How to avoid other industries' pitfalls

There is no imminent threat that will cause the PR industry to implode under a wake of scandals, like the banking industry in 2008 or the accounting industry in 2002.

There is no imminent threat that will cause the PR industry to implode under a wake of scandals, like the banking industry in 2008 or the accounting industry in 2002. Still, there are enough obvious parallels to be drawn between “us and them” that I believe it is time for the industry to collectively and preemptively move toward a new model.

The world learned last fall that the idea of a self-regulating Wall Street is a quaint myth; Alan Greenspan admitted it. In 2002, the scandals of Arthur Andersen and other revered institutions taught us a similar lesson: Having consultancies and auditors under the same payroll is not the best way to advance ethical conduct and prudent counsel.

The issue of measurement and ROI in PR is one of endless debate. Why then does the entire industry seem to happily accept the notion of self-reporting – our own flawed version of self-regulation? How can the very same individuals who toil for results personally vouch that they attained those results?

I don't mean to imply that PR pros make a habit of misrepresenting results. To admit there is an inherent bias when the consultant is also the “auditor” isn't an accusation of something sinister. In fact, positive results could come from an industry-wide push toward using third-party analysts to review PR results.

It would help firms prioritize their time and get back to what they do best – PR, not analytics – as well as present more objective, higher quality results analysis to clients, and create some semblance of needed standardization in measurement.

Measurement should be left to those with backgrounds in media research and statistics, ones who can interpret how PR results affect change for an organization by driving sales and impacting valuation, market share, or overall reputation.

Moreover, outside experts are better equipped to address another issue that has been lacking: Results need to be better contextualized. There should be no more reporting on impressions unless they are put in context and benchmarked against an industry average, competitive set, or historical comparison.

Another lesson from the finance world: A sophisticated analytics lab realizes that ROI does not simply mean “what you got for what you invested.” It means “what you got over and above what you could have through a less risky investment.” After all, had a particular PR investment never occurred, those funds would not likely have sat in the CFO's desk drawer. A third-party PR “auditor” should consider the results of PR activities over and above what results might have been produced if the funds were allocated differently in the marketing mix.

By removing the burden of splicing and dicing results from PR agencies, they can and should still report to clients intangible gains. Meanwhile, tangible results can be reported in a more objective and contextualized fashion.

Emma Pankenier Leggat is a founder of Focus Lab, a marcomms research company. She can be reached at emmaleggat@att.net.

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