Dec 1, 2022 - Economy

PR's misguided metrics

Data: MuckRack; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: MuckRack; Chart: Axios Visuals

Marketing departments get the big budgets because they can take hard data to the C-suite to prove their value. Communication teams can do this too, and their return is likely higher.

Why it matters: As finances tighten, communicators have a leg up because earned, traditional media coverage is still one of the most cost-effective ways to reach the masses — but outdated metrics are preventing communicators from showing it.

State of play: Public relations is a $14 billion industry in the U.S. alone, and communications departments exist within almost every major company.

  • This is an industry that creates significant value but receives little credit because we don't always have the right metrics.
  • MuckRack's State of PR Measurement survey found that a large majority of PR pros gauge success based on the number of media stories they place — but these metrics are outdated and prevent communicators from proving their true value.

Flashback: In 1968, University of North Carolina professors Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw conducted a study to measure the impact of the fairly new field of public relations.

  • After surveying 100 Chapel Hill residents, they concluded that media coverage has the power to sway public opinion and set agendas.
  • PR pros ran with this 54-year-old study and its tiny sample size, and it's still a metric most pros use today.
  • The thinking is: the more media coverage you garner, the more people you reach, the more influence you have.

Reality check: A media hit doesn't equal readership, engagement or sway.

  • "The industry standard metric of potential impressions is based on a print-era circulation metric. Fifty years ago, there was no way for you to know how many people read a print article, so we relied on circulation numbers," says Eddie Kim, CEO and founder of media monitoring platform, Memo.
  • "But now, we can follow the clicks. CCOs can walk into the boardroom and say 'Here's how many people saw the story, here's the dollar value and here's the return on earned media.'"

What they're saying: By partnering directly with media publications, Memo reports how many people read an article and how much time they spend reading it.

  • "There's this belief that no one is reading traditional media, but it's actually the opposite. And because of this, many communication teams are undervaluing how many people actually see the stories they place," says Kim.
  • "We are arming communication teams to be able to say, 'Here's what it would cost to reach this many people through a paid ad, and with earned media, it only cost a fraction of that."

Yes, but: Some communicators don't want to see the numbers and use soft metrics as an excuse.

  • "A CCO once told me that they would rather forgo being a proven success than run the risk of being a proven failure," says Mirkin. "I do see a shift occurring, but that fear of failure is certainly still prevalent amongst some of our customers."

Zoom in: Platforms like Cision also monitor the Twitter firehose for social media mentions and public sentiment.

  • "Twitter is where a lot of the richest data comes into play and certainly has been the easiest to access. ... We don't have that same access on Facebook, Instagram or LinkedIn," says Chelsea Mirkin, Cision's head of insights global analysis.

What we're watching: How a Twitter implosion could impact a brand's current ability to monitor coverage, sentiment and reach.

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