Most public relations practitioners have, at some point, been asked by clients to justify their contribution to the business.
It’s more often raised by executives who become involved in some aspects of the program during its duration, or are not involved at all. Those involved from the outset usually know whether the program is achieving its aims and when consultants are doing a good job or not.
We always say that organisations should know whether their key messages are getting through by the feedback they get from the people they deal with.
Senior executives are often numbers-oriented but are not always willing to pay for research-based evaluation, especially when it will take up a large proportion of the budget, so other steps to assess the public relations contribution should be built into programs.
These days, readily available data and analytical tools make assessments much easier and can convert into meaningful reports. There are also increasing numbers of books and studies devoted to public relations evaluation, so I won’t try to deal with technical approaches in depth here, but two simple and meaningful steps are to assess “Outputs” and “Outcomes”.
Outputs are the completed tasks such as: content written and placed; information, such as media releases, distributed; events organised; and relationships created. This is not to suggest that programs should have aims like “Two press releases or articles written a month” and we believe no consultancy worth their salt should operate this way.
However, there is no value in identifying a subject for an article, completing a first draft and seeing it end up in someone else’s “too hard” basket so that it never gets placed. Or a release written, cleared, but not distributed. So outputs are not the sole measure.
Outcomes are less tangible, but are the whole point of any public relations program.
Is the program achieving the targets that were set? Is the client getting key messages fed back to them? Is the program influencing opinions? Did the release content get used in places where it reached target audiences? Are key people seeing posts and attending events? Are you building the desired profile? Are you increasing the number of followers and comments?
It may be tempting for PR consultants to take credit for success in areas such as increased sales, and maybe the public relations strategy did assist a client’s growth, but be careful about claims made. If consultant says their contribution led directly to increased sales, are they also willing to take the blame if sales slump?
It’s more honest and accurate to show how a program contributed to creating a climate which helped the business development team achieve its targets.
We believe that clients should know when public relations is working for them or not, but it can never be looked at in isolation from other marketing and business development activities.