During my time at PRWeek, I've seen not only how valuable research and measurement can be to the industry, but I've heard several concerns related to how the industry measures its efforts.
Jack Trammell at VNR-1 Communications in Dallas has long been one of my most trusted contacts in the industry. And from the time that I first started at PRWeek, he has been pleading with me to expose the "dirty little secret" of the PR industry. Yes, I think we all know what I'm referring to: impressions.
What is an impression anyway? It's something I have asked countless contacts at agencies, corporations, monitoring companies, research firms, and broadcast media entities over the years. The answer, as you all know, is that there is no standard answer. Ask 10 different people how they define an impression - be it print, broadcast, or online - and you'll likely get 10 different answers. So, why is it that the majority of PR pros insist on using impressions as the main way to measure the success of their work - and ultimately prove their worth to their clients or C-suite executives?
One thing that renders impression numbers virtually meaningless is the PR industry's real dirty little secret - the multiplier. For some reason, it isn't enough to use BPA, Arbitron, or Nielsen circulation numbers when reporting how many people were reached by a story. Instead, many agencies will use a multiplier - of varying numbers based on the firm, the client, the position of the moon, or whatever other ridiculous logic can be justified - to come up with the "true" number of people exposed to the client's message.
Many of the campaign case studies that come across the desks of my colleagues and me have some pretty impressive - and outlandish - results. Campaigns that took place over two months will report nearly 500 million media impressions? Really? Are we to believe that the equivalent of more than the entire population of the US was exposed to this campaign? It's why we ask that campaigns show other results - increase in Web site traffic, increase in sales, etc. Clients should do the same.
Measurement stalwarts Mark Weiner and Don Bartholomew addressed this issue in a paper they wrote for the Institute of Public Relations, Dispelling the Myth of PR Multipliers and Other Inflationary Audience Measures.
"Given the availability and widespread acceptance of audited circulations for newspapers and magazines, Arbitron data for radio, and Nielsen data for television, there is no credible way or reason to use a multiplier when stating impressions," they conclude.
When I told Trammell that I was finally addressing the impression issue in a column, he was overjoyed - and all too eager to provide me with his possible contributions. My favorite: "How do you spell impression? B-u-l-l-s-h-i-t."
Indeed. If the PR industry is really as serious as it claims about earning the respect it believes it deserves, it's going to need to cut the impressions and set a measurement standard.