“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” The immortal opener from Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities.
And while it might be a bit of a stretch to transport the words of revolutionary France to the world of today’s public relations, all I can do at this stage is ask you to bear with me.
I have just finished a campaign and it truly was the best of times. Effective, impactful and persuasive, it was a belter to work on.
But today we have the worst of times and that is because we are in the evaluation phase.
Thanks to the wonderful world of media evaluation, I now know that regional radio carries more weight than say CNBC, and that a major piece in the Financial Times is worth about seven hundred and fifty quid.
Zut alors, mon Dieu! Is this what our profession has been reduced to? Is influence now just a series of beans to be counted, and is the effectiveness of a campaign to be measured by some wannabe accountant who brings the finesse of a slaughterhouse to the subtle art of persuasion.
The enemy at the gates is that wonderful invention, Advertising Value Equivalency (AVE). As crude a measurement as you could hope to invent, it provides you with the comparable rates of ads and in so doing robs many campaigns of their meaning and real influence.
The most frustrating aspect of all of this is that this debate seems to have been going on for as long as I can remember. I first got into PR in 1998 and then, all the talk was that AVE was a blunt instrument delivering no real insight. In fact, for all I know, the Victorians were probably having the same debate at the time of Dickens.
Today, it’s Groundhog Day all over again. It seems unbelievable that in 2011 some of the industry’s flagship campaigns are still measured using AVE. Is this really the best we can do?
Now don’t get me wrong. This is not an assassination attempt on evaluation it is more an appeal for an intelligent and sophisticated evolution of it. By doing so it can play its part, as it should do, in assessing the value of public relations action and its influence over behaviour.
The appeal of evaluation is based on a sound enough principle. If you can’t put a value on your service then you may as well not do it. In the USA they call this ‘dollarizing’.
In turn, the importance of intangible assets, like brand, identity and reputation, have risen to such a degree in the valuing of businesses that you can’t allow it to continue as the unregulated Wild West of the commercial world.
The Institute of Practitioners in Advertising believes that 78% of the value of the Fortune 500 can be put down to intangible assets. Just take a moment to reconsider that figure. Put it another way, what a company does is not anywhere near as important as what people think about it. You have to evaluate that.
So, I understand why as an industry there is an onus on us to bottle the magic and put a price on the value of what we do. The problem is that we have, largely speaking, approached it in a pedestrian way.
Perhaps one of the most persuasive answers I heard to the question of how do you know if PR is working was “because you feel it.” This was not from some novice but one of the big players in the industry.
The immediate response to a point like this is that it is a cop out. But I would urge you to wait a moment.
To my mind, the ‘feeling’ is about ‘influence’ and ‘persuasion’. You feel it because someone is doing something differently as a result of your actions.
So, my frustration at such a low value being assigned to say an article in the Financial Times is that it misses the point. The publication does not reach everyone but it might just reach, and disproportionately change, the feelings of the people that matter to you.
Influence, despite the urge of the evaluation industry is a lot more than a numbers exercise. Influence is the real name of the game and you can see it all around you.
Look at social media. What makes you influential, the amount of Twitter followers that you have or who follows you? I think you have to make the case for quality over quantity. Most evaluation campaigns would disagree.
If you are purchasing evaluation, social media is a ‘specialist add-on’ (read that as more cost). Without it, it means that in evaluating your campaign, a tweet from say, Warren Buffet, is worth nothing while a nib in the Swindon Advertiser is worth something.
In turn, Klout, a social media evaluation business, claimed over Christmas that the teen sensation Justin Bieber was the most influential man on the planet due to the number of his twitter followers. Pity poor Barack Obama.
We need to get real and if we are looking for answers I think we should be looking not within but outside the public relations sector.
The good news is that our cousins in advertising have been doing well at getting to grips with the challenge. The Net Promoter Score has become the de facto industry standard. What makes it interesting is its focus on influence and brand reputational change.
In turn, Havas Worldwide chief, David Jones, is championing the focus on the ‘prosumer’; influential audiences that have the power to evangelise and champion your brand.
The more I learn about evaluation in the advertising sector the more I despair about the same debate in the public relations sphere. While initiatives such as the Barcelona Accord (which sought to improve measurement metrics) are to be welcomed they have hardly caught the imagination of the sector.
I would like to see a fresh lead on this, as we need it. What about an influential organisation that observes the industry, like the Holmes Report, looking at something like the Net Promoter Score and adopting it for its own awards criteria?
So, back to Dickens. “Please sir, may I have some more.” This time the words of Oliver Twist. The evaluation debate will know it is winning when the same words are uttered by a sector that at this stage is too cynical about its effect to care.
Michael Hayman is founder of the public relations consultancy Seven Hills.