Round Table Evaluation: Doing more with less

PRWeek and Waggener Edstrom gathered together comms experts for that rare thing; an honest debate about evaluation.

There is a palpable sense of pressure in the air. All the PR professionals around the table are facing the challenge of proving the worth of their work in a far starker way than 12 months ago. As one of them says, digital techniques open up a world of opportunity for PR to take the lead in marketing campaigns ahead of other parts of the comms mix, but a lack of sophisticated measurement tools is holding the profession back.

Whereas advertising teams spend about 20 per cent of their time and budget evaluating campaigns, for PR this figure is much smaller. According to our panel, the discrepancy is mostly down to money and the lack of budget allocated to measurement. As some panellists mention, the tough economic climate has led to a slashing of the PR budget and measurement is almost always the first casualty. Several express their frustration at the basic measurement tools they are forced to use to measure PR activity, such as clippings and click-throughs.

The majority voice their concern over the use of the long-derided but still ubiquitous Advertising Value Equivalents (AVEs). Many describe the internal battles raging with marketers, who favour this method because PR's worth can be neatly packaged into a monetary figure, regardless of the fact this figure is often arbitrary. Most PR professionals paint a picture in which they are constantly trying to educate their colleagues about the new media landscape.

Others recognise the benefits of econometric modelling and emerging technology, which enables them to measure sentiment, reach and sales conversion. These technology advocates argue all PR clients will be demanding this level of knowledge within the next 12 months.

Q: How do you currently measure return on investment (ROI)?

CLAIRE EATON-WHITFIELD, European PR, Panasonic Computer Products Europe

A lot of our budget comes from our Japanese colleagues and they want to see the results of our work translated into a nice, monetary figure. So we have been using AVEs, but we're moving much more towards shared voice evaluation. With this, we can focus more on the vertical press we're working with and use questions like 'what is the tone of voice of the piece?' and 'does it fit with our brand?' We've had to convince our Japanese colleagues that this way is more effective.

ELLIE SPRINGETT, Head of communications, Energy Savings Trust

I'm not a great fan of using AVEs. I prefer to look at cost per reach, so I can prove I'm spending public money effectively. The other thing we do is have a group of 'green ambassadors', and we check in with those people to see if they have picked up on coverage that we have generated.

CATHERINE MAY, Group director of corporate affairs, Centrica

All of our measures are around perception because a lot of the work we do involves changing the opinions of stakeholders, politicians or regulators. It's specific and issues-driven, so we have to show what we have done to influence what people think about that issue. We ask Ipsos Mori to carry out research each December to look at perceptions of energy companies, and we track the effect of lobbying campaigns by the outcomes.

CAROLAN DAVIDGE, Brand and PR director, Cancer Research UK

We've struggled over the years to find the best way to measure output. We still look at AVE and reach, but it's dangerous to use these as an outcome measure.

I would really recommend econometric modelling for anyone who feels their PR budget is under threat. We used it to look at where our marketing budget was best spent behind our biggest fundraiser, Race For Life.

Over two years econometric modelling (which was surprisingly cheap - under £10,000) has proved that ten per cent of registrations have come in directly from PR.

KIRSTY LEIGHTON, Global head of client development, Waggener Edstrom

PR has traditionally been harder to measure than advertising, for example.

But that just doesn't cut it when communications directors are presenting plans and budgets to the board. Evaluation of the long-term results, from changing perceptions of a brand to the complex paths of influence heralded by social networking, are now realistic expectations of PR reports.

Q: How has the advent of digital techniques changed the way you measure PR?

ELLIE SPRINGETT, Head of communications, Energy Savings Trust

We use our 'green ambassadors' particularly to measure our online activity. We look at whether they've forwarded information on. We also have a 'webinar' with them every quarter where they give us guidance and tell us what they liked and didn't like. We try to measure the impact of our online coverage by looking at conversations happening online, but we're still having a massive internal debate about whether we can measure this at all.

SIMONE BRESI-ANDO, Global corporate PR manager, Sony Ericsson

The way we measure online is pretty rudimentary at the moment. People seem to be talking about the 'click-throughs' they've seen when they are boasting about their achievements on campaigns. We're penetrating the social media space more and more and I run the corporate Twitter account. To measure the impact of that, one thing I do is simply look at who my followers are and where they are based.

KIRSTY LEIGHTON, Global head of client development, Waggener Edstrom

We've got to understand not only who's picking a story up, but how influential that person is. Do they have a lot of followers? Which followers? To make it more difficult, someone who is influential in the morning may not be influential by the afternoon. The next step is to evaluate the action people are taking as a result of discussions.

EMMA JEFFS, Senior manager, consumer public relations, UK & Ireland, Symantec

Measuring social media can seem very daunting. Blogs, comments on articles, tweets, Facebook groups - what do they all mean? In the absence of an industry standard, PROs need to measure what is important to their business. Quantity of people engaged with the story/company is a good place to start, but influence and importance of the outlet or individual are key.

