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August 20, 2009
What Goes Around Comes Around

Recently I was invited to participate in a panel discussion on the topic of measurement in public relations and corporate communications. One panelist was to offer a media relations perspective, one an internal communications perspective, and I was to bring the “non-traditional” PR perspective – the measurement of programs that include social media, guerilla marketing and other tactics that fall outside of traditional media relations. Measurement is a perennial hot button in public relations, and there are many schools of thought on how to demonstrate the value of a PR program. We needed to provide the audience both a point of view and practical recommendations that they could implement in their own programs.

To prepare I sought out research from various PR associations and academics, pulled examples from my own agency’s work, and read a variety of blogs and articles. As expected I came across a lot about outcomes and outputs, about tone and participation, click-thrus and comments. Quantitative measurement, as with advertising, can be much more accurate with online public relations than with traditional media relations. We can measure links, track backs, hits, page views, average time per visit, blog popularity rankings and in some cases, online sales. We can still use advertising equivalent estimations, impressions and readership or participation numbers if it is an event, but at the end of the day, how do we make it relevant to a client? With all of these data points, it can be easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. I can’t help but think that all of the new technologies we employ today and all of the ways in which we are able to reach our audience are just that – communication vehicles. And while operationally speaking it may be a new frontier, our reason for choosing such tactics should be no different than our reason for choosing an op-ed or a press release, and that is because we believe that the recommended tactic is the best possible means to reach the client’s audience. The principles behind our efforts have not changed, and our standards of measurement must go beyond the numbers and always tie back to the client’s identified business goals.

With this in mind, here are a few helpful hints to accurately measure a non-traditional public relations campaign:

  • Start backwards: Think of measurement from the beginning of developing the plan and ensure that all necessary technology is in place. Does this require a unique URL or analytics tool embedded into your website? Do we have the proper online measurement tools in place? You don’t want to wake up at the end of a campaign and realize you can’t accurately measure the very thing your campaign will be judged upon.
  • Identify a benchmark: Capture data before beginning the campaign for post-campaign comparisons (i.e. average web traffic, number of leads, natural search rankings for top keywords, etc).
  • Stay audience-focused: Just like any PR campaign, identify your target and go where they are!
  • Marry the qualitative and the quantitative: Combine tone and content with impressions, links and actions.
  • Be realistic: Execute and measure based on achievable goals and deliverables that are identified at the beginning of the campaign.

Ultimately, any public relations campaign should start by identifying the client’s goals and objectives, and successful approaches will fall out from there. If the goals allow for exploration of less traditional tactics, than the measurement criteria should reflect that as well. While we may have more choices when it comes to measurement of non-traditional and online tactics, more vendors to work with, more numbers to count, if the results are not in line with the client’s expectations, we have failed. We may have more tools than ever before, but the principles we build with remain the same.

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Erin Allsman is public relations director at Brownstein Group in Philadelphia, PA. Erin has a strong media relations background and has placed stories with outlets such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, VH1, FoxSportsNet, Entrepreneur, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Philadelphia magazine. She also served as the Editor of Construction Today magazine, as a contributing writer for Philadelphia STYLE and as a guest lecturer at Temple University and University of Delaware.
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