The value of pr

In Chapter 5 of #FuturePRoof, Andrew Bruce Smith proposes that the value of PR can and must be calculated in terms of its contribution to meaningful economic and societal impact.

Make sure you don’t miss Chapter 6, which will be released tomorrow via @WeArePRoofed.

 THE VALUE OF PR Andrew Smith

You’ll learn:

·         Whether you can attribute a financial value to the results of a public relations campaign

·         Why we need to define the core human skills required for public relations to avoid automation taking over

·         How relationship building and social empathy is fundamental to a viable communication strategy

What is the value of PR? How do we measure and show its value? These  uestions have always surrounded the practice. However, the traditional answers don’t really cut it in the 21st century. As the nature of PR itself changes, the ways in which its value is demonstrated must change too.

When people talk about the value of PR, they invariably mean its economic value (cultural, ethical and aesthetic value don’t normally enter the picture).

This typically translates into a discussion about justifying return on investment (ROI) which is itself a financial metric. In simple terms, how do I know that for every £1 spent on PR, I get more than £1 of value back in return. And the higher the rate of return, the better.

This thinking pervades both commercial and non-commercial organisations. How can anyone prove that time, personnel, money and effort have been allocated with maximum efficiency?

How do you know that client, stakeholder or taxpayer money spent on PR has been deployed to best effect?

Justifying value

PR has traditionally attempted to justify value in terms of output metrics. Press releases written. Coverage generated. Possible reach.

In the past, there was implicit agreement between the provider and procurer of PR services (both agency and in-house) that the ability to isolate the causal impact of PR activity (and its subsequent economic value to the organisation) was either too costly to work out or just not possible to determine. Advertising value equivalence (AVE) fulfilled the demand for a way to show the value of PR in economic terms (ignoring the inherently flawed way in which is calculated). This was accepted as an act of faith about the apparent value of PR rather than a robust formula based on sound principles.

Yet in spite of the near universal loathing of advertising value equivalence (AVE), it remains the most widely used criteria for determining the apparent economic value of PR.

Although hardly anyone will publicly defend AVE, in private, most people cite the lack of a viable alternative model. Or at least one that senior management or stakeholders will accept as a replacement.

So is it possible to isolate the economic value of PR?

Attribution analysis

The short answer is: yes.

Or at least, the traditional objections of cost and execution are largely disappearing. In a world where communication and relationships are largely mediated through digital technology, it has become easier to track, trace and understand the contribution made by various channels to the delivery of observable outcomes in the real world. 

The most ubiquitous example is Google Analytics, a near universally deployed tool that has the capacity to attribute the value of a particular communication channel. Although in its infancy, it is this kind of approach that will increasingly be used to show economic impact.

But even if the economic value of PR can be shown, perhaps a more important question to ask is, what valuable roles for human beings will remain in the world of PR in coming years?

Harvard professor William H. Bossert once stated: “If you are afraid you might be replaced by a computer, then you probably can be. And should be.”

The stark reality is that even though economic value created by PR may well rise in the coming years, at best, the number of people required to deliver this value will remain static. Based on the trends of the last decade, the likelihood is that there will be fewer jobs to go round.

Rather than get depressed about this, it might be better to focus on what those valued roles might look like and the skills required to gain and retain those jobs.

Rise of the robots

PR optimists like to believe that computers won’t be able to think or write creatively, or be able to formulate viable PR strategies.

The argument here is that there are certain intrinsically core elements of PR practice that won’t get automated any time soon. The reality is that the future is already here, just unevenly distributed.

Martin Ford’s book The Rise Of The Robots presents a convincing (and disturbing) argument for the fact that skilled white collar jobs such as accounting, law, journalism (and yes, PR) are next in line to see technology remove vast numbers of existing jobs in the next five to ten years.

Even if we clearly define exactly what PR is (and isn’t), and assuming that practitioners make use of attribution analysis and other techniques to demonstrate economic value and impact, consideration should be given to what PR professionals may actually be required to do in the future. 

If computers can happily produce viable communication strategies, write engaging content and report back on their increasingly unsupervised activities, where does that leave us?

According to Geoff Colvin, author of Humans Are Underrated, empathy and social interaction are set to become the most highly prized human capabilities in a world dominated by technology and automation (he also believes women rather than men are better placed to benefit from this transformation).

In his words: “The most valuable people are increasingly relationship workers.”

In conclusion, many of the tools to demonstrate the economic value of PR work are already widely and inexpensively available. With PR practice encompassing everything from marketing communications, investor relations and reputation management, technology will increasingly replace both the predictable and routine elements of PR work as well as apparent “untouchables” such as creativity.

Ultimately, the value of PR will be derived from clearly defining exactly what the practice constitutes and then determining the appropriate mix of technology and human involvement to deliver demonstrable economic outcomes.


Andrew Smith is the co-author of Share This, the best selling Social Media Handbook for PR Professionals. Published by Wiley. Praised by Lord Sugar.

Twitter: @andismit