Two recent studies by MuckRack and Releasd told us what we already knew: that demonstrating the value of what we do is the #1 worry for the majority of the PR industry. The reports also highlighted that senior executives don’t understand the value it delivers. This is not – or at least, should not, be news.
NOT A NEW PROBLEM
Having worked in the industry for more than two decades – a couple of years in house, more than 10 in traditional agencies in the UK and coming up on a decade as a Founder of a startup that helps businesses build, test and measure effective PR and marketing strategies, the major issues have remained the same; control of the process, allocation of budget – PR has long complained it gets the thin edge of the wedge when it comes to budget allocation compared to our marketing and advertising colleagues – and demonstrating commercial value.
Over the last few years I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to fix many of the issues that keep those of us working in the public relations and marketing industry – and our customers – up at night. I’ve come to the conclusion that they can be solved if we remove one core assumption – that the value is in what we do rather than in the outcome of what we do. Let me explain.
REMOVING THE LABELS
The terms public relations, marketing and publicity are the problem. They have become so over-used and misrepresented to the point of being meaningless. There is no consensus amongst those working in the industry, so how do we expect non-industry professionals to understand. So, what if we removed the labels that define WHAT we do – and instead focus on the OUTCOME of what we do?
Rather than PR, marketing and publicity, we focus on relationships, actions and communication at scale? Public relations is by definition a strategic process of building and maintaining strong mutually-beneficial relationship between and organization and its stakeholders. Marketing is compelling a defined person or people to take a specific – commercially – valuable action. In most cases the commercially-valuable action is a sale. And, publicity is about generating awareness for something at scale. While media has been the traditional communications mechanism it isn’t the only one. For it to be successful it also requires the audience to see the information being delivered.
Removing the labels would mean rather than asking whether a customer needs PR or marketing or publicity we can focus on what the outcome of our efforts needs to be. Does a customer need to build, strengthen or maintain key relationships; do they need a strategy to compel actionable relationships (relationships which are strong enough that when they are asked to take an action they are prepared to do so) to take an defined action that has commercial value to the organization? Or, do they need help communicating at scale to a group of people with which they already have some pre-existing relationship?
MEASURING IMPACT NOT MEDIA
The MuckRack report suggests that media coverage, reach, social and website ‘impact’ are still the main PR metrics. One of the big problems for the PR industry for as long as I have been working in it has been to demonstrate the value of media coverage in commercial terms. Having run hundreds, if not thousands, of experiments over recent years my conclusion is that it is incredibly hard to do and relies more on elements beyond our control.
Measuring the business impact of media coverage is more about luck than strategy and is only possible when there is a tangible impact.
If we get rid of the labels we can measure the impact of everything we do: the strength of a relationship can be bench-marked and tested. The change in strength as a result of individual or a series of tactics can be measured to demonstrate that it has been strengthened or weakened. It can be clearly measured whether a person or group took the action they were being asked to through marketing communications (whether an incremental action or the ultimate ask), and the impact of communicating at scale with a defined group of engaged individuals or organizations can be measured based on what the desired outcome was expected to be.
For public relations there is also an unintended benefit. Building strong, mutually-beneficial relationships is a foundational element of any effective marketing strategy. In order to compel somebody to take a commercially valuable action you need a strong relationship to be in place – at least strong enough to support the action you’re asking them to take.
In the work I do with both entrepreneurs and CMOs of larger organizations this is often not the case. It creates opportunities for PR professionals to be involved in projects being run by our marketing and advertising peers.
GOOD FOR BUSINESS
By removing the domain labels and replacing them with the outcomes against which our efforts will be measured resolves all of the major concerns. We change the conversation from activity to outcome. We can change the way we build strategies. And, most importantly, we can demonstrate the value of public relations and report on it in terms of measurable business impact.
If we can demonstrate value, we can make a case for additional budget, greater involvement in business strategy development and reinforce the role of public relations as a strategy growth tool.
NB: An edited version of this piece appeared on PR Daily
Lyndon Johnson helps businesses build more effective communications strategies. He is the Founder of communications strategy company THINK DIFFERENT [LY] and the General Manager of COMMS.BAR, a walk-in clinic that helps entrepreneurs solve public relations and marketing strategy problems.
Lyndon is the inventor of The Lean Communications Methodology™ and the developer of a number of tools that enable businesses to measure the impact of public relations and marketing strategies.