EDITORIAL: To best measure PR, clippings don't cut it

Last summer, Universal, working with Sitrick & Co., helped place a piece in The New York Times preemptively revealing possible flaws in the now Oscar-endowed film A Beautiful Mind. It was a critical piece, but it didn't make any waves. The Drudge Report put up an item of a similar ilk a few months later and suddenly it was national news, spawning a rash of pieces pointing out the movie's flaws.

Last summer, Universal, working with Sitrick & Co., helped place a piece in The New York Times preemptively revealing possible flaws in the now Oscar-endowed film A Beautiful Mind. It was a critical piece, but it didn't make any waves. The Drudge Report put up an item of a similar ilk a few months later and suddenly it was national news, spawning a rash of pieces pointing out the movie's flaws.

That is the unpredictable, uncontrollable nature of the media and the public. But how would PR's media measurement tools have captured the two pieces? Most of those tools would have concluded that they were similar in length or "volume,

and similar in critical tone. In terms of "impressions,

"audience,

or "column inches

they would have shown the Times article to be more significant than Drudge's given that the Times is much more widely seen than Drudge's excellent online scandal sheet.

What about Crunch gyms, recently featured in a page-long BusinessWeek article about its finely tuned (toned?) business model? Is that worth more to the client than the three lines on timeout.com/ losangeles, which describes Crunch as the "gym of the moment,

and a "popular gay meeting place"? Impossible to say really, the two speak to different audiences and have an entirely different impact on behavior. A simple column-inch based, or even favorability-based measurement system would not speak to these important differences.

United Airlines has had a lot of press in The Wall Street Journal this week for its decisions to recall workers and to serve Pepsi as its cola of choice.

But neither piece is likely to directly impact readers, in terms of their decisions about flying, as much as the large story on the front of Wednesday's Marketplace section that discussed, at length, improved US airport security.

Of course, the latter piece didn't even mention United, so it wouldn't appear on a media measurement or monitoring service.

This should not be a revelation. Every astute PR pro is only too aware that a solitary word in one publication can mean more - particularly to a hypersensitive client - than 30,000 written elsewhere. All of which makes it astounding that, according to our measurement survey this week (p.14), more PR pros measure their campaigns by volume of media clippings than by changed behavior, changed awareness, or changed sales.

Of course, as the media is the most commonly used vehicle for PR pros to achieve their ends, it makes sense to monitor it. There are many easy-to-use, and relatively cheap services tailor-made to do this job, thus reducing the time spent on this aspect of campaign measurement. But it would seem from our survey that too many PR pros and their clients or managers persist in measuring media coverage as if it is an end in itself, instead of measuring results.

If this focus on media coverage had led to the development of a genuinely universal system, which therefore improved the standing of the PR industry against the ad business, then it might be worth excusing its glaring inadequacies.

But, as one scathing client notes, "Even now, every PR person who walks through my door measures coverage differently."

Given this reality, it is time for those in the industry who are still focusing their measurement solely on media to move on. Leave the ad industry to measure itself in viewer or reader numbers. PR measurement must be about results - a language all clients will understand.

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