Social Technologies Will Not Change What PR Can Accomplish or How It Can Be Measured

Measurement by redjarWe recently marked our 10th year as an agency and, personally, this is my 20th year in the public relations trenches. Over that time this profession has radically changed, but the basics -- what we can accomplish and how it can be measured have not changed.

When I started at Ketchum, we had a single computer that had access to the Internet. Until Netscape software began circulating, the only way to connect to the Net was via AOL or Prodigy. I had a Prodigy account from my days as a journalist and we sometimes logged on using that -- and the office had a single AOL account to share as well. There were about 50 people in the office. Aside from that one connected computer, which was controlled as if it were made of gold by the admin in charge of it, every other cubicle had a dumb terminal linked to the network.

There was little e-mailing -- phones and faxes were the social networks of the day. The term "mainstream media" did not exist. There was "mass media" and "trade media." If we wanted to narrowly target our communications, we used direct mail, special events, speaking opportunities, door hangers and leaflets. Come to think of it, we used a lot of paper.

And despite slogging through those dark ages of disconnectedness, we were able to accomplish amazing things.

Which brings me to the purpose of this article: how do you know what you will get when you engage someone to help with PR?

To answer that question, you first must break down what public relations -- really any communications -- can achieve. Think of the following as building blocks that are stacked one atop the other:

At the base you would have education. Public relations can build awareness. We can do that using a spectrum of different tactics, but consistent messaging and strong positioning that emphasize how you and/or your idea are different from others are important. Awareness can be measured in lots of ways, some of which can be more cost effective than others -- but I would caution that you get what you pay for. I've known marketing people who spend a half day interacting with people heading into the grocery store to get a general sense of whether their product or idea is making any headway. I've also seen full-blown public opinion surveys done that have a miniscule margin of error. I usually instruct clients that the amount they invest in research should be aligned with the potential impact it can have on their business.

The next buidling block of PR is persuasion. Public relations can help to establish preference, attitudes and opinions. This is engagement. Once the community you are wanting to influence is aware of you and/or your idea, you'll next want them to believe in it and prefer it over others. Of course, some are reading this and thinking that we can also help form negative opinions about competitors and their ideas, too, which is true. We persuade by gaining a keen understanding of the wants and needs and yes, the pain and fear of the communities we are targeting and then we align what we offer as a solution that will make things better. Often, we'll engage a trusted spokesperson or a customer to add credibility. Preference and opinions can be measured. This is where 1-to-5 rankings of things can be very helpful -- both in terms of figuring out what your communities care most about and for measuring how you stack up vs. competitors.

The top building block is behavior. Public relations can motivate your communities to take action, whether it is to try your product or service or enter a contest or share your viral video with their Facebook friends. The key question that should be asked and answered is what are the key behaviors that will lead your community to the ultimate decisions you desire? If you think it's just one action you want -- a purchase -- you are probably wrong. There are lots of actions along the way that are needed. For instance, I will be purchasing a new smartphone in the next few weeks. The purchase will be the easy part. I started the process by searching online for information. That's a behavior. I posted a note to elicit advice from my social connections. That's a behavior. I visited the websites of three different smartphone makers. Another behavior. I will visit a store and test out the user interface of each of the final three. And so on. And this isn't really a very big purchase. Identify each step along the lifecycle of the decision and make sure your messaging is consistent and solid. Train personnel to help your community overcome obstacles. Overall, live up to the promise you made in the previous building block to make things better. Behavior is the easiest PR outcome to measure as it related to a bottom-line event. Are you seeing sales ramp up? Did you win the election?

In many cases, the same measurements that are used to examine advertising effectiveness can be used to measure the effectiveness of PR.

We should point out that none of these achievable PR outcomes is a substitute for having a terrific product, service or customer experience. And positive PR will not be sustainable if there are problems with the product, pricing or customer service.

When planning a public relations program, match these three categories to your organizational objectives. At DPK Public Relations, we often work backward, asking what action you want to encourage, what will your community need to believe before they take that action, and what will your publics need to know before they believe in you?

With this approach, it’s simple to measure PR's effectiveness. For instance, a survey can measure awareness. Surveys, focus groups and interviews can reveal what your publics believe and how strongly they believe it. Behavior is best measured through data that your organization may already collect, such as number and quality of inquiries, brand trial and sales volume.

I didn't make this up, of course. I was taught by patient mentors at Ketchum in Pittsburgh, and at Conkling Fiskum & McCormick in Portland. Those lessons remain as relevant and powerful today as they were nearly 20 years ago.

Photo by redjar