What should PR professionals do when publishers inflate circulation data?

SPH Media’s recent mea culpa regarding inflated circulation figures is a reminder to all PR professionals to focus on metrics that matter. It also raises the question, what should PR pros do when publishers intentionally cook the numbers?

Andrew Nicholls

SPH won’t be the last publisher tempted to inflate the figures, but even when acting in good faith, it is a challenge to separate real people from bots in online audience metrics or to say how many people read a newspaper.

Third-party platforms such as Similarweb use representative sampling to estimate the monthly number of unique visitors a website receives. Companies like CARMA offer audience research to establish which media outlets are read by which population segments. These approaches can give PR professionals relative benchmarks for reach and can be correlated against other data, such as search or web traffic, in their measurement programs.

The industry has historically focused too much on exposure and not enough on outcomes

There is no reason why circulation figures can’t be incorporated within an evaluation program along with other quantitative metrics that give us an indication of exposure. However, they are best seen as breadcrumbs leading to much richer insights, especially when combined with other data sets that help us analyse the quality and impact of the exposure.  

We’ve hampered ourselves by allowing bogus AVE and PR value metrics to drive measurement and evaluation. The latest PRCA APAC 2022 census finds that while a growing number of practitioners are adopting best practices, the majority are still using AVE. If this includes you, I highly recommend this article which provides 22 reasons not to!

AMEC’s Integrated Evaluation Framework is the industry standard for proving PR value. We start by aligning PR to organisational objectives and map the proof points against each stage, from activity to outcomes.

Speaking in a language that leaders care about

It is outcomes that CEOs and policymakers ultimately care about, so the focus needs to be there if we want to build credibility with leadership. As data-driven decision-making permeates organisations, the expectation on all departments to demonstrate impact is growing.

In many instances, PR simply doesn’t have the complete picture across all media and audience touchpoints. Either there are gaps in the data or the important data that can help PR prove value is tightly held by other departments. This needs to change.

Most PR activity is done to create, reinforce or shift opinions and behaviours. In that sense, circulation data has limited utility, but rationalising the reported numbers, understanding the limitations and always striving to link activity to outcomes will help us tell meaningful stories inside and outside the organisation.


Andrew Nicholls is the managing director for Asia at Carma


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