The PR industry, as its supporters never fail to tell us, has changed almost out of recognition to what it was even a decade ago. Gone are the mammoth liquid lunches and the frippery. In their place have risen a 24/7 service, a high-profile professionalism and an ability - and, more importantly, a willingness - to explain the secrets behind PR. Now, with an increasing amount of companies willing to use public relations, there is one simple question resonating through the industry: what exactly will I get for my money?
That PR practitioners are now able to provide an answer is thanks, in the main, to the development and maturity of the research and evaluation industry. With an income of £14m, according to the latest PRWeek/AMEC survey (PRWeek 28 February), and predicted growth nudging 30 per cent, media research and evaluation appears to be providing one of the few defences against the menacing tides of recession currently lapping at the fees of the PR industry. It allows in-house departments and external agencies to provide a transparent explanation of not only what they are going to provide, but also of how they are going to do it.
Its success is perhaps due to the fact that research and evaluation can be tailored to a number of variables, such as sector, organisation or even a particular message.
'Three things have really driven the need for specific research and evaluation,' says Claire Spencer, managing director of i to i tracker, a research-based measurement tool and part of the Publicis Groupe. 'These are: the changing client, the process of globalisation and research expertise. Senior marketers and management have finally recognised the importance of PR, and they are often launching and supporting global brands. As a result, this requires data-based measurement from the ground that will ensure a comparability of results.'
It would be wrong, however, to imagine the research and evaluation industry can provide off-the-shelf measurement tools that are specific to a sector.
It doesn't quite work that way, as Echo Research chief executive Sandra MacLeod attests: 'Asking whether our industry has developed sector-specific tools is really the wrong question. The tools are general. It is their application that makes them specific to a particular sector, company or audience.'
Fergus Hampton, chief executive of Millward Brown Precis, which is part of WPP, agrees: 'It is more a question of having a versatile set of services that are backed up by a solid methodology. From this, it is then possible to deal with virtually every eventuality and client situation.'
Countrywide Porter Novelli senior planner Adam Mack, who as a former account director at Millward Brown Precis is something of a 'poacher turned gamekeeper', agrees that what the research and evaluation industry offers - and indeed what is one of its strengths - is an established set of principles that are easily adaptable. 'Certain tools may share certain characteristics, but most of the underlying methodology is similar.
A few years ago, the USPs of individual companies operating in the research and evaluation industry were stronger, but now I think everyone is moving closer together in what they can offer.'
The origins of the industry lie in research-based data, or what Romeike head of value-added services and Association of Media Evaluation Companies (AMEC) board member Edward Bird calls 'dense academic reports'. Although such documents are still produced, the many services - or toolkits as they are more popularly referred to - the industry now offers also encompass real-time reporting, online analysis and specialist focus groups.
In what is perhaps a first for the industry, the healthcare sector looks set to benefit from a sector-specific methodology - the Healthcare Communications Association is finalising a healthcare evaluation toolkit. 'This will be a framework for people working on the healthcare side to get started on evaluation,' explains Munro & Forster deputy managing director Sarah Hart.
However, none of the other meth-odologies available have been designed with a specific sector in mind. In some cases, because the people who created a toolkit work with a high proportion of similar clients, its development could be said to have had its genesis in a particular sector.
This point is exemplified by Citigate Technology's development of two tools called MessageBuilder and MessageCheck. Put simply, the first is a panel of journalists who provide feedback on a particular client, while the latter is documented analysis of whether the PR strategies, and the messages they are selling, are working. Citigate Technology, as the name implies, has a particular focus on the tech sector, but as director Jane Harris admits, the methodology behind both services is, in a business sense, universal. 'MessageBuilder could be used across any sector - with a different set of journalists obviously - and so, in that sense, it is a one-size-fits-all approach that could work for anyone,' she says.
The tech sector perhaps provides the strongest evidence that research and evaluation methodologies can be used across all industries, and, as such, are not sector-specific, but project-specific. In the past five years, the tech sector - or as it formally preferred to be known, the 'new economy' - has undergone a significant change in terms of its perceived status. Where once it was a hip, brash gatecrasher at the corporate top table, it is now - whether it likes it or not - just another adjunct to free-market ideology. Increasingly, the methods behind its media research and evaluation are exactly the same as, for example, those of a construction company. It is only the questions asked that are different. 'It is becoming just like any other sector, with the same issues and pressures,' says Harris. 'Our methodology provides an insight into how changing market conditions are affecting the messages our clients are trying to portray, regardless of the areas in which they operate.'
Others within the industry are suspicious of using a generic motif: 'No way can you get a one-size-fits-all,' says Metrica managing director Richard Bagnall. 'There is no magic bullet - you just cannot compare the needs of Microsoft to those of the NSPCC.' Spencer, while agreeing, is a little more circumspect: 'Although our model is replicable across sectors, I would not say this is tantamount to a one-size-fits-all approach. Campaign objectives are always different. For instance, increasing brand uptake is usually about trial or repeat purchases, whereas a charity or a government department is going to be more interested in shifts of attitude or behaviour.'
