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The Keys to Measuring PR: A Q&A With Shonali Burke

Measurement has been a bugaboo for PR pros, but it doesn’t have to be.

Shonali Burke, president & CEO of Shonali Burke Consulting, operates the monthly Twitter chat #measurePR and will speak at Demand Success.

Below Shonali answers our questions about PR and measurement.

Q: Why has PR as an industry been so slow to adopt measurement? 

A: PR as an industry has been measuring, but it’s been measuring the wrong things; if ultimately they don’t impact business results, why bother?

If you look back at the history of PR and how it evolved, there’s been a focus on the “soft science” side of things, and using the media to get the word out. “PR” became synonymous with “media relations.”

So people started trying to measure the most obvious thing: the stories produced because of their efforts. The most obvious metrics were things like circulation, so that’s what got measured.

We lost focus of why we do what we do and the point of all this media. Up until social media and the digital landscape started kicking in, a lot of organizations could get away with that, because traditional media was the primary vehicle to reach the public.

But measurement has been upended, in large part because of the wealth of metrics available in the digital world. So now, if pros don’t focus on why they’re engaging in PR, why they’re trying to get the word out and how it actually impacts the business, they’re toast.

Q: Are certain parts of PR un-measurable?

A: There are divided opinions on this, but I think if you get back to why we do what we do and how it impacts business, there’s always something to measure.

The question then becomes, “What do you measure?” Are you measuring message reception? Message retention? Relationships? Whatever it is, how are you measuring it?

In the long run, what we need to do is tie our efforts back to business goals. Businesses have KPIs that they use to gauge success and failure. We need to keep our eyes on those, figure out how our plans will support them, and, accordingly, how we’re going to measure them.

Q: One of the primary measurements in PR is reach and growth in awareness, but how do you quantify those figures for a business objective (e.g. sales, revenue, etc.)?

A: It’s not so much that reach and awareness are primary measures in PR, but they’re called out as goals. We have to ask why they are goals. How will they move the business forward?

PR Measurement - whyI may start sounding like a broken record, but it always comes back to two questions. Why are we doing this? Why is it important?

If it doesn’t make sense from a business point of view, or the long-term goal is unknown, the first thing to do is to step back. Figure out what the goal is, and then come back to what we’re going to do and how we’ll measure it.

When we think about reach and awareness as goals, understanding how those contribute to business objectives is key. A case study I use often is my experience at one of the country’s largest nonprofit organizations. We worked closely with the Development department to understand what kind of actions taken by those who received our messages and communications helped to drive revenue for the organization. Once I understood how PR-related activity correlated to actual revenue, I couldn’t wait to tell my team, and it really motivated them..

It’s very empowering to tell a team that they are the harbingers of prosperity. Who doesn’t want to feel that they’ve done something good for their company or client?

Q: Has the convergence of marketing and PR created a greater need for measuring PR?

A: I think it has created a greater awareness of the need to measure PR. Marketing has so many solid metrics. That’s a good thing. I think it has also created a lot of confusion in the “right” and “wrong” ways to measure PR, because you have a lot of marketers telling you how to measure PR who don’t really understand PR.

Certainly it trends toward good, because anything that makes us think more about numbers, analysis and analytics, and spurs us to think more about work in a strategic way and boosts accountability, is good.

Q: What are the first steps a PR department can take to start measuring its successes and shortcomings?

A: Whether part of an agency division, or for clients, PR pros need to know what the definition of success is.

How do you know if something—your PR program or campaign—works? You only know if something works if you know what should have happened. That needs to be defined from the outset. And sometimes, it takes a while to figure this out.

But that’s the most important thing. After that, they can put metrics in place and say, “This is the plan, and this is how we’re going to measure it,” and then see if their targets are met.

That’s really how they can benchmark and track their progress.

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Q: What are the measurements PR pros should stop tracking and what are the ones they should adopt?

A: Everyone’s favorite bugbear: ad value equivalency (AVE) is what I would love to see going away. I don’t think it will, though, at least any time soon, as clients keep asking for it.

PR Measurement - Bottom LineI understand when companies have to offer those metrics because that’s what the client asks for. At the same time, the more we can do to engender smart measurement, the better. We should build a better understanding of how we’re helping to position the business, contributing to the bottom line and impacting the company’s perception, reputation and positioning.

Those long-term outcomes are what we should track and measure. That’s where a lot of traditional PR measurement falls short.

Q: How has PR measurement changed since you first created #measurePR? What changes are on the horizon?

There’s definitely a lot more awareness of smart measurement. I see a trend toward industry groups stepping up and talking about the need to measure properly and the need for education and awareness.

One of the most interesting things on the horizon is the effort to standardize measurement. The IPR is leading the charge on this. It will be interesting to see how it all pans out.

Image: Havar og Solveig, Ksayer1, Niuton may (Creative Commons)

About Brian Conlin

Brian Conlin is a content marketing manager for Cision. A former journalist, he enjoys researching and developing accessible content. When not writing, you will find him watching baseball and college basketball, sampling craft beer and enjoying Baltimore. Find him on Twitter @BrianConlin13.

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