This week on Prime Time PR chat we had Jo Detavernier, Principal at Detavernier Strategic Communication, who was kind enough to take time out of his busy client schedule to tweet with us on the very important topic of ROI in public relations.

According to Paul Homes, PR has a FOFO (fear of finding out) problem as 96% of PR teams were “unwilling or unable” to prove return on investment.

We set out to understand why this may be the case and what our profession is going to do about it. Homles asks: Marketing and public relations continue to focus on reach and awareness. Is that because they’re afraid of finding out whether they really make a difference?

Jo states: Despite all of these evident truths, in 2019, PR practitioners still have a hard time dealing with the reality that in order for them to see their contribution to organizational success taken seriously by the C-suite, they need to be able to convince leadership that their programs or campaigns yield financial returns that exceed in a sufficient manner the money that was invested in them.

“PR practitioners tend to prefer to not talk about ROI. Their credibility and success would be served well by embracing ROI as a means to prove their value and not considering it a threat to their existence.”

~ Jo Detavernier

In our mini focus group, it turned out that not everyone in PR feels comfortable diving into finances (insert all of the crying gifs.) We talk a lot about measurement and metrics which does not necessarily prove or provide any insight into ROI. Yes, we have to measure and yes we have to set realistic metrics for ourselves and our clients, but there are few good examples of organizations or agencies that show ROI for public relations.

We know it’s there, but we are untrained in the means to communicate this to the C-suite. I took Statistics as my math because it was the only math that I felt that I was good at and it was the most likely to apply to my career. Accounting killed me every time (my only F – twice!) but I kept trying (it was required for my MBA) because I understood that I needed to be a math geek to be better at PR.

It seems that most of us who have additional education that focused on accounting or the much-dreaded math subjects feel more comfortable wading into the financial weeds.

Some are critical of the public relations industry’s vanity metrics that pretend ROI is not required, with sentiments like the following:

I believe that as a group, we have the capacity and will to overcome any business challenge presented to us and to begin to assume ROI is expected and to build plans that incorporate a clear path to profits when pitching PR. I have had to do this many times as a consultant because asking a small business owner to spend their hard-earned money on just awareness with zero an impact on sales or revenue, does not work

I have also been lucky to work for larger organizations that forced me to defend my budget and allowed me to learn from a gifted CFO. Coupled with my MBA program, I have a strong grasp of finance, for a PR lady.

These days, large corporations can easily approve six-digit budgets for PR without a lot of digging around for ROI. The simple truth is that media clippings and other awareness activities have sufficed as PR’s contribution to the bottom line for a very long time.

[Read Jo’s hilarious IBM fantasy that makes a great, sadly totally fictional point.]

However, PR and marketing budgets are almost always the first to be slashed at the first sign of bad financial news, with entire teams being cut at once to money. Just ask the 400 awesome marketers over at UberThere is plenty of evidence that tells us that behind closed doors, we are seen as an expense center, not a revenue center.

It is not all our fault. Not all companies are set to up assist in connecting PR to revenues, but I think that will be the future of our profession. PR may have to take responsibility by showing up in the CFOs office and diving into the companies financials.

We are a small group, so in no way do we represent all of PR, but I found it telling that during this chat, no one could provide for me with a definitive source that makes clear HOW we tie PR to ROI. I can find numerous sources on measurement and metrics (good) but none tied to revenue, except the few that associate PR as part of sales top-of-funnel awareness. I need proof, not suggestions!

Then I started to sound like a broken record:

  • Proving ROI can be hard and it takes resources that lots of companies don’t want to pay for and lots of PR people cannot do on their own.
  • It’s hard to have the difficult conversations but it’s important that we do the work.

We have to start calling it ROI and speaking of it differently than measurement & metrics. Those are two different things and if we change the subject back to measurement then we miss the opportunity to prove ROI. We have to look at all of PR, not just content and digital communications, as revenue-producing.

I proved my work on employee morale once. OK. I went back & found averages on turn-over & related costs & then showed that we had longer than average employment which saves hard dollars & proved that – aha- they must be happy b/c they stayed 🙂

“There is in my opinion also a cultural issue, a mentality problem so to speak. Some PR people seem to think they have a job that is raised above the mundane business of contributing to / protecting company profits.”

~ Jo Detavernier

To be clear, Jo was calling us out for thinking that is so sparkly+special that it doesn’t have to prove itself. And that it is so vital to an organization that they should fork over all the money regardless of connection to profits. I tend to agree & that has to change!

I think now there are many things that we can get to hard numbers on & that’s why so many agencies are adding digital services, but again a lot of XYZ does not necessarily mean we made money. There is a legitimate money fear in PR.

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