Thursday, March 02, 2006

Talkback: PR more than just perception

By Peter Boyes

At a recent PR industry meeting, the question of what the letters PR really stood for cropped up like the proverbial bad penny this issue seems to be in New Zealand.

Ask most clients, indeed ask most practitioners, and their response is likely to be press relations. It's the fault of our own industry PR, because of the visible aspect of what we do and how we agree to be measured, still focuses on the media exposure of clients and clippings measurement.

In Europe and North America, it is generally accepted we are in the business of perception management or realignment and, by and large, the best measurement should be the degree of profitable return generated by our activities.

As PR practitioners, we seldom make the case that, just as in other areas within the marketing mix, planning and evaluation methods have been developed beyond "clippings-counting", which allow us to make the link between investment in public relations and meaningful business outcomes.

At the very least, our audiences must do something measurable in response to our clients' messages. Generally, this means there must be a PR-to-sales connection.

To keep it simple, most clients expect their PR consultancy to deliver their key messages to their target audiences. They expect this to lead to a changed perception and they expect this changed perception to lead to a profitable business outcome.

The tools are there to show that in terms of return on investment, PR not only delivers a superior return but a cost-effective lift to other forms of marketing.

And it is not a complicated exercise. Most of us already define our clients' communications objectives before we begin to develop a PR programme.

All that is needed in addition to this is a measure for planning, evaluating PR data and integrating it with other business information, such as the Impact Score developed by US marketing research agency Delahaye.

Increasingly, corporate research measures advertising and public relations and the levels of interaction and impact the two disciplines have upon the other.

Delahaye reports that when US telecoms giant AT&T analysed a customer-perception lift during a time of relatively low advertising expenditure, it found the positive feelings being expressed about the company were being generated by PR activity and that all other forms of marketing were buoyed by the positive PR. Advertising, out-bound telemarketing and in-bound-telemarketing were each more effective as a more conducive environment was created through the news media's coverage of AT&T.

A year later, AT&T marketing mix analysis, a statistical method which matches customers' behavioural data (such as a supermarket scanner or other purchase data) to marketing activities taking place at a given time in a given market, showed the number of new long-distance customers attributed to advertising was equal to the number delivered through public relations. But a PR campaign cost a sixth of what the advertising did.

When we look at the relative performance of our individual public relations campaigns, the number of clippings is quite low on our list of measurement criteria. Time and again, the best returns are from campaigns that have lower reach but are more specifically targeted at those people important to our clients.

Any company's reputation is shaped and tested by the perceptions held by a certain group of key people inside and outside it.

But, most importantly, the perception of corporate reputation is based on delivering what has been promised - whether our client's performance meets expectations. And there again, the best measurement of that is the degree of profitable return generated by their activities.

* Peter Boyes is the managing director of BKAPR, part of the BKA communications group.

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