I'm Afraid For Public Relations. Here's Why. - Social Media Explorer
I’m Afraid For Public Relations. Here’s Why.
I’m Afraid For Public Relations. Here’s Why.

The tech success of fleeting entrepreneurs like Brian Acton and Jan Kourn has tainted the business world. The WhatsApp’s are the darlings of the entrepreneurial world. Like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram before them, these fleeting tech startups that are great at collecting users but awful at collecting revenues are covered ad nausem by Wired, Fast Company, Inc., and others. They have led many an entrepreneur to believe all they need to be a billionaire is a neat idea and a couple of decent engineers.

Unfortunately, the techification of the entrepreneurial culture is also warping the greater business community’s understanding of, and appreciation for indirect marketing benefits. Technologists are data driven. Everything is based on direct response revenue. This bodes well for direct mail, SEM and other dollar-made-for-dollar-spent measurement channels. It may be the death nell for public relations, social media, brand advertising and more. Sans customer service, which for some reason even direct-response marketers “get” as a necessary evil, the touchy-feely channels are in trouble.

A public relations professional friend of mine told me of a media client recently that hired his firm to perform brand awareness-style public relations and social media. They are measured on how many subscriptions and pay-per-view movies sold through their efforts. Let me be more clear: The goal is to make more people aware of the awesomeness of this company’s services. But they’re being measured on how many dollars are sold in subscriptions and PPV sales.

It would be as if you hired a plumber to fix the toilet but judged his or her performance on whether or not the TV works.

If there’s anything I’ve learned in working with an online retail company for over a year now it’s the distinct difference in direct response marketer’s expectations and those of brand marketers. Direct response marketers say things like, “How many units did we sell because of that billboard?” You mean the one celebrating our community service that has no call to action or even phone number or web address to direct people to? I’m guessing none, but you can run the numbers if you like.

Brand marketers respond differently, asking questions like, “Did the mayor and the local chamber of commerce director see the billboard?” “Have we gotten any online mentions applauding us for the community effort?”

Only Two Solutions

There really are only two options for a solution to this problem. The first is that we educate even the tunnel-visioned tech-minded CEOs on the difference in direct response and brand marketing. But that’s a long and hard row to hoe. Sometimes, even after the education, they revert back to the Pavlovian response system and want to know the direct ROI.

The other solution is for the brand marketers to get way better and measuring their impact than they ever have been. Or at least savvy enough to ensure they’re tying all or part of their effort to a direct response mechanism.

Public relations is at a cross-roads because PR folks are really shitty at measuring their worth. Ad equivalency and clip counts are 100% bullshit and always have been. Stop counting words and start measuring impact. Make it real and make it make business sense for the CEO or the client in question and you’re headed down a better path.

Do anything less and, well … I hear pharmaceutical sales pays well.

About the Author

Jason Falls
Jason Falls is the founder of Social Media Explorer and one of the most notable and outspoken voices in the social media marketing industry. He is a noted marketing keynote speaker, author of two books and unapologetic bourbon aficionado. He can also be found at JasonFalls.com.
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  • fr

    The PR industry is full of BS. You’ve got a ton of “practitioners” don’t have a clue of what their doing because the industry doesn’t command that you need a certain degree or training to certify as a “practitioner”. So this is where you have a market of PR people who spew BS about how “PR will lead the way” in the future and a whole bunch of other horseshit. It’s very similar in the advertising industry as well, though not as bad.

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  • re:invention, inc.

    PR can’t fix a product that sucks, crummy customer service, or a broken business model. Far too many companies fail to focus on good business basics.

  • hnorman

    This interests me as to where PR may go, especially considering I am majoring in that field.

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  • And, many thanks to @jgombita for tipping me to this post.

  • Jason – thanks for writing a provocative post. We all could debate for hours (days, weeks!) whether all communication is or is not, in the end, about sales. Some of what orgs do has only the most tangential relationship to sales, and that’s where the “marketing” mindset leads to a devaluation of PR (and internal comms, and reputation management, risk management, CSR, etc.)

    Marketing relationships are based on a transaction – what the academics call an exchange relationship. The sales system is less linear than we think, because there are several potential causal agents that affect the sale. Experience is one (which is why we try so hard to hold onto customers and never take them for granted) and attitude toward us (brand or reputation) is another. The marketing mix models aren’t able to be aggregated and made into general theory (otherwise they would be, and we wouldn’t have this conversation.) So, affecting the customer experience and customer attitudes are both activities of value, even if their statistical impact on the sale is less than that of the direct response. The nonmarketing activity’s impact differs across industries and situations. Still, if you knew that positive changes to both of those inputs would result in some type of improvement in sales, wouldn’t you do it? MMM is expensive to do, but it does reveal what works in what situation. (See Weiner/Arnosdottir, et al for details.)