BASTIAN VAN AMSTEL, Senior manager, public relations, EMEA, Hitachi

Public relations measurement is at a crossroads. Some measurement techniques are no longer sufficient and established metrics are no longer applicable. The need for accountability, and to prove the value of PR and social media programmes, has never been greater. We need to focus on outcomes and answer the question - what happened as a result of a PR programme or coverage?

Q: What issues do you have when comparing the value of PR activity with your colleagues in marketing?

EMMA JEFFS, Senior manager, consumer public relations, UK & Ireland, Symantec

The bottom line is, how does what we do affect the behaviour of our target audience? The biggest problem I have is that my colleagues in marketing can show that they targeted 'this audience', with 'this' marketing spend and 'this many' went on to buy Norton software. I can't prove the effect of PR and I don't have money for market research to show that the consumer is starting to believe Norton is a nice product.

KIRSTY LEIGHTON, Global head of client development, Waggener Edstrom

The extra pressure on budgets during the recession has forced marketing teams to come together in a way they haven't had to before. Integrated campaigns are coming far more to the fore and there's a range of measurement tools people are using. This begs the question: who should take the lead? Digital is still gaining momentum so I think the only real professionals within the marketing space who are used to engaging in, rather than pushing out, communications are in the communications team.

SARAH ATKINSON, Head of corporate affairs, Charity Commission

We are not a commercial environment; we compare ourselves with other government bodies rather than marketing colleagues. A lot of the off-the-shelf media evaluation products assume you are comparing PR with advertising or marketing and my internal audiences aren't familiar with those measurements. They want to know whether we did better than a comparable body, such as the Food Standards Agency. But we haven't got the budget to design our own packages so we use off-the-shelf products; we just have to set our objectives carefully.

CATHERINE MAY, Group director of corporate affairs, Centrica

We work well in partnership with the marketing team. They do ongoing customer focus group work where they ask customer groups a very specific set of questions on a monthly basis. One of the questions they ask on my behalf is 'how are you perceiving us (British Gas) on the basis of what you've seen or heard in the media?' We then get a positive or negative rating and can tell whether there is agitation about gas prices.

BASTIAN VAN AMSTEL, Senior manager, public relations, EMEA, Hitachi

The agendas of public relations and marketing are very different. In order to better compare marketing and PR efforts, some companies are using ad equivalency, which I feel is not advisable. There are no standards for AVE calculations. Tonality, article length, competitive mentions and other factors are handled differently. AVEs also only apply to traditional media.

What is the AVE of a positive conversation on a leading industry blog?

Q: What barriers stop you making an adequate evaluation of PR activity? How might these be removed?

ROSIE SHANNON, Head of public relations, Save the Children

Lack of budget. We recently had a budget cut, so we slashed our monitoring service and I've seen the effects of that in a loss of confidence in the team, and in media and its importance within the organisation. We used to use Metrica, which was useful in fighting our case, but we couldn't afford to continue with it. Now, all we have is a cuttings service and counting the hits on the website every month.

ELLIE SPRINGETT, Head of communications, Energy Savings Trust

Attitudes internally. When I said I didn't want to use AVEs any more, internally people pulled against that, saying AVE shows your worth and makes PR accountable. The other thing I'd like to do is change the perception of national coverage versus regional coverage. Getting regional coverage is critical but internally there's a perception that it's better to be in national media. Evaluation companies could help us challenge these perceptions by providing us with really good data as evidence of the worth of regional media.

CHRIS TALAGO, General manager EMEA, Waggener Edstrom

The biggest challenge is having that 'connectedness' to the wider business, asking questions like: How often does the sales team take information you've produced and use it? How many times does it use a case study you've created in a business situation? How can PR influence the customer? We need to get far more plugged into the sales cycle. A lot of the work we do is creating that connectedness and that depends on spending time goal setting, predicting outcomes and setting outcomes aligned to sales.

EMMA JEFFS, Senior manager, consumer public relations, UK & Ireland, Symantec

Lack of budget. With more money, I'd be able to do some market research on the perception of the brand and how that's changing over time. We have two jobs: one is to sell lots of product, the other is to maintain the perception of the Norton brand. I don't have any money to measure the latter objective.

CAROLAN DAVIDGE, Brand and PR director, Cancer Research UK

The biggest challenge for me is divorcing the PR element of a campaign from the rest of the marketing mix. I find it pretty impossible to put a buffer zone around PR and separate it off. The only thing I can think of doing is not carrying out the PR element of a campaign and seeing the effect of not having it in the mix, but that's far too risky. We're using econometric modelling to try to work out where we can attribute PR to behaviour change.

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