The PR industry resonates with debates on how best to measure the value of PR. Yet whatever these arguments are, there is widespread agreement that while proving its value may be difficult, it is also key to the future of the industry. The questions are: does PR have a measurable impact on the bottom line and should agencies be paid for the results they achieve?
Although some consultancies have adopted evaluation methodologies in an attempt to demonstrate the value of the service they provide to their clients, purists argue that this amounts to little more than self-justification if the evaluation is not conducted by an independent body, such as the many firms that are members of the Association of Media Evaluation Companies.
The vast majority of radio PR, however, still uses quantitative analysis, using a rate-card equivalent of airtime value (had it been paid-for advertising).
Yet there needs to be more tracking of the actual messages by quality and favourability, rather than just by how many items of coverage have been achieved. Telling clients that 30 radio stations covered the story, which means the campaign is a success, is perhaps negated if 12 of the mentions were negative.
Cow PR account director Eileen McGuinness, who is currently working on the Comfort Pure brand 'UK's Most Sensitive Man' campaign, using radio and online to amplify the press campaign, is one PRO who argues there is much room for improvement in the evaluation of radio campaigns.
'Radio evaluation can be problematic for PROs as multiple methods of evaluating are common and many of them appear to rely on guess work or formulas related to ad spend that don't give a true impression of who you have hit with your key messages and how strong the impact has been,' she says.
Edelman associate director Steven Spurr, who has worked on radio campaigns for pharma companies, agrees. 'It's such a fast-moving way of getting coverage that you need to have the focus on measurement up-front,' he says.
In a bid to address these issues, markettiers4dc has begun offering independent evaluation to all of its clients through business and management consultancy KWHR Network as part of an ironing out of the inconsistencies in evaluation in the radio PR industry.
'I have seen cases where evaluation reports have over-inflated figures to make it look good. I've seen clients impressed by maps of the UK with regions shaded in where they have had coverage. Generating coverage is all well and good, and that has to be a part of the focus but, surely, the absolute focus has to be on message delivery and targeting to a specific audience,' says markettiers4DC managing director Howard Kosky.
KWHR's evaluation methodology is about tackling the core issues of a campaign. Using a simple measuring index, the service analyses and measures target audience relevance, strength of message and competitor comment simultaneously.
The analysis report also provides some feedback on areas where management of the campaign could have been improved.
In a recent campaign for a high-street bank, markettiers4DC scored an overall quality score of 17.35 across 29 different criteria, in which a score between 15 and 20 demonstrates significant positive content with some message delivery.
The campaign, on the subject of increased security for credit-card users through the adoption of the chip and PIN technologies to replace the cardholder signature, was picked up by radio stations.
The campaign set out to inform listeners that by using their PIN when buying in-store, rather than using the traditional credit and debit card signature, they would be adopting a more secure service that had been tested overseas, would be an industry-wide initiative to the extent that by 2005 it would be the norm, and that cards using the chip and PIN technology were being issued as standard.
The KWHR analysis (see chart opposite) shows the campaign scored an excellent result when it came to reinforcing the 'chip and PIN' term with a good level of company name checks. It also achieved a good level of consumer messages but few mentions for the website. Regional coverage was also broken down, showing that while the campaign reached the whole of the country, the Midlands received the strongest coverage where the client launched the technology, with a 22 per cent reach, while London coverage was weakest with only two per cent reach.
The observations in the report show the quality index could have been improved through a tighter focus on message delivery and a better balance between geographic areas would have been desirable.
This level of transparency is important in demonstrating the value of every pound invested. Markettiers4DC has also explored the option of a monitoring system known as 'tagging', which is the placement of an audio file - like a watermark - on the audio it distributes, which would be useful for monitoring purposes.
Of course, evaluation comes at a cost, but the reluctance of companies investing money in PR to do so, without measuring the cost-effectiveness of that investment, is a conundrum. PR companies, when they are evaluating radio PR, need to be asking radio companies for qualitative, not just quantitative analysis.
'The concern I have is that we have negotiated to get a full qualitative report from KWHR for under £1,000, but we are still dealing with the situation where companies handing us a brief for a few thousand pounds are then perhaps not going to pay a significant proportion of the budget on evaluation,' adds Kosky.
The whole debate about the need for evaluation rests upon the belief that a business service can only thrive if it has demonstrable value.
The PR industry has, for many years, faced the concern that if it cannot demonstrate its value it will be consigned to the role of a bolt-on service to advertising, or a 'nice-to-have' rather than a crucial function.
The only way to avoid this fate is to strive for increased uptake of rigorous, independent evaluation for all campaigns as an essential part of the process of investing in PR.
THE FUTURE OF ONLINE
The web looks set to be one of the most important media for PR in years to come. In the next five years, the role of the internet will increase considerably, with an increase in people buying CDs and using online banking to sourcing raw materials and staff recruitment.
Inevitably, this will have an impact on advertisers and create strong demand for online PR. But how will it shape future campaigns, and will they one day have a measurable effect?
The experience of web surfing has also improved greatly for users in recent years. The DTI released figures in May last year that revealed 45 per cent of UK households and 65 per cent of UK businesses had internet access and more than two million people subscribed to broadband.
Today, with record low prices, broadband services are being subscribed to in even greater numbers.
Furthermore, research released by NOP this year shows that 34 per cent of internet users say they are watching less TV, although according to NOP director of new media Simon Cheshire adoption of the internet does not seem to have affected levels of radio use.
Markettiers4DC head of digital media Russell Goldsmith says this increased uptake of broadband means consumers and business will demand more from their online connections.
'This means a wealth of opportunity for brands as service providers and media owners will be required to provide more and more quality content to their users,' says Goldsmith. 'If the changes over the last five years are anything to go by, we can expect TV-quality programming online, viewed when you want and not when schedulers want you to view it.' Of course, the web will still have the mix of text and sound as well as video, and so the opportunities for PR coverage will remain huge.
As online usage increases to the levels of TV viewing and radio listenership, websites are also likely to build in confidence and begin releasing weekly reach figures rather than monthly audited figures that are already six months out of date.
'Perhaps, by then, organisations such as the Internet Advertising Bureau will have encouraged its members to be consistent with their advertising offerings, their terminology and their reporting,' adds Goldsmith.
While many advances have been made, this latter stage of sophistication is unlikely to have been reached in the next five years. Therefore measurement online will still be about potential reach and strength of message.