    OK — now that we’ve level-set, my point is that not all organizational relationships are transactional. This is borne out in quite a lot of research, including the influencer research. Marketing in the end is about selling, and not everyone wants to be sold. In cases where a different relationship with the organization’s publics is in order (see Brad Rawlins’ work on stakeholder analysis, for example), marketing activities can be counterproductive. Instead, the holistic public relations model is more effective at addressing these public’s needs. Hence, my oft-repeated credo, all marketing is communication, but not all communication is marketing.

    PR in the sense of press agentry and publicity is changing, but the effective PR person’s skillset is ideal for the multiconstituency, multistakeholder model.

    (Both of the research items I mention are available at instituteforpr.com.)

  • Lyndon

    Great piece Jason –

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  • Ah the death of PR. It’s a little too early for that, BUT we certainly need to see the death of media impressions and advertising equivalencies. I actually just had this conversation with a former client who has been promoted to the top communications spot in a billion dollar beverage company. She said her CEO STILL asks for media impressions and advertising equivalencies, no matter how much they try to educate him. So they provide them. AND they provide the other stuff that makes business sense. But he goes into his board meetings each quarter and shows the media impressions and advertising equivalencies.

    So I think we have to do both things you mention: Educate the business leaders AND measure effectiveness differently. Unfortunately, there is always going to be the side of PR that is softer – the brand awareness, credibility, and reputation. You know if you have it, but it’s hard to measure directly to sales. And then you have the other stuff – the owned content, the social media, and even paid stuff (sponsored content, for instance) – that falls under PR that can be measure to leads and new customers.

    We have to do both.

    • P.S. I think I just wrote the beginning of my blog post for tomorrow. I’ll link to you!

  • I’m glad you wrote this post, Jason! This is exactly my concern as a young professional looking into PR. From my understanding, PR has always been about building RELATIONSHIPS with customers and clients, not sales.

    But, as you said, we digress into this direct response mentality for not just public relations but all branches of a business. And this is obviously becoming very problematic. PR has always been an industry that cultivates the intangible, yet many business practitioners want to see tangible results.

    Just not realistic in the sense of what they do.

  • Hillary McBride

    Nice post, but I don’t think PR is in the “death nell” phase just yet. I could concede this to be the case in some companies (those who think PR = only media relations and clip counts), but organizations that have seen the power of PR (thanks to quality practitioners who know the value of data and measurement) are even more willing to dedicate time and resources to it. Any well-crafted objective, PR or otherwise, will be measurable, and should have measurement built in from beginning. If it doesn’t, there is fear involved (as Bradly suggested – if I don’t measure it, it can’t hurt me), or lack of knowledge. I would argue that PR, as practiced by true professionals, is going strong. Those old press-agentry hacks? Perhaps they should be giving Eli Lilly a call.

    • PR is far from dead – but I completely agree that most PR pros don’t understand how to attach value to their efforts and connect goals to the right metrics. And sadly, most companies don’t insist on it, creating a lack of incentive to learn how to do it.

      • As good a spot as any to join this smart discussion. I think you’re both right – with a catch. It’s not always the person w/ the soft skills that doesn’t know how to measure or doesn’t consider measurement a worthy investment; IME – esp. small businesses – sometimes myopic execs and managers place no value on any metric other than direct response. Awareness, likability, reputation for quality, for service; being known as innovative, growing; or a good place to work and recruiting top talent – none of that counts. It’s sales, and sometimes those vanity pieces and clips no one reads.

        Case studies abound on really good branding campaigns, social media programs that have done gangbusters to get likes and views, to improve peoples perception of a brand, maybe even a few of them on Wall Street. That love is short-lived b/c people may think the bee’s knees of Kmart’s marketing, SM, PR they could care less what they’re selling in the stores. They’re not buying, so the programs failed. IDK I circle back to Jason’s original point: ask better questions, ask smarter questions, work with TPTB on what to measure and why, how it helps build a stronger business – then design the PR around that. FWIW.

