Do you leave your PR to chance?

Roulette-wheelIt’s often very difficult to know what makes a news release work and what doesn’t if you haven’t been doing it for that long. For those of us who do it for a living, we’ve witnessed some major changes in the art and craft of getting the message across to desired audience and customer segments. Today, PR is a very different business to what it was even a couple of years’ ago.

For me it comes down to taking a hard-nosed approach and increasingly that means understanding what we’re trying to achieve with using PR as a business tool rather than leaving it to chance and Lady Luck.

PR used to be about what I call the “transmit” mode of communication. In the context of today’s social channels “transmit” means blog posts, webinars, video/podcasts, twitter posts, upload of content to the Facebook page and that sort of thing.

But PR is needs to be much more than that.

When I was running the European external and internal communications function for a US-financial services company, I was amazed how behind the curve we were when it came to understanding not just about ‘outputs’ but also ‘outcomes’ from the PR effort. Some of PR agencies I worked with struggled to see the difference.

Here are a few examples of what I mean.

“Isn’t calling a journalist and getting through to them a PR outcome?”

Er, no. That’s PR activity.

“Isn’t the journalist calling or emailing us an outcome?”

Well, it depends. Not always.

“Isn’t the media coverage we achieved last month a PR outcome?”

Well, not quite, no. That’s PR output.

It’s not that I was being pedantic or obtuse in my use of English. What these differences reveal was something much more fundamental. I wanted to remove the guess work from the way were managing our PR right across Europe. Hit and miss just wasn’t going to work anymore at a time when we were expected to get more value from the PR budget. Fundamentally, I was looking to align my own performance objectives as director with that of each of the PR agencies. That made complete sense to me and it was one of the reasons I wrote High Impact Marketing That Gets Results.

Getting back to basics, I created a 5-step PR best practice methodology and applied this to all of our PR work.

Step 1: Audit

Before leaping off into the great unknown, it’s always useful to take stock of where you are now. For example, an objective that is framed as “raising awareness” is pretty meaningless unless you know what the current level of awareness is and how far you need to raise this (and why).


What are the company/organisation’s objectives and have the previous PR objectives aligned with these organisational and business objectives?

  • Which desired customer, client, prospect, supporter segments are you trying to reach?
  • What are the messages that will motivate and influence behaviour of these segments?
  • What response are you looking for?
  • How will you listen to customer and client feedback? How will this plugged back into the research, planning and measurement activity; and
  • What are the key metrics for determining success?

Following on from the audit it will then be possible to create meaningful PR objectives.

Step 2: Setting measurable objectives

The key principle is that the PR objective must have some relevance to an organisational and/or business objective; otherwise it’s simply ‘PR for PR sake’ and a misuse of time and resources. Your PR objectives might include targeting a promising new market segment to help your company or organization achieve growth.

Objectives should always be SMART:

  • Specific – for example, you might set an objective of getting 50 new key accounts
  • Measurable – whatever your objective is, you need to be able to check whether you have reached it or not when you review your plan
  • Achievable – you must have the resources you need to achieve the objective. The key resources are usually technology, people and finance
  • Realistic – targets should be a balance of achievable and challenging so that they motivate an improvement in performance rather than being completely unrealistic and de-motivating
  • Time-bound – you should set a deadline for achieving your objectives. For example, you might aim to get 50 new key accounts within the next 12 months.

Step 3: Strategy and planning

In essence, the strategy and plan is the bit that answers the question: ’how will we get here?’ The old adage is that ‘if you fail to plan, then you plan to fail’. It’s accepted that not absolutely everything is easily measurable or quantifiable and the complexity and cost of measuring may be prohibitive or not justified on the return expected. All effective PR strategies are made up of three core components:

  • inputs;
  • outputs; and
  • outcomes.

All too often PR agencies will have a long ‘shopping list’ of outputs, such as the number of news releases and journalists one-to-ones as if by magic this equates with excellent PR.

This is all output driven and although useful, the key consideration for the organisation or company is how this made a difference in a tangible way that for a commercial organisation should have supported the sales and marketing effort.


For example, background information and research including an analysis of current organisational and company perceptions that can inform the initial planning step.

Some of this information could provide benchmarks against which to measure later.

For example:

  • the PR brief (information on organisation/sector);
  • desk research and original research (to inform content of PR materials); and
  • pre-testing (messages/materials understood).


Literally, what messages go out from the organisation or company? This is a measure of a quantified nature that can analyse the degree of exposure and audience reach, but can’t explain to what extent people’s opinions or behaviour have been influenced.

Many PR plans produced by PR agencies are built around outputs, but this isn’t the complete picture and doesn’t allow PR professionals to demonstrate the positive impact their work can have on an organisation and its objectives.

For example:

  • news releases, background briefs, case studies and photographs issued and coverage monitored and evaluated;
  • website launched and traffic analysis compiled;
  • PR event staged and who and numbers of attendees;
  • research survey conducted and this informed the organisation or company strategy and plan in that market;
  • extent to which messages are received by the desired customer and client segment;
  • analysis of media coverage achieved; and
  • online tracking of comments and feedback with customers and clients.


This is perhaps the most important element of any PR programme – and the toughest to satisfy.

Measuring outcomes should be the focus of PR measurement, so that the positive impact on the organisational or company’s objectives can be clearly articulated. Measuring outcomes is about understanding the degree to which PR has changed people’s awareness, opinion and very importantly, their behaviour.

This is the most valuable form of measurement:

  • tangible incremental increase in sales;
  • focus groups to confirm a shift in behaviour rather than just purchase intention; and
  • the number of brand advocates in this quarter compared with the previous quarter.

Outcome is the strongest basis for calculating the return on investment from PR activities and is also a valuable source of information to be fed back into the research, planning and measurement process.

But it shouldn’t stop there.

Step 4: On-going measurement

Depending on the PR objectives, these can be short, medium and long term. The likelihood is that there will be a mix of short, medium and long term PR objectives that will need to be satisfied.

Where the PR objective is about shifting attitudes and behaviour, this is unlikely to happen overnight and will take concerted PR effort. In such cases it will be necessary to listen, gather input and feedback over a long period of time.

On-going measurement will ideally allow you to track progress before, during and after the PR campaign.

The advantage of this is that it allows for modifications and for adjustments to be made as the programme unfolds rather than waiting until the end of the programme to effect changes when in fact that may be too late.

For example, where the PR campaign isn’t generating sales leads as expected, then:

  • try to determine the pattern of enquiries and leads and whether PR is having any effect on the pipeline of opportunities;
  • where PR isn’t having the desired outcomes, then adjust the content accordingly; and
  • identify other causes for the lack of sales enquiries, such as issues with the product or service or other factors.

Step 5: Results and evaluation

The benefit of having a formal planning process is that you can make a direct comparison between the objectives and the results. The more precise the objectives, the easier it is to quantify the outcomes and determine the return on investment and influence PR has made on the core organisational and business strategy.

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