From Fairytales to Facts: Measuring PR Success

From Fairytales to Facts: Measuring PR Success

It used to be that traditional advertising stole the spotlight from public relations, the quieter relative of its more sophisticated counterpart. Rather than sweep dramatically across the ballroom floor, PR pros would find an obscure corner for intimate discussions with journalists, third-party advisers and other targeted participants, while every prince in the room turned to admire her older sister’s flashier million-dollar smile.

For most of its history, PR kept pace with its advertising colleagues by mirroring its use of return on investment (ROI) metrics to evaluate the success of a campaign. Success was measured by ad equivalency rates, total number of media impressions secured, number of people who attended an event, and yes, whether the campaign led to an increase in sales.

Share information and influence perception

All that changed with the rise of social media and low-cost technologies like WordPress. Suddenly, anyone could be a content owner and creator, engaging people everywhere in hundreds of different conversations going on at once. Because public relations is focused on building relationships through ongoing dialogues with target audiences to share information and influence perceptions about a brand, entity, cause or idea rather than one-sided advertising campaigns urging all to “buy, buy, buy” most PR agencies acclimated quickly to the digital world of engagement.

At last, the shy drab stepsister had turned into Cinderella. Advertising agencies began to take a page from their PR counterparts, investing heavily in social media engagement, interactive dialogues and modeling content so that it more closely resembled the editorial news coverage that PR professionals work so hard to secure. Indeed, native advertising will account for 74 percent of all ad revenue by 2021. Inevitably, the ways of measuring a campaign’s success has evolved as well, with most PR agencies now favoring key performance indicators (KPIs) over ROI tracking.

For as important as increased sales are, marketing communications campaigns provide value in a multitude of ways, which is why KPIs are a more effective way of measuring outcomes. Those outcomes may include increasing sales or donations, but just as often they may be about influencing a certain industry or a demographic or government agency’s support of a particular cause, fund research or change public policy. PR campaigns can introduce a new product, drive visitors to a certain page of a website, encourage a select group of theater lovers to patronize a specific playhouse or persuade local residents of the benefits of siting a wind or solar power facility in their region. They can help build morale among employees, forge coalitions or motivate people to volunteer.  

Tie success to a specific action/behavior

A KPI, however, is only as valuable as the action it inspires, which is why when crafting a PR or marketing communications plan, it’s best to start by asking: What do you want your campaign to do?

A seemingly easy question, yet far too many communications efforts get derailed because leadership often fails to spend enough time exploring the strategy behind the results it seeks. It makes sense for senior leadership and your PR adviser to sit down together and discuss the following eight questions:

  • What is your desired outcome?
  • Why does this outcome matter?
  • How are you going to measure success?
  • How can you influence the outcome?
  • Who is responsible for the business outcome?
  • How will you know you’ve achieved your goal?
  • How often will you review progress?
  • What is your deadline to achieve this outcome?

Based on the answers to the above questions, you can then create KPIs tied to specific actions that will lead to your desired outcome, such as:

  • Land XX new clients in the XX sector within XX months by highlighting our XX services.
  • Attract XX new employees who are XX by emphasizing our new XX benefit.
  • Stabilize negative perceptions about our brand within XX months by educating users about data privacy and how they can download our updated software to protect themselves.
  • Increase the number of our LinkedIn followers who click on our “Learn More” link by XX% within XX months.
  • Persuade lawmakers to change the XX rule because doing so will allow us to XX, improve outcomes by XX%, and help XX people.

Does ROI still matter? Of course. Make no bones about it: robust public relations programs, which include a mix of strategic messaging, traditional media relations, social media outreach, client/customer engagement, thought-leadership and third-party endorsements such as winning an award or top industry ranking over a sustained period of time, are bound to generate additional revenues.

But KPI-driven campaigns can turn your organization into the belle of the ball by focusing on the underlying behaviors driving your target audiences to your desired outcomes, including increased sales. With those kinds of results, all can live happily ever after.

A version of this article originally appeared in Westchester County Business Journal.