The latest IPA Bellwether Report shows that, while business confidence remains low, organisations are starting to look longer term by moving marketing investment away from sales promotions and towards brand building activities.
While this is positive for PR, the report also shows that media advertising, events and direct marketing are all more common recipients of this additional investment and I believe that the reason for this is simple - business leaders do not feel certain that investing in PR will deliver ROI.
In these challenging times, with some 15.8% of marketing budgets having been downgraded in the last quarter, the need to create - and demonstrate - value just became more significant. Right now, every marketing penny counts.
PR can and must deliver outcomes
Last year, I was asked to deliver a webinar on how to design award-winning campaigns, as my agency, Evergreen PR, had just taken home its 30th award in three years of trading.
To provide a foundation for the webinar, I conducted analysis of nationally shortlisted award entries and found that, even among these cream-of-the-crop campaigns, only 32% were able to demonstrate that a tangible outcome had been achieved through their work. Contrastingly, 96% of the entries were able to articulate the activities undertaken and describe the outputs achieved. Interestingly (and rightly!), all of the award winners fell into the category that did achieve an outcome.
The evidence that the majority of PR campaigns aren’t outcomes-focused was already there of course. A recent PRCA Census found that ‘impressions’ is our industry’s most popular metric and AMEC - the International Association for Measurement and Evaluation of Communication - has described PR’s problem as “just doing stuff” without taking the time to step back and think about its purpose and how it will contribute to organisational priorities.
Frankly, too much PR activity is operating at a tactical level, with media coverage, backlinks and social media engagement seen as end goals and, therefore, the driver behind ideation, planning and measurement. The result though, is that while these activities might perform against vanity metric KPIs by reaching millions of people or engaging thousands, they often do little to activate priority audiences and therefore often contribute little to organisational objectives. In tough times, this makes them difficult to invest in.
I have long felt that an output-focused approach diminishes PR’s importance and potential as, at its strategic, creative and integrated best, our work really can move mountains.
We must prioritise the right things
No one can question how hard the PR industry works. Yet, too often, practitioners are not seeing the rewards their effort deserves.
If PR is to gain the recognition - and the investment - it should, then it needs to get much better at two things: creating outcomes-oriented campaigns that really do achieve tangible business impact and implementing evaluation frameworks that provide evidence of value and support constant improvement.
This is a challenge that I’ve been working on at Evergreen PR for the last 18 months, leading to the development of a new framework (MERTO) for helping health organisations to identify the ‘Most Effective Route To Outcomes’ by using prioritisation and behaviour science.
We’ve used it to deliver campaigns that have triggered NHS Integrated Care Boards to purchase a new clinical software, to drive a 645% increase in the number of GP practices signing up to get ‘veteran friendly’ accredited and to engage 3,500 people with tinnitus to get behind a proposed Tinnitus Biobank in just one week. However, I firmly believe that the key elements of MERTO can be used by anyone.
Truly understand and prioritise the outcome
If we are to make a meaningful difference to the organisations we support we must understand the wider strategic intent of any objective - that way we can ensure that activity is laser focused on that goal.
Too often, PR professionals are given goals at a tactical output level without strategic involvement. This can result in practitioners chasing the wrong target, for example by securing meaningless lightweight press coverage to hit volume KPIs or posting topical social media content that appears to boost engagement but that is not relevant to the target audience in any way.
Interrogating the objectives by using the 5 Whys technique can help us uncover the true intent, which might, for example, be to generate leads, increase conversions or drive a change in the external environment. Understanding this allows us to approach our work in a much more strategic way and prevents us getting distracted by red herring metrics that don’t matter.
Once we understand the business goal, we can then set targets at impact, outcome, outtake and output level, as recommended by the AMEC framework, but the business outcome must remain the ‘north star’ focus and we must avoid distraction.
- Recognise your audiences as humans that exist within a wider context
In order for any outcome to be achieved, we need to persuade specific (often multiple) audience groups to take specific actions.
The first step is to identify all of the individuals with some involvement in the behaviour you want to see. This can be more complicated than it at first appears. For example, if you have a technology that would enable nurses to do their job more effectively, you might need to engage nurses but also regional NHS transformation leads, various committees and even Trust CEOs.
Once you know who is involved you can prioritise your audiences using Power Interest mapping and then use behaviour science tools such as the COM-B behaviour change wheel to map capability, opportunity and motivation barriers for each of your priority audiences.
This is about truly getting to know who you are targeting. If you understand them as people and have a clear picture of the external environment that they operate in, it will enable you to prioritise the messages, activities and user journeys that will have the biggest impact on the outcome.
3. Prioritise at every step to crystalise focus
The bigger and more complex the campaign, the easier it is to get distracted and to find yourself focusing on the wrong things.
Our MERTO method encourages prioritisation at every step, so that we never lose focus on what’s important.
By crystallising focus on your priority audience and identifying their priority barriers and drivers, you can develop the priority messages that will win attention, create enthusiasm and build authority, as well as the priority activities that will move them down the funnel towards action.
This might sound like a lot of priorities but doing this work then allows you to then take a step back and get crystal clarity on your ‘priority levers’ - the key overarching elements of the campaign that will be the difference between success and failure when it comes to achieving the business outcome that you targeted at the beginning.
Following the MERTO process enhances your understanding of an organisation’s business objectives and enables you to develop insight-driven campaigns that are fully audience-focused, with clear priorities defined by what will lead you to the target outcome. By moving your focus away from red herring metrics and towards identifying the most effective route, the method both increases your chances of success and enhances your ability to demonstrate your impact.
From an industry perspective, the more we can deliver on those fronts - generating value and evidencing it - the more likely we are to attract the level of investment we deserve.
Leigh Greenwood Chart.PR is the founder and managing director of Evergreen PR, a specialist health communications consultancy that is focused on transforming health by delivering business outcomes for health charities, health tech and med tech companies and NHS and private healthcare organisations.