Discussing the evaluation of a PR campaign is like admitting to lying. The industry has always struggled to find a truly effective way of quantifying its value, and the use of data collated by the advertising value equivalent (AVE) system is endemic. It’s just that no one wants to own up to using the practice.
The AVE system is a method used primarily to measure print coverage. It assigns a value to each piece of coverage, derived from how much that space would cost if it were an ad.
Its advantage is its simplicity and comparability. However, the downside is that AVEs are based on rate cards and, in an era where ad rates have fallen significantly, essentially meaningless.
'AVEs are just one part of a dashboard of indicators,' contends Richard Ellis, communications manager at the Public Relations Consultants Association. 'You'd want to measure how behaviour and attitudes have been changed as a result of a PR campaign. An AVE won't show that. Conducting focus groups before and after a campaign can indicate an attitude shift.'
However, some believe that those twin drivers of innovation - the recession and the rise in influence of online content - could provide the breakthrough in PR evaluation techniques and strategies.
One such development is the acceleration of integration. Tracking the effect of the PR element of a campaign is especially difficult when other types of communications - advertising, direct marketing or promotional techniques - are being employed in parallel.
Richard Millar, chief executive of PR agency Hill & Knowlton, reports a clear escalation in demand for campaigns that are integrated across a variety of disciplines. However, marketers want to know the contributions from each discipline. 'The recession has certainly put us under extra scrutiny from our clients,' he admits. Millar has also noted marketers and PR managers making greater use of independent evaluation consultancies, which use complex regression analysis to assess the relative contribution of different strands of a campaign.
Procter & Gamble uses its own proprietary system of analysis, called 'Market Mix Modelling'. Damon Jones, head of influencer marketing at P&G, says that, although some assumptions must be made for the system to work (on the timing of any sales effect from campaign elements, for example), he feels confident that it allows P&G marketers to measure the effect of PR and make alterations accordingly.
Then there is online. Marketers and their PR agencies can build in links from online content that allow simpler measurement of the effects of brand mentions in the copy. An online article about English tourism could include a link to the Visit England website, allowing marketers to measure how many visitors arrived at their site as a result of reading the article.
Matt Stewart, associate director at Bite PR, points out that it is easier to persuade an online journalist to add a link than try to get a mention in offline copy. 'Many traditional journalists would regard it as too salesy to be seen to refer readers in this way, but the emergence of web 2.0 means that providing links is seen as helpful, especially on blogs,' he says.
Stewart adds that growing opportunities for tracking readers online now means that Bite is less inclined to offer clients an off-the-shelf style of evaluation package. 'We look at the specific business objectives and work with clients' sales and marketing departments to drive traffic through to specific places,' he explains.
Several web analytics packages (including the nascent Google Trends) also allow marketers to engage in basic analysis on which particular words and phrases are being searched for, as well as track these back to mentions online.
PR agency Brands2Life conducted a search engine optimisation (SEO) and PR campaign for its client iProfile, focusing on the terms 'secure CV' and 'online CV'. It sought to get these key phrases into as much online content as possible. Because the goal was so specific, it was able to show that iProfile reached the top three search listings positions for the two phrases - because there were so many mentions of these terms in the same article as the brand name.
Claire Spencer, chief executive of i to i research, can see the value to marketers of being able to track online mentions of their brands from desktop software, but cautions against too much reliance on quantitative evaluation data. 'In order to properly work out the likely effect of all these mentions, you need to look at nuance and tone,' she says. 'How the brand is being referred to will have a huge bearing on the reader's take-out from it.'
This was particularly relevant for Spencer's client Philips, when it launched an intimate massager last year. Directors were nervous that investors and other stakeholders would regard it as dabbling in something sleazy.
The PR campaign by MS&L was carefully planned, with two initial articles - in The Times and Business Week - carrying the key message that Philips had designed the product to be used by couples in established relationships. Subsequent press coverage picked up on this angle.
Hubert Grealish, senior manager, global public relations at Philips Consumer Lifestyle, describes the intimate massager work as 'one of the most evaluated campaigns we've ever done'.
'We used to have these vast cuttings books. But these days I'm far more interested in those selective pieces of coverage that are really going to influence,' he says.
With the help of focus groups at the pre-planning stage, Grealish established three key phrases - 'shared intimacy', 'non-penetrative', and 'gender-balanced' - that it was felt would motivate potential buyers.
He used basic analytical software while the campaign was progressing, to make daily checks on the extent to which these phrases were being used. 'I'd be sceptical of a piece of software that says it can do everything, but this did give us a kind of litmus test to see how we were doing,' he says.
As Stewart points out, marketers using PR to drive traffic to some kind of transactional site will always have the best possible form of evaluation - a direct link to sales.
But for those conducting more general brand image work, questions still remain about how to calculate the relative influence of online content, however many key messages it contains. 'Put simply, is it better to use your budget to reach 1000 members of your target audience online or 4m readers of News of the World?', asks Millar. 'We know that there is a multiplier effect online - but how much of one?'
As the recession continues, marketers will only become more interested in new ways of demonstrating return on investment in PR.
For those who think this might be a fruitless quest, it's worth bearing in mind Jones' experience. 'We've been able to show that PR is in the top three most cost-effective disciplines for a variety of brands measured over a few years,' he says. 'The value of PR is so much more than the cost of the space.'
How do you measure the success of your PR?
Damon Jones, head of influencer marketing, Procter & Gamble, UK & Ireland
Different campaigns have different objectives, of course, so it really depends on what we are trying to achieve. But I don’t believe in one single measure of PR results. We would track reach (the proportion of an audience that would have read or watched the mentions of a brand within media coverage) and favourability (via focus groups) as part of the metrics. We might then look at sales in certain regions and compare that with regional coverage.
Hubert Grealish, senior manager, global public relations, Philips Consumer Lifestyle
We use a blend of real-time software analysis that allows us to keep an eye on the extent to which our key mess-ages are being written and talked about, as well as more traditional focus group research. We also use an agency to analyse the context and tone of coverage to ensure that it is getting through correctly. But I also believe that marketers have a big role to play in interpreting evaluation data, so that the necessary tweaks can be made to campaigns.
James Ingham, marketing manager, The Adventure Company
We set a monthly average target for all offline coverage, with a higher weight placed on two national titles with the highest media consumption within our customer base. We also set a target for the number of press trips arranged by the press team; clearly, success here aids the first objective. Our online agency is now producing newsworthy articles - piggybacking on current events and making them relevant to our holidays. Their target is to produce a set volume per month.