Avoiding Chronic Mistakes in PR Measurement

Robert F. Lauterborn
Robert F. Lauterborn

There was a time when PR professionals tried to demonstrate the value of their contributions by counting clips and calculating the cost of the placements, as if that space had been bought as advertising. That time was, sadly, now. I’m saddened to hear that that’s still the method some agencies and their clients use. Too many people are still measuring outputs instead of outcomes; what they do, as opposed to what happens because of what they do.

The root of the problem, of course, is naivete compounded by an absence of strategic integrated-communications planning.

What you measure is what you get. If you measure clips and pickups, that’s what you’ll get—clips and pickups. Was that really the purpose of the public relations effort? Of course not.

We used to measure advertising using readership scoring systems, such as Starch. Smart people knew how to “win” those reports, how to create advertising that would rate high across the board—noted, seen/associated, read most. We bragged when our ads scored higher than the competitor’s ads, as if that had been the objective of the advertising. But was it? Of course not.

Similarly, too many PR professionals and their clients still think getting some story out is the end-all and be-all of their mission. It’s not, or at least it shouldn’t be.

Everyone’s short-term mission ought to be the accomplishment of a specific assigned task related to a company’s sales goals or a strategic objective. Their long-term mission should be to build and reinforce a relationship that facilitates future sales or forestalls future crises.

In the 1960s, when marketing was just beginning to be codified, McGraw-Hill put established a concept called “The Seven Steps to a Sale.”

The thesis was that the selling process implied an escalation during which the potential customer went from no awareness of a product or a company to the state of understanding and commitment that undergirds a mutually profitable, long-term relationship.

Here are the steps, reading from bottom to top:

Keep the customer sold

Close the sale

Gain preference

Communicate information

Establish need

Arouse interest

Create awareness

A potential customer obviously won’t ever be anything else until he or she knows that you and your product or service exist. Made aware of your existence, his or her next question will be, “So what? Why should I care?”

Beyond answering that question, the marketer needs to use the communication process to get the target to where he or she thinks, “Hey, I could use one of these.”

Once this level is reached, the customer will be more proactive and start to gather information, which needs to be made available faster, easier, more fully and better tuned to that customer’s specific interests than competitors do.

Understanding a customer’s needs—and positioning your product or service to uniquely satisfy those needs—is how one gains preference. At last a sale is consummated, but McGraw-Hill was very smart very early to recognize that that shouldn’t be the end of the process.

So, at every step along the way, the question for PR professionals is this: How, exactly, can the tools and talents we employ be used to accelerate success?

GE used the McGraw-Hill framework to optimize the allocation of resources among various media, including public relations.

Arranging marketing-communications tactics by cost-per-contact, GE assigned tasks to different media on a cost/benefit basis. It deemed personal sales as the most expensive. On the McGraw-Hill scale, a salesperson is most necessary at the close, so the objective is to make sure that by the time a salesperson is with a customer, the customer is nearly ready to buy.

IBM calculated that if it could use tools like PR to cut the number of calls it took to close a sale on a particular server from five to three, the bottom-line difference would be tens of millions of dollars. That’s an excellent way to measure ROI on an integrated marketing-communication program.

At the awareness level, where there is the most potential for waste, GE assigned the least expensive medium on a cost-per-contact basis—public relations.

The primary job of PR early in the process was to make contact, elicit a response and initiate a dialogue with the customer. But, in the current climate, PR professionals recognize that the discipline has a potential role at virtually every step of the process. PRN


Robert F. Lauterborn is the James L. Knight Professor of Advertising Emeritus UNC-Chapel Hill. He can be reached at lauterprof@aol.com.

This article appeared in the July 29 issue of PR News. Subscribe to PR News today to receive weekly comprehensive coverage of the most fundamental PR topics from visual storytelling to crisis management to media training.