Audience inflation undermines PR

A survey conducted by a PR industry trade title found 35% of PR pros "felt their usage reports were padded."

A survey conducted by a PR industry trade title found 35% of PR pros "felt their usage reports were padded."

Our separate study of industry audience-reporting practices yielded reports of audience totals 20 to more than 100 times higher than what Nielsen Media Research actually reported, audience numbers in the millions given to newsfeed placement that may have only been seen by technicians in TV station control rooms, and claims of additional placement resulting from media outreach that were actually paid-for guaranteed placement.

Among the most widespread abuses is audience reporting for guaranteed-placement programs. We saw audience projections in the millions for unrated guaranteed-placement programs that, in our opinion, barely reached 50,000 viewers.

If Nielsen doesn't provide an audience for a station, it falls below the minimal reporting standards, meaning the program is watched by fewer than 50 viewers for every 100,000 potential households.

Padded numbers matter because they provide a false safety net that replaces the hard work and strategy that leads to a successful project. Thinking you have 4 million "viewers" in the bag, you might green light a project that isn't likely to earn real media attention.

Angela Jeffrey, VP of editorial research for VMS, said: "Overstating results only undermines the value of good PR work. VMS... has found that accurate audience data is [vital] to good research. When you claim enormous impressions, but fail to show an improvement against your program's business objectives, you leave your client with the misimpression that PR can't move the bar."

Most important, you need to be credible in what you report to your bosses and clients. Measurement budgets are increasing, in part because organizations need an independent analysis of the flawed audience data they are receiving.

How did we get here? In the past two years, as it has grown harder to generate placement for mediocre VNRs, guaranteed-placement use has risen greatly. It's now part of almost all PR video projects, when two years ago, it may have been part of 15%. A number that may have been casually assigned to a paid placement years ago now looms as a key portion of a placement report. Yet a vendor doesn't want to change it for fear that it will put its past work in question.

Perhaps the single most important thing you can do is require your PR video vendor to offer a money-back guarantee if, in their usage reports, they: fail to identify guaranteed placement as paid placement; inflate an audience figure for unrated stations at, or above, Nielsen's minimal reporting standards; or report a cumulative audience total for a station placement. This is the guarantee we are offering as part of our white paper, "Paid Placement... Real Numbers," available on our Web site or by e-mailing realnumbers@dssimon.com. We're also offering a free analysis of any usage report.

Stopping audience inflation is a key first step to ensure you give value to your company and clients. VNRs and SMTs are among the most cost-effective PR tools. The widespread audience inflation threatens to undermine both their value and your credibility.

Douglas Simon is president and CEO of DS Simon Productions.

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