Evaluating PR: the objective/subjective debate
PR agencies are often challenged to show the value of what they do. Typically, these questions originate from facts-and-figures types with business backgrounds looking for hard data on how their investment positively affects the bottom line. And more often than not, PR professionals argue that the true value of PR requires subjective analysis and cannot be accurately represented only through numbers.
Who is right? As a PR professional, I definitely have an opinion. Let’s take a look at a couple of methods currently used to evaluate PR and that should help draw a better picture.
One of the first methods adopted by the industry to show value is the simplest and most obvious metric – reporting the number of placements secured. It is such an important measure that we have vendors whose sole purpose is to help agencies accurately track coverage. They provide reports on the number of placements, breadth of circulation and the volume of briefings secured across all media including TV, Internet and print. They even help track competitor and industry coverage which can be used for evaluation purposes. Both PR and financial professionals appreciate this metric because – at a base level – it measures what the agency promised to do. From a finance perspective, this measurement is a statistic that can be tracked, evaluated and applied to the bottom line.
Another common metric for evaluating PR is the Advertising Marketing Equivalent (AVE). AVE is what editorial coverage would cost if it were advertising space or time. Financial types love AVE reports because it is a clear data point. It allows them to set tangible goals for agencies to meet and a way to calculate return on investment.
PR professionals, down deep, are uncomfortable with AVE measurements. This measurement overlooks the less tangible benefits of communication initiatives. We provide our clients a means to communicate with their customers and clients. It’s about reaching the right audience with the right message, brand awareness, reputation, behavior and advocacy. Plus, editorial has greater resonance with audiences than traditional advertising because it can’t be bought. None of these factors, however, can be measured by the simple cost of advertising.
The reality of the situation is PR campaigns cannot be completely evaluated by objective data points alone. Yes, having tangible data regarding coverage is important. But where the article is placed, the tone of the coverage and key messages imbedded in the editorial are equally, if not more, significant. There are effective ways to track the value of PR campaigns, but a major component of that evaluation must take into consideration the subjective.