PR’s Obsession with Metrics

What do you mean sales are down?  David Kirkpatrick just wrote about you!

"What do you mean sales are down? David Kirkpatrick just wrote about you!"

PR agencies love to measure things, especially “results.” Here is an example of the typical way in which a PR agency reports results to a clients:

“Results: 50+ media briefings, 130 pieces of coverage, 3 cover stories.”

The PR agency will then roll out a clip book. This is all nice, of course, but meaningless.

Media clips – no matter how many generated – are a useless indication of the success of a PR program (and even less than useless is the number of media meetings that a client attended). But if you review typical PR agency status reports – it’s all about clips, meetings, and the big hit (usually in one of the premier business publications – hello, Fortune!).

Greg Jarboe, former director of corporate communications for Lotus, tells the story of strolling into the office of CEO Jim Manzi’s way back in 1986. Jarboe casually dropped a phone book sized clip book crammed with more than 700 media hits on Manzi’s desk. Manzi glanced at the book and said: “”Jarboe, if I could deposit these in a bank, I’d know what they were worth. But, until you can measure the impact of PR in cold, hard cash, don’t waste my time with these so-called reports.”


But Manzi, of course, was right . Yet even 23 years later, PR agencies continue to measure results in terms of clips. Many have developed fancy algorithms that measure a clip’s impact and rank it through some convoluted system of high math. It’s nonsense. Clips are just a metric. They don’t mean anything substantive. If you generate one clip and it leads to the largest sale in company history then that’s better than 1,000 clips that lead to zero sales.

But the problem is many PR professionals measure their success with metrics like these:

  • Number of hits to a Web site.
  • Blog mentions.
  • Number of followers, fans or friends
  • Press release pick-ups
  • Briefings attended
  • And, of course, number of media clips

These kinds of numbers exist in a vacuum and are at their essence diagnostic tools – possible indicators of success. Real results should spell out how PR helps drive business objectives. For example, when I co-lead the global media relations for One Laptop Per Child‘s “Give One, Get One” campaign in 2008 – we literally generated hundreds of clips from “60 Minutes” and the New York Times to People and “Good Morning America.” But only two numbers mattered: 127,000 (the number of laptops sold) and $28 million (the amount of money raised for OLPC).

Now those are results.

Another example:

Last summer, I headed up PR for MoneyAisle, a web company that  runs live reverse auctions to find the best rates for certificates of deposits and high-yield savings accounts. We launched the company with a media tour that generated more than a dozen media interviews and 10 feature stories in publications such as the Boston Globe, Computerworld, Network World, Mashable and a TV spot on New England Cable News. But the goal of the campaign was to generate a fast impactful start for the MoneyAisle. The real result? More than $1 million in sales the first week.

Metrics need to be connected to real business objectives. If you measure something – make sure it isn’t clips. Make sure its tangible results.

11 Responses to “PR’s Obsession with Metrics”

  1. There seem to be two types of ROI discussions: “Show me how this increased sales by $1 million”, and “look at all the good stuff that happened”. I think, as a business, we absolutely have to get to the first stage — how did what we did ultimately increase our profit margin? That said, you can’t just send out a press release and watch the profits rise – a whole bunch of things have to happen in the interim.

    This post implies that it doesn’t even make sense to *look* at those in-between metrics which I think is a mistake. I think that in order to understand HOW to create that end result (Increased sales, or whatever the objective is) you have to have not only clearly defined objectives but a clear vision of exactly what needs to happen in order to make those objectives a reality. The problem is that people stop too early in their analysis because the causal effect is not clear to them.

  2. Hi Lisa:
    Thanks for your comment! My intention is not to suggest that PR consultants don’t measure any metrics – but not to consider these measurements results.

    That’s a big difference. Knowing how many “hits” you get is important to assessing how to better tweak a communications program and to understand what topics and approaches resonate best with customers (and the press).

    But a hit in “Businessweek” isn’t a result in and of itself. The result is what the hit gets you in the form of fulfilling a business objective.

