In today’s environment the need for good relationships with your publics is stronger than ever. The last decade has given PR the ability to talk directly to and build relationships with all your stakeholders, not just the media. So relationships today are more likely to get established via a conversation on Twitter, a connection on LinkedIn, or a video on YouTube as they are through anything in traditional media.

Good relationships bring value to your organization by lowering costs in many aspects of your business. The local community stops bringing lawyers to every meeting and neighbors raise fewer objections to your expansion plans. Your sales force spends less time explaining your company to customers, and has a better ability to listen to the needs of the marketplace so your sales cycle gets shorter. Your turnover rates go down so you spend less on recruitment.

Fostering good relationships makes sense, doesn’t it?  Then why not measure relationships instead of the nearly universally discredited metric of Ad Value Equivalency? (AVE). AVE puts a “value” on a story based on its length and what it would cost to buy that much space.

The standard reason for using AVE is something like, “Clients demand it.” Or, “It’s easy for clients to digest.” To which the smart alec in me invariably responds, “If clients demanded heroin would you provide that as well?” French fries and hot dogs are easy to digest, but that doesn’t mean we should rely on them for nourishment. Like any diet of heroin and french fries, the consequences are pretty unpleasant.

One of the realities of life is that you become whatever you value and measure. And PR has been gorging itself on AVE for so long that it has had a single-minded focus on making that stack of clips higher. So, is it any wonder that in the minds of senior leadership that’s all PR is about? Isn’t that why PR budgets are always the first to be cut, and why senior management never has time to meet with you? Why leadership puts PR on the bottom of the meeting agenda, likely to be put off to another day?

AVE is not what’s valuable to senior management.

What matters to management are things that make a difference to the bottom line, like value and return. No matter how pretty your charts are, if all you’re showing is impressions or Twitter followers, then it’s just not that important to senior management.

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 that your clips appeared in actually influence your stakeholders or target audience? Take all those that appeared in major media outlets to the CMO and ask him or her how many they would have been willing to pay for. You’ll be lucky if 10% make the cut. The rest probably lack 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… comes the next argument: There is value to impressions, isn’t there?

Perhaps, but that’s where you need good metrics. Getting the word out there may or may not help your business. I can generate a ton of impressions at relatively low cost by tattooing your logo on a naked female human’s butt and have her run through the streets of Dubai for a day. But will that sell product? You have no way of knowing unless you actually measure the results. Consider these examples:

  • Lululemon generated a ton of publicity in 2013, but at the end of the day, its stock price fell, it pissed off its customers, and the CEO stepped down.
  • There was no shortage of publicity for BP and the Gulf Coast as a result of the oil spill, but the outcome as measured by stock price, tourism revenue, or the shellfish market would hardly be called successful.
  • In 2012 Komen for the Cure was among the most talked about charities in the country. But when its battle with Planned Parenthood was over, Komen had lost millions in funding and participation in its races was down 20%.

Still think impressions alone are enough? The reality is that in any communications effort you need more than simple exposure and colunn inches. You need to know what impact your efforts are having on the business, and what management expects that impact to be.

So what should you do?

Take heart, there are alternatives to impressions and AVEs. The short answer is you’ve got to find a way connect your work to business results. For the long answer, read the following articles here in The Measurement Advisor:

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