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What is the strategic contribution of PR? Asks Heather Yaxley

Is the strategic contribution of PR always to enhance brand, reputation, or sales? Or is that too limited? Does the real meaning of public relations go beyond that? Or perhaps, for some, relating their public relations output to brand, reputation or sales, it is too great an ambition?

If you work in PR it is likely that you will need to establish metrics of performance that take accountability for the strategies programmes of activity that deliver against these strategic ambitions. Your success (or otherwise!) will relate to achieving key performance indicators (KPIs) – parameters are the limits or boundaries that define the scope of a particular process or outcome.

Parameters of PR success - Scope of achievement of KPIs

Much work has been done over many years in PR practice and academia to develop a framework of measurement and evaluation. This is intended to demonstrate the value of PR by providing evidence that activities (planned and implemented) have achieved set objectives. The trigger for this robust approach was the creation in June 2010 of The Barcelona Declaration of Measurement Principles at the AMEC European Measurement Summit.

The extent to which research and measurement have become established as actual rather than ideal practice in PR is debatable. However, tools and techniques to support planning and evaluation of a PR campaign or programme are available.

If activities are delivered on budget, on time, and to an expected standard – is this a success? Were precise (SMART) objectives set – were these based on research and include outcome indicators? How do you know that observable changes are a direct result of the plan?

Success is not one-dimensional. Care is required to determine what needs to be measured and how it will be measured, as well as when measurement occurs – to allow for adjustment rather than relying on summative (final) evaluation.

One reason why formative (ongoing) evaluation is important is the 1 in 60 rule. This navigational concept underlines how not making timely measurements and tiny corrections leads to going off course and missing a destination or goal by a large amount.

This is vital when precision is key performance parameter. With sales goals, for example, missing targets has a financial implication for an organisation. Such objectives should be calibrated against cost-effectiveness, return on investment, supply and demand, and other economic principles.

Parameters of PR success in sales terms should be quantified within a specific range. Accurate measures of performance are required to track and attribute results to PR efforts. This supposes that communication actions are designed to achieve an ordered series of outcomes. For instance, the classic AIDA framework indicates PR messages and activities are designed to gain Attention, stimulate Interest, secure Desire for change, and motivate Action.

Assumptions will be made as it may not be possible to observe a linear effect or isolate the contribution of PR in any robust way. However, if we accept that PR is a promotional practice – conducted ethically from purpose to outcome (as argued in my February 2023 article) – then contribution towards sales is an example of PR success in achieving a behavioural action.

This reflects a theory of change psychological process with three levels of outcomes that can be seen as connecting brand, reputation, and sales as parameters of PR success. For organisations without a profit motive, ‘sales’ may be considered as other strategic behavioural outcomes, such prosocial actions in not-for-profit or public sectors.

Linking brand, reputation, and sales as parameters of PR success

Brand

Brand equity influences recognition, recall, familiarity, preference, salience

Level of outcome is cognitive (what people think)

PR contribution includes positioning, promise, personality, story, associations

Reputation

Reputation influences favourability, support, affinity, empathy, engagement, trust

Level of outcome is predisposition (how people feel)

PR contribution includes emotional appeals, third-party endorsement, ESG culture, management of risk, issues and crisis communication.

Sales

Sales performance influences profitability, culture, values, workplace environment

Level of outcome is behavioural (what people do)

PR contribution includes communications, relationship building, and issues/crisis management with ‘market’ and ‘non-market’ stakeholders who affect sales

© Heather Yaxley, Applause Consultancy

In his book, Atomic Habits, James Clear talks of the 1 percent rule which concerns how continuous improvement maximises the impact of small differences in performance over time. This thinking is behind the Japanese concept of Kaizen – which allows for qualitative evaluation where judgement be required to notice and address issues.

A culture of sustainable continuous improvement expands the parameters of PR success from campaign planning metrics into and beyond a positive impact on brand, reputation, and sales. This requires a collaborative approach rather than looking to isolate the effects of PR practices.

As such, it supports an evolution of objectives and purposes that are reviewed and revised through informed discussion. This means definition and agreement of ‘acceptance criteria’ and ‘service level’ metrics (in the language of project management) against which operational success can be tested. This is particularly helpful in considering parameters of success for values, ESG and other leadership areas, including issues and crisis management, that require an inclusive and equitable approach with others.

Notes:

  1. SMART objectives should be clearly defined at the outset of a programme as a prerequisite for later evaluation of success. The acronym (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant/Realistic, and Time bound) enables parameters of success to be established, which may be defined as a range rather than an exact target.
  2. Yaxley, H. (Editor). 2021. Professional Practice Review: Research, Measurement and Evaluation in Public Relations and Communication Management. Published by CIPR.
  3. Yaxley, H. February 2023. Why PR mustn’t be shy of its publicity and promotion roots.

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