Public relations has always been one of the most nebulous parts of the communications mix and one reason why it does not command a greater share of client marketing spend is the challenge in measuring its impact and effectiveness. In recent years, evaluation has become one of the most hotly debated issues in the sector, particularly among PR agencies eager for a more sizeable slice of bigger budgets.
And because PR seldom commands the lion's share of a marketing budget, it is difficult to isolate its contribution from that made by other communications channels.
"On brand activity, if you are doing just a PR campaign you can see if it has an effect or not. But we would seldom do a PR campaign on its own," Lever Faberge's corporate and consumer affairs director, John Ballington, says.
How does one put an equivalent advertising value on coverage by the BBC, for example? And how can one differentiate between the value of endorsement by a generally well-respected third party and endorsement by somebody else who is somewhat less respected? How do you even work out with precision the level of esteem in which these various parties are held?
Due to these limitations, Advertising Value Equivalents, or AVEs, which attach an advertising value to the media coverage received, were thought to be on their way out. But in the present economic climate they have found favour again as PR professionals seek to show that they offer value for money. This is especially the case for marketing clients. Corporate affairs directors are less concerned with AVEs, often preferring instead to link payment by results to delivery of key messages in the media.
"Payment by results and establishing credible ROI measures for PR is 'the next big thing' for our industry to tackle," Weber Shandwick's director of strategy, Chris Genasi, says.
He adds: "I think good quality media measurement is still valuable, but clients should be striving to measure business outcomes that are influenced by communications, rather than just looking at column inches. There is a lot more to modern PR than media relations, so our evaluation processes should reflect that. The purpose of any PR campaign is to achieve a set of business objectives and it is this that should be measured. That way, PR is linked to business goals, which is more impressive than aimlessly measuring cuttings in a commercial vacuum."
Genasi, who is the current chair of PRE-Fix , a planning research and evaluation initiative backed by the Institute of Public Relations and the Public Relations Consultants Association, says that the IPR will continue to work on evaluation best practice and will produce a third edition of the "evaluation toolkit" for PR practitioners. He asserts that the new edition will include an easy-to-use template for media evaluation, which is intended to become the industry standard for media evaluation in order to provide a common language for measurement, "as there is in advertising".
"This is important as our research found that clients were bewildered by the lack of consistent measures in PR evaluation," he says.
But, as Genasi says, the focus of PR evaluation should not hinge on media coverage achieved, or output. Ideally it should also take in the impact on consumer perception and behaviour, or outcome.
Given, however, that PR is typically carried out concurrently with advertising and other communications techniques, it can be difficult to work out exactly what each part of the mix has achieved. Some argue it is futile even to try.
"Philosophically, I think it is a mistake to try to chase down and isolate PR effectiveness, because the effect of the PR might be to make the advertising work harder," Sputnik Communications' director, Penny Furniss, says.
She adds: "The only pure 'effectiveness' measurement is the effect it has on the business. Not column inches, but sales. In 2000-2001, the combined PR and advertising budget for Skoda was £15 million, which produced £37 million profit. The hunt for 'effectiveness' is a dead end unless it is lined up with business performance. A PR company can give you £10 million worth of coverage but this value, or even a fraction of it, may not migrate to the bottom line. Coming from an advertising background myself, this fact seems to me to get overlooked rather too often. At least in advertising, the budget is so much greater, which means that the connection between expenditure and bottom-line value is less easy to obfuscate. So I would say this should be the starting point, and probably the finishing point.
"In the case of Skoda, we were able to isolate the effect of PR, and have worked to replicate this with the planning director of Fallon (the advertising agency and winner of three IPA Effectiveness Awards this year) because we encouraged the tracking studies to interrogate consumers about where they had received their information from. Although this is not 100 per cent accurate, it is better than simply asking whether they could remember seeing the advertising, which is the traditional way."
Claire Spencer, the managing direc-tor of i to i tracker, a Publicis Groupe company that specialises in measurement and evaluation, adds: "The inherent problem when clients measure the effectiveness of their PR efforts is that they are looking for vindication of their PR approach, or of PR itself. This is to 'vacuum pack' PR.
"Through the measurement work that I have done where the focus is outcome not output, you can see the huge influence that PR wields to support and lend credence to other parts of the marketing mix. The proof is in the i to i tracker work I have been doing for clients as diverse as the British Heart Foundation, Procter & Gamble, British Gas and the US Army. This work shows that when there are clear and consistent synergies at work between the various communications - advertising, direct marketing, promotions, events and PR - there is a strong compound effect."
Yet not all agencies can stretch to such extensive evaluation. As the managing director of Propeller Communications, Martin Loat, explains: "The variety and complexity of the different proprietary media evaluation systems available can be confusing to the budget-strapped mid-table PR practitioners operating outside the FTSE Top 250 big league. Many yearn for simplification and some common standards to buy into and sell internally.
But at the moment, the supply end of the PR chain seems bogged down by different factional interests. And that can't be good for our ultimate paymasters - the clients."