Opinion: What is PR for and how do we know if it works?

Opinion: What is PR for and how do we know if it works?

Xanthe Vaughan Williams, director and co-founder at Fourth Day PR, discusses the findings of the agency’s second Purpose of PR Report.


People often ask what PR entails – particularly those who don’t work in the communications sector. The truth is that even those within the sector sometimes struggle to pinpoint the exact phrase that describes their industry perfectly, partly because PR is constantly changing to keep pace with shifts in the media.

In an attempt to offer some answers, we carried out a survey with people working in branding, marketing and PR from various areas of the communications sector. We’ve published our findings in our second Purpose of PR report, which investigates the perception of public relations from the viewpoint of those working in the broader marketing and communications sector.

Blurry at the edges

Some of our findings caught us by surprise. Particularly striking was the response we received to our question about the aspects of PR most important to businesses.

74% of respondents selected content creation, with media relations chosen by only 67%. Close but not quite as popular, social media engagement was chosen by 65% and SEO by just 56%.

What is clear is that there is no longer a well-defined boundary separating PR from other areas of marketing. For example, PR now encompasses services that would once have been associated as the work of “digital” specialists, such as drafting marketing communications, improving SEO or writing content for websites.

This is largely positive however; if the primary goal of PR is to communicate stories to an audience, then the more channels that are available to do this the better.

Likes & shares

One result of PR’s expansion into new disciplines is that new forms of measurement have become available. Social media comes ready-made with bucket loads of statistics about likes, shares and engagement.

Domain authority rankings allow us to put a new number on the value of an online media outlet, while web analytics tools mean that we can identify who has clicked on a link from an article to a landing page. Not to mention PR’s significant role in SEO today.

But none of this really tells us whether a PR campaign has done its job. When asked what value PR can bring to a company, ‘brand reputation’ was chosen by 81% of respondents in our survey. This is harder to measure in tidy statistics. Measuring reputation isn’t easy and it can be expensive; perception surveys, for example, take time and money.

But if you’re trying to find out whether consumers feel well-enough disposed to your brand to choose you over your closest competitor, knowing that 14,000 of them liked your funny video isn’t necessarily going to answer the question. And even driving people to your website doesn’t necessarily help your business if they aren’t interested in your products or services.

Our research has shown that the PR toolbox has expanded but, in essence, the purpose of PR remains the same. Regardless of the advancements in the industry, PR will always be about building a reputation by communicating with different audiences, whether that’s to build trust, attract talent, or just sell more stuff.

PR offers enormous value and deserves the investment required to quantify its effect. Relying on click-counting just isn’t good enough.

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