The true value of PR should be measured by something other than raw viewer stats. Here’s how every pro should think about it.
Whether you work in a full-service advertising agency, a PR agency or in-house at an organization, there is a lot of pressure to set goals and deliver on metric-driven key performance indicators (KPIs). After all, our access to numerical data is only increasing, courtesy of monitoring platforms offering reach, engagement and other stats to show how content landed with a particular audience.
But in an industry as largely nuanced as PR, our success simply cannot be measured by impressions and mentions alone.
At our core, PR professionals are marketers. Maintaining a holistic approach to brand awareness and business growth requires our storytelling skills and our analytical skills. Yet, since what we do can’t be measured in the same way sales can, we have to champion the creation of a set of KPIs that both reflect the work we truly do and also demonstrate its value. Recognizing what matters most to our clients and understanding the type of work that goes into achieving those results is the first step in helping them understand that successful PR is built upon a combination of quantified growth metrics and qualified intangible value.
We shouldn’t abandon traditional metrics altogether, but we should be thinking more critically about how we use them.
We can expect KPIs to include some metric that translates to a point of growth or reduction. If growth is the goal, then the higher the number, the better. For instance, if we were to set a measurement framework around preschoolers learning colors, a natural metric is the number of colors a preschooler learns. Or perhaps even, the number of colors they can correctly pronounce.
However, it’s best to look beyond those initial impulses to question the goal. Is the goal to learn primary colors? If so, then simply learning three colors would be a success. However, learning three isn’t such an accomplishment if the goal is for them to learn every color in Crayola’s 120 crayon box. Should the same weight be given to pronouncing “red” as to pronouncing “yellow” or “indigo”? What about if they can name 25 items that are red, but that’s the only color they know? What truly is most valuable?
We should be asking similar questions about PR goals with our clients. Is the higher number really what you are looking for? Is an above-the-fold, compelling story in a brand’s local newspaper flawlessly quoting the CEO really worth “less than” 100 simple brand name mentions without context in other outlets? With a simple growth perspective, one mention is far less valuable than one hundred. But which truly matters more?
Practiced PR professionals understand the importance of not over-relying on traditional metrics, especially if those don’t add up to the overall goals of a communications strategy. Thinking about what success looks like for PR starts with asking a number of questions before associating these metrics.
These are a few questions I normally ask when developing KPIs at the beginning of client partnerships:
What is most important to you, right now?
Knowing and understanding the ultimate goal for a client is crucial to setting a creative PR strategy.
There are endless possibilities for utilizing the public and press for an organizational purpose. And instead of reaching the highest number of people possible, there are many other goals that a communications strategy may have. Increasing awareness in a local market, introducing a new product, strategically announcing a change in leadership, reaching a new and actionable audience and ensuring message retention are all examples of goals that require an analytical approach to measurement.
Understanding what is most important will give you a clearer path to implementing a purposeful strategy and setting KPIs that evaluate its success.
How can you share the whole picture?
It’s easy to rely heavily on one specific metric, like impressions. However, look at your set of success measurements as a whole. Do they tell a story? Do they show the foundational work, the preparation and the execution of your work? Are they reflecting the balance of tangible and intangible?
Sometimes impressions, sentiment, or the total number of mentions make sense to add as metrics, but they only tell part of the story. For example, if your goal is to reach a new niche audience and you only share an impressions metric, the number may look lackluster compared to a past campaign with a goal to reach a national audience. Ensuring that you are delivering insights and commentary alongside metrics can help reveal PR’s true value.
How important are the saves?
Consider the work you may have to accomplish when mitigating crisis situations. If you are thinking through vulnerabilities and providing insight that protects your organization from everything from brand bruises to total public firestorms, that should be represented in your KPIs.
This can be done through sentiment monitoring, evaluating message retention or sharing insights around the number of potential crisis situations mitigated. (We hope it’s zero.)
Are you starting from “relationship-scratch”?
If you are working with a new client or in a new industry, or if your client’s goals include occupying a new space and reaching a new audience, it’s important to realize and communicate that success must include building new media relationships. And that takes time and energy with little tangible outcome.
Setting a key metric of “new relationships” helps quantify an intangible and foundational aspect of PR work. A positive relationship with a journalist could be the tipping point from good coverage to great coverage, or it could be the chance to provide timely comments in a crisis situation where that opportunity wouldn’t normally be afforded.
Asking these types of questions, as well as any others that come up in your own process and client onboarding, opens the door to crafting purposeful PR goals and highlighting what success means to you and your clients. After all, we are professional communicators and storytellers. And we have to be sure that what we decide are the markers of our success tell the right story for all of the work we do—this includes the tangible and the many intangible triumphs.

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