Measurement is becoming a key barometer of PR's success

"How do you measure PR?" Traditionally, this question has plagued the PR industry as marketers struggled to tie their media outreach to their bottom lines.

"How do you measure PR?" Traditionally, this question has plagued the PR industry as marketers struggled to tie their media outreach to their bottom lines.

Meanwhile, direct marketers love to talk about measurability, from the collection of data from specific vanity URLs in direct-response TV ads to the trackability of email marketing campaigns, as the primary selling point of their services. PR pros, not so much. I know all about this after serving as news editor of Direct Marketing News, PRWeek's sister publication, for much of the past two years.

While PR has labored to explain its efficacy in terms of dollars and cents, direct marketing has used "measurability" to persuade marketers to forego sexier ad campaigns for direct efforts. That has been the case even more amid recent economic tumult.

Consider the rising clout direct agencies are winning within the ad world. When former Young & Rubicam Brands CEO Hamish McLennan stepped aside in February, WPP Group didn't poach a leader from a rival advertising firm. It hired David Sable, the vice chairman and COO of direct heavyweight Wunderman, which began as a direct mail agency, for the role. Yet it's also worth noting that Sable worked as an SVP at Burson-Marsteller for three years.

PR pros have a fight on their hands. As more marketing spending goes digital - by 2016, Forrester Research expects US marketers to be shelling out nearly $77 billion on digital - PR firms will battle direct and digital shops over new business more than ever. And it's a convincing argument to tell potential clients that your firm can account for nearly every dollar spent, while your rival doesn't have the same ability to do so.

PR agencies must continue developing measurement skills, especially considering the ever-growing role social media plays in their plans. PR firms are trying to fend off traditional colleagues - ad agencies, marketing firms, and a fast-rising crop of social media shops - for business. The last thing a PR firm needs is to show off its problem-solving and media relations acuity only to shrug its shoulders when asked to prove the effectiveness of its work.

That's why measurement standardization efforts such as the one launched this summer by the International Association for Measurement and Communications, the Institute for Public Relations, and the PRSA are so vital for the industry to develop, test, and embrace. As more firms compete outside the traditional PR agency-only box for business, they'll need to prove just how good they are. 

Frank Washkuch is news editor of PRWeek. He can be reached at frank.washkuch@prweek.com.

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