The Wall Street Journal ‘Numbers Guy’ Carl Bialik publishes some fantastic breakdowns and critical analysis of numbers and data that impact our lives. Last week, perhaps long overdue, he set his sights on the dollar value of publicity – highlighting the Vancouver couple whose kiss was seen round the world during the NHL Stanley Cup riot. More specifically, he focused on a favorable little PR measurement tool long used in our industry called ‘ad equivalency value.’ The way this works is that if a client appears in a Wall Street Journal article, a PR firm might equate the value of that publicity to the cost of placing an ad in the WSJ. Advertising in premier outlets can costs tens of thousands of dollars, so the ad equivalency value (AEV) certainly makes the PR firm look as if they are earning their keep and operating at a relative bargain to advertising given the assumption that a mention in a news story comes off as more credible to the reader/viewer/listener than a paid ad.
The Australian publicist who now represents the kissing couple and is cited in the article as a proponent of AEV says he assigns a 5x ROI to clients for news coverage, and estimated the smooch was worth 10 million Australian dollars in publicity. My opinion on AEV is much more in tune with David Rockland, global director of the research and measurement group for Ketchum, who hits the nail on the head in the article by saying that not all mentions are created equal as some only make a glancing mention of the client or spokesperson. I’ll take it a step further: If I’ve learned anything from being married to an advertising executive is that when it comes to branding, repetition is key. You can’t run a radio ad twice a month and expect brand traction. You need to pound the brand message home for months before it starts to stick with target audiences. Same goes for ‘publicity.’ A single WSJ mention, followed by weeks of inactivity, still has value but far less than if the publicity campaign was sustained.
Alarming for PR firms relying heavily on AEV is research finding an article mention is not dramatically more effective than an ad. The article cites such research, which like any research should be taken at face value but certainly not ignored. Ronn Torossian, Founder, President and CEO of New York-based 5W Public Relations, followed the WSJ article with his own piece reinforcing his support for AEV and the ‘bargain’ proposition of PR relative to advertising. He went on to reference his firm’s proprietary measurement system and acknowledgement that the PR industry as a whole still lacks universally accepted and viable PR measurement standards – a point I agree with 100 percent.
As long as I’ve been practicing PR clients, colleagues and fellow PR firms have asked me how I handle PR measurement. It is my belief that firms that create their own proprietary measurement systems do so out of fear. Fear that the absence of such a mechanism will result in the client tying PR results to the impact on a client’s revenue, growth and business success. PR firms are petrified of tying measurement in this way, believing that there are too many variables out of the PR firm’s control that would factor into a client’s business performance. A PR firm might secure great coverage, but what if the sales team is ill-prepared to convert the publicity into sales? A viable point? Sure, but I’m not sure how a PR firm can justify its existence if it produces puffed up AEV reports if the client’s sales are declining 20 percent. At the very least all the reports are proving is that the client’s dollars would be better spent elsewhere.
In many of my blog posts I like to include tips and strategies for the PR professional or clients. But for this topic it would be disingenuous. I believe PR measurement is an area that the industry needs to focus far more attention and resources on, but I will not pretend like others do to have some magic formula that proves the value of publicity.