Recently a client was quoted in a prominent trade publication for financial advisors, in an article focused squarely on a narrow topic perfectly aligned with the firm’s strategic objectives. The topic is controversial among advisors. On the whole, the journalist approached the topic with a great degree of skepticism, whereas our client had a strongly positive view. Still, it was important for our client to be represented in the story.

How do we reflect all that in our quarterly reporting to our client?  

That’s an important question for two main reasons:

  • Both we and our client need to evaluate progress relative to strategic objectives for the PR/communications program.
  • Our client needs to share reporting with their key stakeholders, such as private-equity partners.

Neither of these needs is about proving the value of media outcomes. Most of the time, our clients understand the value of PR because their own customers tell them. They hear from existing customers: “Hey, I saw you were featured,” or a prospect may say: “I’m calling because I liked what you had to say.”

Still, everyone understands intuitively that as welcome as such comments are, actually hearing them is the exception, not the rule. Mostly, brand awareness grows without easily quantifiable ties to media attention.

Strategically, that makes perfect sense. PR fulfils a different purpose than advertising. Ads in most cases are about driving traffic…which happens to be more easily quantified by tracking click-throughs and conversions. PR drives traffic, too, but that’s not the whole story.

Invalid & distracting AVEs

Some aspects of a cross-channel integrated PR program can be quantitatively measured. But the impact of media mentions isn’t among those. Clients understand that intuitively. Most are aware of, but uninterested in, canned Advertising Value Equivalent (AVE) metrics.

We do not offer an AVE to demonstrate the economic value of our work…no matter how impressive it might be. In the case of the trade-publication article noted above, our media database and monitoring tool assigned a value of $217,000, which is greater than our client’s entire advertising budget. Nor does it relate in any meaningful way to its PR budget. And AVEs are all over the map. The tool assigned an AVE of about $20 for the online version of this same story. Just as AVEs can overestimate the value of a story, that low figure demonstrates it’s just as possible that AVEs can underestimate the value of being mentioned and quoted in a story.

Imagine for a moment that we had structured our media outreach efforts with an objective to maximize AVE. In that case, we’d care far more about mentions in a national business publication rather than an advisor trade publication—even though the latter is aimed squarely at our client’s target audience. We’d also care far more about quantity than quality. The only conceivable benefit of this approach is reporting itself. Reporting is easy when it’s focused on vanity metrics. The numbers can look impressive. In the case of AVE, the numbers even have dollar signs attached to them.

But glib reporting offers no strategic value. Worse, it can even distract decision makers from what matters to the business.

Un-canning canned metrics

Now that doesn’t mean canned metrics have no value. Let’s consider a few of the prominent ones relating to media mentions.

Share of Voice. This is another concept borrowed from the advertising world. It originally referred to a brand’s share of an advertising space relative to competitors. When applied to media mentions, it suffers many of the same problems as AVE. For example, Share of Voice tools pay no attention to quality. In our work—targeted to one or more financial audiences—there’s little to no value in calculating Share of Voice across the entire internet. No one should care about mentions in news-release pickups by obscure sites visited only by bots.

Still, Share of Voice does have intuitive value in a way AVE does not. At the outset of a PR program, we can define a specific set of publications to consider. Then, we can track and compare both client and competitor mentions in those publications over time. An objective could be raising the ratio of client to competitor mentions within the targeted subset of publications.

Reach. Reach is another word for audience size. Our tool measures Reach in terms of an outlet’s total print circulation or, for online publications, unique visitors per month. Obviously, it’s not logical to assume that (1) every subscriber or viewer sees a specific article, and (2) every subscriber or viewer is part of a client’s target audience.

Sentiment. A third canned metric that bears mentioning is Sentiment—is the coverage in question positive, negative or neutral? The Sentiment our tool assigned to our example article was Neutral. Is that the right rating? Probably the journalist thought the tone was neutral. From our perspective, the overall tone was negative toward the topic. Yet it was still relatively positive about our client specifically. One could reasonably argue for Positive, Neutral or Negative in this instance. To date, we haven’t seen much value in tracking Sentiment.

Focus on highlights

In our reporting, we list media mentions in two separate tables: Highlights and Other. This simple mechanism helps draw attention to more meaningful coverage. We often include qualitative comments with the line items in the Highlights table. These comments may connect the media outcome to a specific effort (“met with journalist on NY trip; second follow-up story”). Or they may contextualize a line item (“widely syndicated”).

As for what makes a highlight, that depends on the PR/communications program’s objectives. We set those goals at the outset and then measure progress against them. One of the most basic goals is increasing what we often refer to as “marquee coverage.” What’s marquee coverage for one client might not be for another. Depending on the target audience, marquee coverage can vary from the New York Times to a regional newsletter for accounting professionals.

By centering our reporting on Highlights instead of canned metrics, both we and our clients stay focused on the outcomes aligned with goals. Then, if we do layer on additional analysis such as Share of Voice, we might offer some additional nuance about the objectives without overstating the outcome.