Whenever anyone asks me “What’s that worth?” after they point to a recent analysis of social media or PR performance, I have to bite my tongue. There are just too many great retorts –

  • More than your new office plants which are delivering more value to the organization.
  • More than that that direct mail piece you just sent out that I tossed into my recycle bin before I even looked it.
  • More than that $2,000 drink tab you put on your expense account last month.
  • Absolutely nothing, but you got an article with your picture in it that you sent to your mother, wasn’t that enough?

Seriously, the issue of “What is PR?” and now social media worth…?

An incendiary book called “Trust Me, PR is Dead” by Robert Phillips is helping fuel the discussions including an equally controversial column in the Huffington Post by Margaret Heffernan.

I’ll say right up front that I agree with most of their points. There’s a lot of really stupid PR people out there (like the ones who buy media lists and send me press releases about irrelevant blather that is NOT news to anyone, least of all someone who only writes about measurement). And there’s a huge amount of money wasted on PR stunts that go wrong or fall flat.

On the other hand there are a lot of CEOs who are too cheap to invest in paid media. They think they can buy “good press” without a good story to tell, which is very likely what happened to Margaret Heffernan.

None of which answers the question, to paraphrase Edwin Starr “PR, HUH! What is it good for?” Having spent 28 years measuring it, is a long way from “absolutely nothing.”

Edwin Starr edit

The most recent skeptic to ask me that question was the VP of a very large, very public corporation. What I explained to him was that he should think of PR as his “Iron Dome.” For those who aren’t familiar, Iron Dome is a very expensive missile defense system developed jointly by Israeli and U.S. defense companies that shoots approaching missiles out of the sky. Each intercepting Iron Dome missile costs approximately $50,000. And the system costs billions to develop.

The government of Israel justifies those costs as worth it because they have determined that the cost to the State of Israel of one incoming missile is $750,000 for one “average” middle-aged Israeli killed or $190,000 for damage caused to property.

It doesn’t matter whether you agree with their calculations, the point is that they made them. And they are happy to deploy the system to save both lives and infrastructure.

For a public corporation, the “worth” of PR is much the same. One of the first things any PR person learns is Arthur Page’s rule: “all business in a democratic country begins with public permission AND exists by public approval.”

In the 90s, Dow Chemical made calculations to similar to Israel’s. For P&L (profit & loss) of every new product, they factored in the following: legal & court costs, health & safety liabilities, reputation damage, PR time and resources. When all those costs were added in, a number of products weren’t profitable enough to launch.

History is littered with corporations that have lost the public’s permission to exist – Enron, ValuJet, Tower Records and Circuit City – and whether they lost that permission because they did bad things, or made bad decisions is irrelevant. The point is that the public can withdraw its permission at any point.

dome edit 2

I’m not suggesting that press releases, events, and greenwashing are going to save your business. But what will is building relationships with your publics – which is what real PR people counsel their leadership to do – telling the truth, proving it with action, listening to your stakeholders, remembering that your employees ARE your company, and thus building up your bank of trust. Even in this era of YouTube and Twitter, there are companies that do this all the time. Think about how Market Basket, Southwest Airlines, Apple, and Netflix have all managed to survive “incoming missiles” in the form of some pretty major PR disasters…and yet they still thrive. They’ve survived not because they had the biggest bank account, but because they had the biggest bank of trust.

The reality is that public permission is more important AND more fickle than ever. One minute everyone loves you, and the next minute they’re telling their friends on Facebook never to buy from you again. The only way to get through all the mini-missiles that customers, employees, and all your other publics can lob at you these days is to make sure that your publics know that you’re listening, responding, and telling the truth.

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