Pica Pole or Digital Analytics? ROI and the Art of PR

As PR professionals, we live and function in very uncertain times – politically, socially, and economically. Collectively, we are anxious as we round the bend into 2021. Our clients are looking for stability and some assurance of a return with their marketing and PR budgets. It’s only natural given the turmoil of the last year. 

This is no less the case with younger entrepreneurs, having grown up in the gig economy where immediacy and data is part of the equation, who are asking, “What’s my ROI? Where are the analytics to back it up? How can I know if it’s going to be a good investment?”.  

It makes sense. You don’t pay for a pound coffee and walk away happy if you’re only given half a pound. So, when pressed to quantify PR results before you pay, which has been an age-old issue in the business, there’s been an ever-increasing focus on data and the role of web analytics. Numbers don’t lie, right? Well, they might not lie but they don’t tell the whole story; and certainly not before you begin. 

I am aware that looking backward is a very dangerous way of moving forward. One invariably suffers from the optical illusion of rose-colored hindsight. But I was reminded again recently of just how dramatically the PR profession continues to change when I got into a discussion about the use of digital analytics to determine ROI. Say what?

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Pica pole or digital analytics?

Once again at the risk of proving myself to be irrelevant, I started in this profession when we used to measure success with a pica pole. To most readers, this instrument is even less familiar than a slide rule. 

While you’re madly Googling these two terms, I’ll tell you about the “good ‘ol days” in the business. 

We were publicists back then and proud of it.  Our role was to land our clients in the media with as much positive coverage as we could obtain ethically by pitching producers, reporters, and columnists with actual newsworthy bits of information. And – here it comes – we measured that coverage with a pica pole – an archaic tool that literally measured column inches of newspaper type. 

Now, I would love to say that I was only paid if I actually delivered such coverage, but that didn’t come until a few years later. We were paid a salary but not for long if we didn’t continue to consistently produce column inches of media coverage – measured by a pica pole.

So what does this have to do with analytics and meta tags? Two things. The terminology of the PR profession is as obtuse as ever. We’ve drifted a long way from measuring PR performance with actual media coverage in a direct and simple way – tangible coverage, not analytics. 

Today the goal of media coverage is still there. Only it’s being driven by a different set of tools geared to the new digital landscape. There’s almost no escaping it, particularly if a client is immersed in a world where they live or die based on their internet presence. They’re tracking their movements and expect the same in return from their PR. 

Quantifying PR’s ROI is more complex than the simple column inch measurement of year’s past; or a meta point today. Data does have its benefits and is certainly always important. However, it’s unfair to the client to ask them to rely on analytics alone in measuring effectiveness. An effective PR media outreach campaign encompasses so much more.


ROI and the art of PR

The fact is there is no direct analytical means of pre-measuring for ROI on PR, only anecdotal. PR is about so much more than instant analytical gratification or, if you’re working with a product or an e-commerce brand, a quick hit sales gain. Effective PR about communicating and often, influencing behavior. 

In rare instances, this may take place instantly and be measurable as such. However, this usually takes place over multiple communications and time. 

Effective PR is about raising overall awareness and securing a share of your market audience’s consciousness. A successful PR campaign is about building the foundation to create a presence that has a long-lasting impact. It’s about telling our clients’ stories. It’s about engaging our clients’ stakeholders in their stories through the media that best reaches them…be it digital, or print and broadcast. It’s what we as PR pros do. 

Public Relations is not so much a science as it is an art. It’s based upon an intuitive knowledge of the news media, relationships, and our storytelling communicative skills. 


Blurred lines

The world is noisier now than ever before. And it comes at us in a myriad of ways to try to grab our attention and, ultimately, our money. Our proclivities are tracked under the guise of making our online lives more personalized. 

Even search engines, which are presented as being perfectly democratic, are anything but. Our previous page views determine what we see on Page one and have made a huge impact on the “media bubbles” we tend to live in.  This is a key reason why the lines between Public Relations, Advertising, and Marketing are becoming blurred. 

Because at the end of the day, for legitimate media outlets, there’s a writer sitting down at their keyboard, looking at a blank screen, with their own agendas. And in my opinion, this wasn’t only the way it was done in the pica pole days but is the way it will always be done. 

When you break it down in the simplest of terms, our jobs become very clear. We serve the agendas and needs of our media colleagues by providing interesting, timely, accurate, and concise information about our client’s products, journeys, or knowledge to the media that serve their audiences. PR is the bridge between our client’s efforts and our media colleagues. While the tools have changed the goal hasn’t. Nor has the method. 

If you fulfill the needs of a reporter or producer, whose mission is to serve their audience, then your client will be served as well. Now before the gods of today’s PR technical gurus are unleashed on me, please let me say, I believe in modern methods and in measurable results.  It’s progress and most all progress is good if it helps achieve a client’s goals. It is not good, nor is it progress, if digital analytics become the end-all in measuring the effectiveness of a PR campaign. 

To repeat myself, PR is as much an art as science. How we effectively combine the two disciplines for our clients over time should be the true ROI and the one that will ultimately be rewarded.


About the Author: Over a 45-year career, Dick Grove has managed the gamut of business and consumer communications from financial and investment relations, to high-tech campaigns and products, crisis management, and the vagaries of the entertainment world. He’s served in the MarCom C-Suite with companies like Itel Corpration, GE Capital, and IT&T as well as a V.P. with industry powerhouse Burson-Marsteller. In 1997, the Kansas City-based Grove launched his own Public Relations firm, INK Inc. Public Relations, notable for being one of the first to utilize a “virtual” PR team and “Pay for Performance” client model.


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