What is the value of PR?

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Mike Newby


What is the value of PR? This is the dreaded question all PR professionals hate to hear because the answer is not simple and, without a robust response, it can sow the seeds of doubt that eventually spell doom for an account.

The fundamental purpose of PR is brand awareness and reputation management. Two fairly abstract concepts that aren’t easy to quantify. In my career I have worked agency-side from Account Executive to Account Director and everything in between. I also spent a few years as in-house Communications Director for an ex-client, and appointed my fair share of agencies while in that position.

Naturally, spending time both agency and in-house, I have developed what I think is a pretty well-rounded view of PR’s place in external communications, how it works, it’s value and how it should be measured. I’d like to share with you two defining moments when it came to me developing those views (omitting all names and identifying information for the sake of professional courtesy).

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Way back in time, when the world was still black and white and I was in my early 20s, I worked on an extremely news-worthy project as an Account Manager at a PR agency (not this one). The client was hoping for a big splash, and we delivered.

Not to brag, but I personally managed to get the story featured in no less than five national newspapers, a score of regional papers (thanks to the PA) and even got it featured as an eight minute segment on a prime-time television show with over 9 million regular viewers. That is a brag, I’m sorry. But it’s important to the story.

Was the client happy? No, not really. In fact, they terminated the account. Why? The phones did not ring off the hook the following day. They saw no jump in sales that month. Their expectations, in terms of results, simply were not met and so the value of what we delivered was called into question.

That’s not to say they weren’t impressed with the work we’d done. They even offered me a job a year or so later, once I had left that agency, and I became their Communications Director.

In my very first month, I went to a trade show to represent the brand and spoke to hundreds of people in their target audience about their product and all it’s wonderful benefits. It was in this position that I felt the value of my own PR – nearly every single person I spoke to had heard about the product before. They’d seen it on TV or read about it in the paper a couple of years ago, the story was passed around at the time amongst the professionals of that industry. It had, most definitely, got around.

Needless to say, the fact they had already heard of the product, and from such a reliable source as a broadcast / national journalist, made pitching to them very easy. But still, why didn’t they place an order the minute they heard about the product?

Well, let me ask you, when was the last time you read about something for the first time and acted on it? Unless you’re a QVC shopaholic, I doubt you are the type of person who buys every single product that is advertised to them. That’s what the client was hoping for, but people just don’t work like that. Their expectations had not been met because their expectations, frankly, were misguided. These things evidently take time and consistency. And to this day I wish I knew the impact we could have made if we’d capitalised on that amazing coverage with a consistent PR program in the interim.

Having learnt the invaluable lesson that good PR meant good brand awareness and good brand awareness makes selling like pushing on an open door, and armed with evidence of the impact that story had even two years on, I was able to take a more consistent approach moving forward.

I appointed a PR agency and we wrote articles, developed news stories, wrote blogs, went to trade shows, and participated in all sorts of unconventional comms extremely consistently from then on. Every month we were firing out tonnes of PR. And we watched our enquiries, website visits and sales numbers creep up over time. Then something major happened.

A huge industry issue had started trending and making headlines, a problem that could easily be solved with our product. We quickly wrote a feature on the subject and easily placed it in the most well-read trade media title for the industry, thanks to the excellent relationship we had developed with the editor over that time.

The result? An enquiry. Not just any enquiry, and enquiry that resulted in a £5 million contract. £5 million off the back of a single feature. Wow.

But was it really off the back of a single feature? Would that single feature have had the same effect if the industry had not been warmed to our product, if no one knew who we were or what we did? Would we have even got the thing published if we didn’t have a relationship with the media?

Just like the story I got on TV, it was a big hitter. Big hitters are exciting, they get lots of eyes on you and your product for a brief moment but, in isolation, they rarely result in phones ringing off the hook. They don’t often result in immediate sales unless they are supported with a consistent drip-feed of PR as a baseline. They are an opportunity, a means to an end, not an end in themselves.

Unless you have an exceptionally good PR agency who can reliably create extremely newsworthy campaigns such as Energy PR (and trust me, speaking from experience, not all PR agencies are good at this), big news stories are usually unexpected opportunities. To make the most of them, you need to be prepared for them with a certain level of existing brand awareness and good will.

Obviously not all PR is intended to boost sales, your objectives could be any number of things that matter to your business – from visitors to your site, lower staff churn to increasing your database of contacts – and of course the overall results are incredibly important when you take a bird’s eye view of an entire campaign or look to measure the aggregate impact of several months of work.

But how do we measure the value of a single piece of everyday press coverage? It can’t be by sales, a single press release isn’t going to make the phones ring off the hook, it will probably only move the needle a small amount, and it might not reach as many people in your target audience as the big news stories. By column inches? No, that’s not really good enough either.

Personally, I measure it by how well it prepares you for those big opportunities. Did this piece of coverage include your key messages? Did it namecheck your spokesperson? Is it warming your target audience to you? Is it reinforcing your brand and your values? If you answered “yes” to all of these questions, you’ve got yourself some highly valuable PR. If it’s a “no” to all, maybe it’s junk.

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