  3. Interesting post. The challenge in measuring PR results is that we’re in the reputation business. We’re not the sales force. PR lives at the top of the customer purchase funnel — awareness — and it’s all the other parts of the company — sales, other marketing channels, product dev, customer service, etc. — that drive people the rest of the way down the funnel through stages of consideration, preference ultimately a sale.

    It may be more fair to consider clips, etc. as a baromoter of how well you’re doing entering the funnel — rising above the noise in the marketplace to get noticed or keep people’s attention. It’s what the other parts of the company do with that visibility that ultimately translates into ROI. Assuming that PR should translate directly to sales is shortsighted and lets a lot of people in an organization off the hook.

  4. Hey Tim:
    Nowadays PR needs to address more than just awareness. Awareness is nice, but not actionable. How does awareness bring you closer to fulfilling your business objectives? What does awareness get you? What do you want it to do? How can it help spark a sale? Or create a market? Or build demand? Or establish a brand?

    Succeeding at that level is what should be counted as results – not the fact that a PR firm secured 10 briefings with bloggers last month.

    And I agree that if you’re counting ONLY on PR to help drive sales – then you’ve got big problems in your sales and marketing departments!

  5. So how do you know the 127K laptops and $28million were results of PR efforts? Was PR the only mktg executed? If so, how lucky for your measurment task! Virutally every consumer product i’ve ever worked on had other mktg forces at work, and clients seldom want to pay for the analysis that tries to show PR’s influence (it often costs more than the PR). So how do you tease out PR’s impact if it’s not the only driver?

  6. Hi Peter:
    In the case of OLPC – there was no other marketing budget. It was all PR (with the exception of a really good PSA that was donated for free and run by several stations also for free). So, yes, easier to measure.

    The same held true for MoneyAisle – PR was the only external marketing.

    The beauty of the social web is that is makes it easier to measure. For example, Google Analytics and other tools allow you to track all of your web traffic. So if you’re providing a free eBook for download – you’ll be able to figure out if the most downloads came from an AP story, from your tweet on Twitter or from a click through on an ad.

    In an integrated campaign its important to set-up ways to measure the effectiveness of every component. If you don’t – how do you know which ones work and which ones don’t? So I’m surprised that you’re working with clients not interested in figuring that out.

  7. Hi George,

    Great topic! However isn’t hard for PR agencies to do everything. In the case of One Laptop Per Child, I would think that the PR is branding, informing people about the cause, creating legitimacy so when a fundraiser does call a donor, the donor already has had exposure to the cause/product. As someone in the non-profit world who is seeking to tap donors, I think that goes a long way. Better for a prospective donor to hear about the my organization from someone else than me. It saves time for me since I do not have to explain the whole thing and I already have some legitimacy. Does this make sense? Again great topic.

    – John, Non-profit Professional

    p.s., You mentioned Google as a way to measure things, could you provide some more information about this? It would be helpful to me and other non-profits who do not have a lot of money to hire PR firms, but want to keep track of mentions in the paper, etc.

  8. Hi John:
    Awareness may be one of your primary business objectives if you’re a non-profit (certainly helps legitimize your cause). OLPC doesn’t call for donations (at least they didn’t when I worked for them) so that wasn’t a consideration.

    About Google. Google has a free service called Google Analytics:

    It allows you to track and measure your web site or blog traffic. The amount of data available is amazing:

    – How users got to your site
    – What countries they came from
    – Which posts are most/least read
    – Bounce rates
    – Average time on site
    – Key times/days for readers

    It even allows you to set goals. These metrics enable you to gauge the impact of your blog and help you track your successes. What posts do readers find most valuable? What content do they dislike? Does moving content around increase its impact? This helps you decide how to change or tweak your web site or blog. Highly recommend it.

    Then there is Google Alerts: email flashes about topics or companies that you are interested in that will be sent to your inbox when a story or blog post is captured by Google (its important to realize, however, that Google does not capture the entire web).

    Feel free to email me if you have any more questions.

  9. Thanks George, solid response!


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