It’s the never ending argument: can you really measure the impact of PR? According to founder of raraPR, Jade Roberts, any measurements of PR don’t tell the whole picture, and therefore aren’t meaningful. We sat down with Jade to learn more about how she demonstrates her worth as a PR partner to her clients, without stats.

Tell us a little about yourself and the kind of clients you are working with right now.

I’ve worked in PR for more than two decades. 27 years actually! I sound like I’m eleventysevenhudred years old, I’m not. My passion for PR started very young when I was still in high-school. So I’ve seen a lot of changes in the industry, worked in a lot of agencies and on a lot of brands and learnt that PR is fast evolving, forever changing.

My background is consumer and retail PR – anything product or design driven. I’ve worked on brands including Sportsgirl, RedBull, Coach, H&M, Comme des Garcons, Decjuba, retail shopping centre assets in-house and agency side. I started raraPR 10 years ago, as my true passion is body inclusivity in fashion media, democratising PR and diversifying stories.

You regularly share education and insights on your social media channels about the fact that the value of PR can’t be measured. Why can’t PR be measured?

Ok, so there are definitely ways to report back on value and PR investment. But it’s important to remember that the whole point of measuring something is about exactness. If it’s not exact then it’s not really a measurement that means anything, is it?!

And you can’t measure PR in its entirety. You can only measure elements; so to me that’s just fluff and bubble to appease the powers that be. It doesn’t really mean much.

PR is not a sales function. PR is a communications function. Clever PR strategy contributes to sales, sure, but there are many factors outside of PR control that will impact or minimise consumer take-up (the product itself, the customer experience, availability, UX, competition, environment, past or lack of past PR investment etc.).

PR is never an apples for apples equation like many business owners want it to be. It is also not a buy now, see now investment. PR is a forever function happening with or without you. PR is the sum of all impressions in someone’s heart and mind, a perception, a feeling – about a product, place or thing.

You can’t accurately measure a feeling in someone’s heart and mind over a lifetime. You can’t measure perception.

You also can’t accurately measure the performance and impact of a campaign in-market or thereafter. Yes, you can track clicks through to web, or track unique impressions, monitor engagement on social media content or look for spikes during a campaign period or across sale trends over time; but none of it is truly accurate in the sense that there are a deluge of shoppers who have a long purchase cycle. So someone might see a piece of content, be influenced by it, tell many friends about it over an immeasurable amount of time, and one of those friends might follow through with a purchase years later.

With regard to the conversation around PR measurement, it’s also important to differentiate the meaning of PR and publicity and not confuse them.

PR in an inclusive term which includes many and varied communications-led tactics – one of which is publicity, but not always. For example executing on an incredible event is a PR tactic, or finessing internal communications for a business is a PR tactic or facilitating a well-placed, ambassador relationship is a PR tactic.

So if we were talking strictly about media coverage and measuring the results of a publicity campaign then yes; there are great analytics tools to help PR practitioners and marketing managers build data that create some guide-posts on value reporting, but they don’t truly measure collective sentiment.

You can look at a comparable up-tick in media coverage before and after a campaign, or upwards trending website visits etc. and again spikes in sales or calls-to-action but it won’t be measuring the true impact of that publicity piece and the value of it over a brand’s lifetime or even just a few seasons.

I guess I’m so passionate about this, because PR efforts are evergreen and it’s heartbreaking to see PR practitioners held accountable for sales to justify PR spend when it is never dollar for dollar. And it’s equally hard to see marketers and business owners who might not fully understand the machinations of how PR works ­– and the depth of its true value to a business – impose a type of reporting that is not the whole picture, nor can it ever be.

What I’d like to see more of, is business owners trusting the force of PR as a necessary investment to building community, conversation and brand infinitely. There is enough anecdotal evidence that PR works, or it wouldn’t exist to be the most important investment of the marketing mix.

The best approach is to invest in PR in a way that is sustainable, determined by a businesses’ financial capacity. PR should never be invested in with the expectation that that investment will return an exact amount or more in sales. It’s a communications function not a sales function.

