Evaluation is a hot topic in the PR industry at the moment - and it has been for a number of years. As an industry we are aware that if we are to continue growing PR budgets within organisations and growing the PR industry as a whole, practitioners must be able to demonstrate the value of communications activity.
Last summer I interviewed a number of PR managers and business leaders for a research paper looking at how PR is seen as a core business function. Whilst it was acknowledged that since the recession business leaders are now more aware that a good reputation is vital for long-term stability, and also that a tarnished reputation can cause irreparable damage to an organisation, being able to demonstrate return on investment was still a significant barrier for PR.
The real value of PR to an organisation is when it can act strategically to support business strategy and organisational objectives. Most in-house PR managers interviewed felt that their job was predominantly tactical, and whilst agency staff feel like they have more scope to get involved in more strategic communications the distance between the agency and the organisation means that it is challenging to get strategic communications operating throughout the entire organisation.
Current attempts at formalising an evaluation process for the industry have been based around approaches used in marketing. The nature and focus of the two disciplines are quite distinct so it is no surprise that trying to evaluate PR through ROI and hard data has so far proved fruitless. The true value of PR to business is much less tangible, that is not a bad thing we just need to be able to step out from under the shadow of marketing to establish a new approach to evaluation.
Business leaders do recognise that it is difficult to demonstrate return on investment but they also really value having some evidence to give them the confidence to keep investing, and to keep the shareholders/board happy. Business leaders accept that anecdotal evidence may be all that PR can offer to demonstrate value so rather than focusing on how we can measure ROI from media coverage or a social media site we instead, as an industry, need to look at how we better capture the anecdotal evidence of reputation, relationship building and behaviour change to really demonstrate the value of PR.