Why digital has given public relations the opportunity to demonstrate its value

Good public relations can most certainly result in a tangible return on investment. However, two things complicate most ROI analysis.

Firstly, as soon as a campaign is integrated it is hard to measure which outcomes should be attributed to which discipline. For example, when you bought your last soft drink – what influenced your purchasing decision? PR? Advertising? Point of sale? Or just that you prefer the taste? It is obviously difficult for marketers to measure this level of purchasing behaviour insight.

Now some measurement geeks I have met (mainly at AMEC conferences!) tell me that if you throw enough money at it you can measure everything. But not many people spend enough money.

The second issue with attempting to pinpoint the ROI of PR is that only about 30 per cent of PR peoples’ objectives is to sell stuff. If your aim is to retain or enhance your reputation than ROI is probably not the right measure.

I recently caught up with Giles Fraser, co-founder of PR firm, Brands2Life, to discuss what he sees as the increasing opportunity for public relations to demonstrate its impact on ROI. This is the second in a series of PR leader interviews, to celebrate the launch of the PR jobsite for Londoners – PR Jobs London.

Ben Smith: Why do you think we’ve now reached an important milestone in the measurement in public relations ROI?

Giles Fraser: What I think is really interesting is the increased measurement potential as a result of the digitisation of communications. We are heading into a totally new era.

BS: Essentially because as it’s digital you can track everything much more easily?

GF: I think so, but also as an industry, when we manage to present ourselves in the right way, we are able to convince people that we have the ideas and the wherewithal to implement those in a way that can surpass that of other suppliers and agencies in other sectors of the marketing mix.

PR people have always had good ideas and because our ideas tend to be honed by the outside world, they are always pretty relevant. So every day people in communications, whether in agencies or in-house, are talking to the media and influencers about their ideas. Therefore the concepts are road tested the whole time. Other marketing agencies just don’t have that feedback loop.

We have the ability to think up concepts that are relevant to the public agenda. And to be able to turn it on a sixpence with comment, ideas and content. And it’s something we have always been able to do, but with digital we are able to do it in a different way.

We have the ability to demonstrate business, as well as communications impact, within our work.

Digital has given us new levers so we can start to track what we do throughout the customer journey and establish what buttons to push. So we can say to the client, “As a customer goes through the journey, you can see how many people are showing interest, how many people are signing up and who actually bought something.” You can look at where brands want to be on the customer journey and put in place activities that are appropriate.

BS: So are we tracking these people by cookies, or data collection?

GF: It can be a whole range of things, probably not so much cookies, but more data collection of its various types.

BS: But you are identifying individuals rather than a macro trend down a funnel?

GF: It could be both. You can be pretty granular about it if the client is willing to take the time to track it for you. Part of the challenge is often just finding the time to get data tracked.

BS: But the client has got to trust you to give you the customer data for this to work?

GF: Precisely. But I think a prerequisite of a good relationship between a client and agency is that they do give you access to the data. We have clients that share their weekly sales and web traffic so we can see when there is a spike of interest. Going back to your point on separating stuff, there might be our regular marketing activity, but then there may be a day when we do a story and there is a spike as a result. You can then drill down further into analytics and look at what specific media type generated what type of interest. Then look at how that worked and hone what you’re doing.

BS: Who does the analytics work, you, the client or a third party?

GF: We sometimes do it. We have the capability to do it but most clients prefer to do it themselves.

To come back to the agency discussion, there are lots and lots of briefs that clients give that don’t obviously fit into a particular category. They often come to us (as the PR agency) to pitch this stuff alongside an ad agency and we are now able to demonstrate that we can take the leadership in terms of the idea and in terms of the project management. Some of the stuff we do, some of the stuff other agencies do, but as result of this we have been able to drive ourselves higher up the value chain in terms of our work.

BS: That has all sorts of implications doesn’t it? Who’s buying what you’re doing, the marketing director, the CEO, the comms director? Or maybe that doesn’t matter?

GF: It could be any of them to be honest. Because if you’ve got a business issue that really matters to the CEO and the board, it will probably be a multi-stakeholder issue, and that means the digital role will be absolutely key to what they are trying to do.

BS: I think this is why public relations has such potential at the moment – it’s so important that we demonstrate how PR can be an influencer and a valuable business tool.

GF: Well the best agencies in the market are those that can demonstrate a tangible difference to the client. Most businesses have three strategic challenges and if you can make a massive difference to one of these business drivers then you are in a very good situation.

BS: You say there is an opportunity for PR to show its impact on ROI. But are clients buying it? I agree that there is an opportunity for PR to show its impact but I am less convinced that the industry is shifting that way as quickly as it might.  

GF: I think that it is happening gradually. Certainly the more integral the online presence is to the brand the more PR is regarded as important.

BS: That’s a positive trend for the sector, isn’t it? One fear PR agencies have had is that digital agencies will come and eat their lunch in the online space – but you are saying that the more digital the client, the more they get the potential impact of public relations?

GF: What I meant specifically was that for a business that is either all or becoming online centric, whether it be a classic online brand or a business that does its work more and more on the web, they get why the PR/comms community are the people who can lead the discussion. Because – particularly an agency like ourselves – we have got a good mix of traditional and digital skills and we are able to bring them together to make them more than some of our parts.

BS: As PR is changing, and hopefully becoming more important to businesses, how else are you seeing that PR can make a real difference?

GF: It’s not just PR in its classic sense. As an example, last year we worked for a brand which was raising money through Kickstarter and we were their main tool to raise funds. We managed to raise $15 million dollars in about a month just using PR. And that’s an example of where an agency with the right kind of skills and contacts and an understanding of how to go social with it can make a massive difference.

BS: PR hasn’t got anything to hide when it comes to delivering ROI relative to other areas of the marcomms mix – public relations regularly comes out on top. That’s partly why I find the evaluation/analytics argument so frustrating; the ROI of PR should be a good news story for the sector, not something to fear.

GF: Yes, and as you know, I have been around longer than most, and I think one of PR’s worst faults is it just doesn’t have enough confidence in itself. I really think if you get good people in front of senior management, explaining well what we can do, it will make a massive difference to the way in which it’s seen.

BS: I wonder whether this comes from the uncertainty that many PR professionals have about their impact on ROI?

GF: It’s the confidence of being able to make your case at the boardroom table and elsewhere that’s important. We have done a partnership this year with Ashridge Management College, to take our senior team on a board-counselling-type programme because we thought that was something that was important for their development. And it’s made a big difference to how they present their cases.

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