PR ‘success’ – and why most of it just doesn’t matter

By on Wednesday, October 23, 2013

spongebob nobody cares 2As the PR Week Awards hangover throbs ease, now’s as good a time as any to have a think about PR success – and if the majority of what is celebrated within the industry, particularly on the agency side*, even matters.

My take on this can be taken or left – especially as I’ve recently made the move from working in-agency to running a start-up (still within the PR and marketing space).

AVE isn’t the problem with defining success within PR, as so many bloody debates focus on. That’s why it’s taken years of non-talk to get to a point where people still use it, even if the result of the debate is that they now don’t publicly say that they do. The problem in my mind is that we celebrate ephemeral and often barely relevant success in a bid to placate result-hungry clients.

So what if you got your client a mention in The Sun? Will anybody but you remember that? And do you think your client cares, in the nicest possible way, if you won an award for a campaign you did for them if it did nothing for their business? Of course they don’t. In fact, I know of a very prominent agency that won an award for a very prominent brand that cost the client an absolute packet, got a bit of coverage that made for a nice report BUT didn’t return a single penny.

From interns through to agency heads, success is, on the whole and in my mind, wrongly considered. There are exceptions and people who do great work, but for the reasons I’m about to talk about, we don’t hear about them. I also don’t have a problem with ‘big ticket’ coverage, when it’s reaching the right audience for the right reason and not just done to copy and paste a masthead onto a presentation.

Hands up who tracks – and I mean, really tracks – the benefit of the PR work you do? Online, offline, whatever, do you know how much money your client has made from your activity? If you don’t and think it can’t be done, or think money isn’t the sole reason they pay you, think again. For a start, have you asked your client to look at, or allow you access to, their site analytics?

It HAS to be about more than ‘awareness’. Awareness gets you so far and keeps a client happy for so long, even the bigger campaigns and stunts in the industry are usually only celebrated by those in it, high-fiving their way around the circuit, to win more awards to win new clients to repeat the process ad infinitum.

That link on The Telegraph to your client/tweet from a celebrity, how many people clicked through? How many of these converted into sales? You can find this out, but too few do. Take it offline, say you work up a good campaign for a gym chain – have you even asked them if there’s been a spike in sign-ups? Smart clients don’t pay agencies (for long) because they like being in the papers and on TV, they pay because, as business people, they see a potential monetary benefit in what PR can do. The value of PR isn’t in comparing AVE with what the client pays, it’s (usually) comparing what money the activity makes for clients with what the client pays.

Once you start tracking and looking at conversions, you’ll realise national media, you know, the coverage your boss screams at you until they pop a haemorrhoid out to achieve, just as their boss did them, is most often about vanity (and sometimes for its SEO benefit). Agencies wear it like a badge of pride, but in reality, very few people, if anybody, will remember it.

Success within PR, for me, is about reaching the right audience and getting the desired response, be it sales/donations/attendance etc. That may well be a mention in The Sun, but more often than not, it won’t be. To give a fictional example:

Your client is a skiwear company. They think they want to get national coverage – of course they do, it’s where millions of readers are and if you don’t tell them otherwise, they trust it’s the best place for them. You get them a national mention for an item of clothing of their’s. It achieves a handful of sales. You get that same product a mention by a trusted skiing blogger/site/social media user and, having reached a comparatively smaller but MUCH more relevant audience, the product sells out and makes more money for the client than they have spent paying you. THAT IS SUCCESS.

For this exact same reason, having a large ‘social media presence’ is futile. Will the audience buy, recommend or use? No? Well you don’t need them then. So much of this stuff is masturbatory.

You won’t win many awards for what I’ve talked about above and in most cases, nobody at your agency will even be aware of the spike in sales (because nobody is tracking or asking) meaning you won’t be praised anywhere near as much as you would had you got your client a radio spot, but it’ll keep you/your agency the client IF you can prove it was your work that did it. And if you can prove your work is keeping clients, it will keep everybody happy.

The Barcelona Principles (points 2 and 3 mainly) go some way to addressing this, but these principles were first presented more than 3 years ago and I’ll be damned if most agencies aren’t still chasing big-ticket coverage for no reason other than to gleam as they present it to the client. These principles just aren’t of interest to the bulk of the industry and if talking about measurement has taught me anything, it’s that many people in our industry think analysis is geeky and doesn’t apply to them. Frustratingly for many I’ve spoken to, it’s difficult to apply these principles when so few higher-ups want to hear it, when the time could be spent on the phone following up.

It has to be said; it isn’t lost on me that I run a site celebrating PR stunts and campaigns, the success of which we will often never know. I do it because these campaigns are fun, they’re useful as case studies or inspiration, the majority are relevant to the respective client, some will provide a return and well,chiefly, it isn’t my money being spent on campaigns that may or may not provide a return.

Anyway, I’m off to this award do tomorrow night, one in which I’m sure some great work and some seemingly-great work will be celebrated. Only the clients, on the whole, know which work is actually worth celebrating.

UPDATE: JustGiving’s Rosalind Holley made the fair point I was underplaying the role of awareness/buzz etc. It’s true it’s measurable (using, amongst other things, trusty Google Trends – use it, it’s awesome and given more than 90% of people start their browsing with Google, is a good barometer of whether your activity has contributed to increased searches for or related to your clients), but I think marketers hide behind the notion that their work gets people talking, as it can’t be proven that people AREN’T talking about or remembering a brand. In my opinion, a throwaway client mention does little more to increase brand awareness than somebody saying it out loud on public transport – some people might listen, many will ignore (if they hear it at all) and almost all will forget it.

*The majority of what’s said above relates to in-house, too

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