Proving the value of PR in 2021

This post is sponsored by CARMA Asia.

By now, the 2021 planning sessions are finished, budgets have been secured and PR teams have begun the work of executing against the year’s objectives. This means that pretty soon the demand to demonstrate the value of that work to leadership and clients is going to begin.

The question of how to demonstrate the value of PR gets rehashed at conferences repeatedly, but the reality is there is no silver bullet because PR objectives should vary according to business needs. 

Therefore, as campaign objectives evolve across platforms, brands and industries, the solutions to measuring PR require different approaches. However, knowing where to look in the first place and how to tell a compelling measurement story remain key requirements in all scenarios.

Many teams in 2021 will be relying on media monitoring solutions to capture data on their brands, competitors and industry movements. 

Data gathering is an early step on the road to evaluating progress, but let’s not conflate having access to more data with having the appropriate level of insights to evaluate PR and provide guidance on where to go next.

To maintain credibility PR teams must look deeper than the high level quantitative numbers that automated dashboards churn out. This recent fintech industry report elegantly demonstrated how despite generating less coverage than competitors Coinbase and Revolut, Starling Bank’s communications team drove not just awareness, but active interest in the brand among the public.

Peaks of exposure culminated on the 6th of August 2020, following the announcement the bank had tripled its deposits in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. On the day of this announcement, coverage was featured in national and trade titles which was then amplified by key social media influencers, propelling the story online. This correlated to an increase in searches from the public looking for more information on the bank.

Another important aspect was the positioning of the brands. During the reporting period, Revolut had a spike in coverage and featured in a number of high-profile publications. However the analysis revealed much of this coverage related to loses which had reportedly, “more than tripled to £106 million”.

If Starling’s team had based its evaluation solely on metrics such as volume, share of voice, impressions and social mentions, the conclusion from the senior leadership might have been their performance was pretty average compared with other brands during the reporting period. 

By examining the positioning of its brand in more detail, and the actions resulting from it, the PR team can tell a very different story and begin to define value in more meaningful ways beyond simple exposure metrics.

AMEC, the global trade association for communications evaluation, provides a number of useful resources to help PR professionals stay in touch with best practices. In particular I would recommend familiarising yourself with the Barcelona Principles and trying out the Integrated Evaluation Framework.

The AMEC framework is built on a simple, but frequently overlooked premise that PR activity should always support organisational objectives. 

All too often PR activity is done without much strategic planning or linkage to the outcomes that senior leadership really care about. Diving in at the tactical level without having a proper strategy is like a doctor proscribing surgery without examining the patient first.

Start with a diagnosis of your current situation, including examining your key stakeholders, competition, industry and the factors driving your reputation. Then you can begin to set PR objectives, and only then, the tactics you will employ to deliver them.

Effective PR evaluation must decide what role PR will play in the context of the organisation, what data is required to support it and what measurement metrics will be used to verify results. 

Ignoring this can lead to ineffective and even damaging measurement practices. The worst example being the use of AVEs which should be completely abandoned (and here is why).

Exposure metrics such as volume and impressions are not necessarily “bad”, often they are the breadcrumbs that lead to a much richer and more meaningful story. At the very least they should be looked at in conjunction with targeting metrics that help you understand who has been exposed to the communications and positioning metrics that inform reputational drivers. This will help to provide greater context to the exposure, as with the Starling Bank example above.

To take this a step further such metrics should then be combined with what AMEC refers to as “out take” data. In other words, the observable shift in the mindset of the target audience as a result of PR activity. 

In the Starling Bank example this is represented by the correlating increase in searches, but for a deeper understanding this could come from survey data. Finally the “outcome” data might be the number of new customers opening an account. This is ultimately the type of metric the CEO of Starling would really care about.

The challenges brought on by the pandemic have placed budgets under increased scrutiny, and consequently, the pressure to prove value within organisations has greatly increased. 

PR practitioners that understand proving the value of PR requires a thoughtful and rigorous approach that transcends automated dashboards and vanity metrics stand the best chance of being winners in 2021.