While the industry - underpinned by shared methodologies - does then appear to offer a wealth of differing approaches to the measurement and evaluation of PR spend and function, it is clear that there is also some debate as to how these services should be perceived. Where there is no argument, however, is on the continuing, vexed issue of Advertising Value Equivalents (AVEs).
As PRWeek reported a few months ago (28 February), AVEs have made something of a comeback and, although the sophistication of many of the services on offer is impressive, the continued popularity of AVEs means they too, even if used somewhat reluctantly, are part of the process. Taylor Nelson Sofres media evaluation manager Michael Blowers says: 'Although we do have reservations about how you treat the negative coverage AVEs invariably throw up, they will continue to provide a way of factoring in audience size in a single index.' Mediatrack chief executive Nicholas Grant concurs: 'There's room for AVEs - but only up to a point. It reflects really badly on the PR industry that it still uses them. They should be concentrating on new ways, not old, to deliver value to their clients.'
For MacLeod, they remain the black sheep of the family - something to be acknowledged, but not loved. 'They are cheap and cheerful to do, anyone with Excel and the latest issue of BRAD could put together AVEs,' she says. 'Our line remains that they just do not provide genuine intelligence on how the media is moving hearts and minds. And that, fundamentally, is what PR is all about.'
According to AMEC's Bird, in moving from providing indigestible reports to offering high-tech, rigorous and often real-time services, the industry is riding a wave of increasing acceptance: 'There is a real awareness of the need for media research and evaluation - it is the norm rather than the exception.'
Nevertheless, in the current difficult economic climate - and despite PRWeek/AMEC findings that industry earnings and growth are up across the scale - it is perhaps incongruous that the problem, according to some, is not convincing businesses to use research and evaluation, but convincing the PR industry to do so. 'Personally, I feel the PR industry could do more,' says Hampton. 'Virtually all the work commissioned is for low-cost ad-hoc campaigns, with a flurry of last-minute requests before industry awards. One look at the Measurement and Evaluation section in your Campaign review slot is enough to prove the point. Not once does it say "we reached X per cent of the targeted audience at least five times", which is surely the minimum standard expected. More commonly you'll find "we were on the front page of X and appeared on X radio stations". Measurement and evaluation?
I don't think so.'
CURRENT MEDIA RESEARCH AND EVALUATION TOOLKITS
Described below are six toolkits that highlight the many approaches offered by the research and evaluation industry. While providing different services and ways to measure, analyse and plan PR campaigns, they can also be used across sectors.
Echo Interactive: Developed three years ago by Echo Research, Echo Interactive is an online, interactive service that assists clients in planning their PR campaigns. It links a media analysis database with a querying tool, allowing, among other things, the identification and tracking of trends, interaction with research findings and real-time alerts. There are seven access points, including a search of journalists, competitors or issues, each of which can be cross-linked to provide an overview or an answer to a specific question.
IMPACON: The IMPACON online service allows a company's clients to analyse their own media coverage data. Users can set a date range and track the overall effect of messages over time, cross-referencing these against publication or broadcast. IMPACON also provides
media analysis reports and, from these, slides that its clients can also cross-reference and capture for further use.
i to i tracker: Five years in development, i to i tracker is a research-based measurement tool by Publicis Groupe, which isolates the impact and influence of PR by evaluating what it terms the critical success factors for PR: penetration, proposition, preference and prompting action. From this, it claims to be able to analyse the effectiveness, or lack of it, in various parts of a PR campaign.
MoreThanNews.com: Taylor Nelson Sofres Media Intelligence launched MoreThanNews, a real-time alert tool, last year. It provides an automated monitoring and archive facility that acts as a database management tool. At launch, it provided over 250 radio and TV broadcast alerts from any given brief, as well as archived audio and visual transcripts with a full word-search capability.
An internet monitoring aspect was also launched, and this year will see the unveiling of an online media evaluation module, which aims to provide real-time quantitative media measurement.
NINAH: Allegedly named after an Old Testament character, NINAH was introduced in 1995, after three years of research, by Sara Murray, who then sold it to Zenith Media in 2002. Through a combination of a team-based process and software, it evaluates all communications activities, such as advertising, consumer promotions and trade spend.
It allows organisations to compare the returns from £1 invested in PR, against £1 invested in media or trade promotions. The sources it measures include econometrics, promotion evaluation, tracking studies and panel data.
Precis:cubed: Millward Brown
Precis' Precis:cubed is a web-enabled, real-time news analysis tool that can be accessed globally.
It refreshes data every five minutes, 24 hours a day, from over 5,000 news sites worldwide. It automatically categorises content and identifies breaking news themes, and does so across a number of languages. A number of techniques enable clients to identify the importance of the stories which, in theory, will help them decide how best to act.