  • I think part of the issue is that PR is often thrown in the same pot as “marketing” and the two have entirely different roles. Marketing and advertising drives sales. Pure and simple. Spend a buck on marketing and it should return two. PR is about shaping reputation and opinion in most cases, whether it be about a brand or a specific product. That’s much harder to quantify. It’s OK to do both PR and marketing. Just know that their tactics, strategies and objectives are completely separate. PR is not marketing. Advertising is not PR.

    • Kristine Austin

      I have to disagree, Tim. Yes, it’s true that Marketing and PR had different roles before media outlets went digital. In my experience, however, companies and CEOs want integrated marketing today because the lines between PR and Marketing have blurred so much. Why? Because the impact of digital media can be easily measured. PR people need to know how to measure reputation and opinion beyond conducting focus groups–otherwise why should a CEO put money behind it?

      • I hear you Kristine. So how do you quantify movement of reputation and opinion? It seems the “data” in that case is collected via surveys, etc. I just don’t see how it can be measured with the preciseness of views, clicks and sales.

        • Kristine Austin

          Tim, it depends on your resources. If you’ve got time and money, then focus groups and surveys are a good option. If you’re working on a shoestring, you can measure how prospective customers engage starting with social media follows through to responding to the Call To Action (i.e., the pipeline). If you’ve impacted their awareness & opinion, they’re more likely to take the action you want. Measure that.

  • Kristine Austin

    “Let me be more clear: The goal is to make more people aware of the awesomeness of this company’s services. But they’re being measured on how many dollars are sold in subscriptions and PPV sales.”

    Well of course they are. Why else would a company want to raise awareness? We often forget why we’re in PR: to affect attitude toward a company, product or celebrity. The main question is, what does the CEO expect the consumer to do once they know about the company? Why should a company fund PR and marketing if we can’t demonstrate how our work impacts the bottom line?? I agree: the best change I’ve seen in PR in the last 10 years is that we no longer talk about clip “thump value” or “advertising equivalent”. Instead, we can measure if the consumer takes action after learning about the company or product. It means that PR people need to be comfortable with data–and that’s a good thing.

  • Smart and thoughtful, as always. What I like about this piece is that it really makes me stop and think about how I’ve been pursuing this with businesses, also. Because I’d say that my model from early on has trended a lot closer towards direct response. My favorite two metrics are # (growth) and $ (revenue). But to your point, there *IS* a place for brand-building stuff. Only, as you also said, it’s a lot muddier and harder to justify unless people make a strong effort to do so.

    Thanks for a really thoughtful read.

    • As a PR pro, I tend to agree that far too few understand how to connect their PR activities to specific goals, and metrics shaped by those goals. It’s time to learn. Connecting it to revenue is a different level than tracking clicks driven by an article, though. It requires the company to be equally invested in tracking it on their end, including training the right people on how to dig deep enough. Becuase when a consumer is hit with multiple levels of PR – social, content marketing, editorial, etc. – is it fair to expect them to know which specific one made them call? It may take ten instances of exposure before one actually makes them subscribe, click, call, etc. It’s very easy to spout off how we should all be tracking – but some levels of metrics are far easier and more realistic than others, and it depends on the company just as much as the PR pro.

  • I like this solution, “for the brand marketers to get way better and measuring their impact than they ever have been. Or at least savvy enough to ensure they’re tying all or part of their effort to a direct response mechanism.”

  • I used to hate being held accountable for soft skills. I would fight against attempts to measure things as obtuse as “awareness,” and then to tie those metrics to efforts. But that hatred was largely driven by fear – fear that I wasn’t very good at my job.

    After a few years at a web development shop, I have since come around. Yes, having a soft skill measured can expose some things that we’d rather not expose. Weakness, inefficiency, even outright failure.

    But measurement also exposes what we are doing right. The results that exceeded expectations, the insane ROI on a throwaway item, the victories that would have gone unknown otherwise.

    If we aren’t measuring, we have no objective means of separating the things we are doing right from those we are doing wrong. And that leaves us in a Wanamaker quote:

    “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”

    At my firm, we create the measure of accountability before the creative. Accountability isn’t bad, and PR will be better for adopting it.

    • Well said, Bradley. And thanks for sharing your perspective here. You’re right — a lot of frustration with measurement comes from fear. Overcoming that is key.

    • Love this – you are dead on that fear leads many people not to measure. It is very revealing and with PR changing so rapidly, it definitely flags the uber achievers from the dinosaurs.

      • Thanks Carrie. Just trying to do my part to move the needle a little bit.


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