There should be a set amount dedicated to PR and marketing each quarter or financial year as part of a business’ running cost.

So taking a step back to look at what is realistic for that quarter or that financial year and trusting that the power of PR over time is what turns businesses into enduring brands.,

It’s really up to the business owner to set the PR budget each year and for the PR resource to provide a strategy on the best way to spend it to maximize impact.

As an agency owner, how do your clients respond when you tell them PR can’t be measured? How do you educate them?

I think reframing what you measure is important. Case studies are a great way to show potential clients a before and after by way of value and impact. I always focus on the tactics and activations themselves ­– the fee for service – and really demonstrate how various and relevant projects come to life to help advance a brand. Focusing on what and how you will deliver on something and talking to the approach is a far better way to reassure a client than to report back on measurements that are meaningless.

It’s a good idea to report on the communications assets achieved, the key messaging, the placement and whether it was well positioned all against agreed action items.

PR pros are often asked to report on things with short lead times that are unrealistic, not within PR control and that are determined by people who don’t truly understand the value of PR and how best to measure its effectiveness and efficiency.

How do you justify the costs of PR to clients, if they can’t quantify the rewards, particularly as other segments of the business (e.g. digital marketing) are able to track their impact almost to the dollar?

Hmm, well I wholeheartedly disagree that digital marketing can be measured to the dollar. It depends what you’re measuring…yes you can track sales against a content paid spend digital item or an organic content item. But again it doesn’t measure sentiment. It doesn’t measure impact past the campaign period. It doesn’t measure true influence. It doesn’t measure the conversations happening that aren’t online. It’s not the whole picture.

For example with regard to social media; we know that influencers and influencer syndicates (their professional content creator friends) triple down on likes and pay for engagement on posts they’ve placed as part of a brand partnership. So brand partnership posts often have over-inflated stats on them outwardly. Yes you can track the performance of a post to the sales it generates for a campaign period and you should, but again this isn’t a true measurement of the effectiveness of PR.

Most businesses don’t have the capacity to invest in the type of measurement that might more accurately report on sentiment as a result of PR (i.e. market research and focus groups) against all the other measurement components previously mentioned. Aside from the fact these type of environments are clinical and not a true representation of native, consumer behaviour; again they’re only part of the picture and not the whole picture. So what is measurement if it’s not complete or exact?!

Business owners would be far better off turning their attention and investment to creating compelling content consistently, always and forever.

There are many things in life that bring value that can’t be measured. PR is like a best friend cheering you on when you’re not in the room. PR adds value to a brand in an infinite way and the businesses that are comfortable with that usually have the best brand real estate.

Is there anything you do report on to your clients? Anything that you try and educate them as being more valuable than traditional reporting?

Of course. We report on agreed deliverables, the tactics, the timeliness, the investment, the service, the time we save them from doing it themselves, the access to media and talent they wouldn’t otherwise get access to – there are many ways to report back on value. The brands, the talent, the businesses you’re affiliated with help to position you in a way where you aren’t expected to report back on antiquated or sales-driven metrics. It’s really important to trust your PR practitioner as an extension of your team. If there’s no trust or your value is being questioned from the start then it’s probably a project best avoided. Remember the land of ad-value equivalents?! They should well and truly be buried in the past.

How do you think PR practitioners need to position themselves in the C-Suite if the impact of their activity isn’t able to be measured?

People remember stories before they remember product or data no mater how impressive it is. Stories build connection, centered on emotion and it simply can’t be measured. PR puts a beating heart into a brand. PR wrangles the communications in and around a business and creates chatter that matters; I think if people need to be convinced about the power of PR or its value to the C-Suite then they’re probably not ready to invest in it. And to them I would say, all the very best with your stats!

How can PR practitioners demonstrate their worth to clients, managers and brands?

They can demonstrate their fee for service contribution. They can demonstrate their approach with past clients without giving away strategic ideas for free. They can demonstrate their ability to produce quality campaigns, in a timely manner to a set budget that ignite new opportunities, unlock access and amplify conversations for a business that weren’t there before.