The PR ROI Challenge

Ford Kanzler

While I completely agree with Daniel Tisch in his PR News Tip Sheet that PR pros need to have effective responses to management (client or in-house) about the demonstrable value of PR, I suggest that only waving the doomsday flag (investing in PR so you'll stand some kind of a chance with your constituencies if everything one day goes down the toilet) isn't what's really needed to convert a benighted CEO to believing in PR and supporting it. That approach is like selling insurance, which may work with some in upper management. I suggest we can do much better than selling fear (I never really liked paying for insurance, personally).

I also agree that measurement is still difficult for a number of reasons. Primarily it is tough because a PR campaign or program may be only one of several communications activities affecting brand perceptions. Separating effects is challenging to say the least. Another reason is that everything isn't online and digital. The on/offline nexus doesn't easily allow measurement. How do you separate effects and results? Integrated communications, while still being a good thing, makes measurement even more difficult. So what to do?

My technique with prospective clients and existing ones that question PR's value is simply pointing out brands (companies) that are doing PR well and the correlations between execution and brand success. An oversimplification perhaps, but trot out brands in nearly any sector and you're likely to see some consistently well-executed work and maybe even great PR being done. The caveat is when you're dealing with a "metrics freak" who's only been doing digital marketing. Give up and run when one of those cats is running the show. There's no way to satisfy their data lust. For some, if you can't chart it, they don't want to know.

Great brands have (or get) great PR. This correlation typically isn't lost on CEOs that have any sense of business history. Can this argument be turned on its head? Was the product/company business plan great in the first place? Perhaps, but not in every case. Quoting my marketing gurus Al Reis and Jack Trout, “It is better to be first in the mind than to be first in the marketplace.”

I'll add that a brand doesn't gain mindshare without effective PR. Communications positively affecting brand perceptions is a winning weapon. There's no more cost-effective communications tool than public relations, in all its many permutations. This has been demonstrated and proven for decades. The record of companies doing it well and successful in business is clear. Can organizations truly succeed without effective PR? Not in my (not so) humble opinion.

I've been present for many business successes and failures. I've seen well-executed campaigns make huge differences for companies of all sizes and stages of development. The early leader in high-capacity disk drives, Maxstor, is one example. They acted and invested in PR and advertising like the company they intended to become and they got there. Xilinx, the field-programmable gate array (FPGA) leader, was another tech company that came out of the blocks with a huge promotional bang, as well as products engineers needed.

I've also seen starved, restricted perhaps, even over-measured programs that didn't help the company reach escape velocity. In the tech arena, underfunded marketing and PR programs are an epidemic. Upper management, mostly former engineers, don't truly believe in investing in a campaign. Their love affair with the product has them convinced people will beat a path to their door. Good luck with shoestring marketing. They're giving the game away to another brand with more promotional gas in the tank that will eat their lunch. Great products are important but telling the world about them is too.

PR measurement is essential but PR pros need to measure outcomes, not short-term activities, like how many press releases were issued, whether sales resulted from sending out the announcement or other irrelevancies. Marketing and PR are essential pieces of that, creating an effect that typically occurs over an extended period of time, not days or weeks. Take a longer, strategic view to measuring PR.

Ford Kanzler is principal of Marketing/PR Savvy in Redwood City, Calif., and author of Connecting the Mind and Voice of Business (available from Amazon and B&N). He can be reached at

  • Steve Fair

    Great article, though I think the term “metrics freaks” is a little harsh.

    The point that great companies get great PR is clearly true, as is the idea that great companies need to make sure they are using PR to their advantage. What though can smaller companies with middle-market products and services do, especially when their customers are increasingly doing what Google’s ZMOT tells us they will? Not everyone can have the greatest or most remarkable product.

    Those companies do of course engage in often-impressive PR campaigns, but the investment those campaigns require can be high. If only it were as easy for the “average company” (of which by definition there are more of than any other kind) as those with an astonishing service or product range.

  • P. Swiergosz

    When we all can agree that PR is not a “fix” but a PERMANENT fixture bound with customer service, the debate about ROI will cease.