The New PR Agency Benchmarks for Demonstrating Value to Clients

The swift evolution of the media market, social media channels and how people consume news, information and entertainment has created new visibility opportunities for brands, and subsequently, placed new demands and challenges on PR agencies. In response, agencies are finding new ways to create, deliver and benchmark the value they provide to the clients they represent and help them navigate the sea changes in digital media. In this paper, we’ll explore how the traditional PR benchmarks used to measure the success of agency engagements are evolving in lockstep with the changing PR agency value proposition.

The new PR agency value proposition

The role of PR agencies and the work they’re doing for their clients today has grown in scope and business impact.

“The work is more sophisticated,” notes Lou Hoffman, of the Hoffman Agency in Silicon Valley. “Not so long ago, much of PR was media relations and product announcements. The game changer has been the web. “

“We have to evolve as the media have evolved,” agrees Amanda Foley, co-founder and co-owner of Duo PR, based in Seattle. “Agencies have to explain this new media landscape. You have to pursue the available channels and not discount any simply because they don’t represent ‘the way things have always been done.’”

According to Hoffman, today’s multichannel, always-on media environment provides agencies a greater opportunity for problem solving, and thus, the ability to make more significant contributions to a client’s business. In their new roles, PR agencies provide much more than counsel during crises and more manpower for big campaigns.

Savvy agencies invest considerable time and energy in learning about and utilizing new platforms, media formats and channels, developing knowledge of cutting edge tools, and counseling clients on which tools make sense for a particular campaign.

“Agencies remove the trial and error,” noted Rebecca Mosley, Foley’s partner at Duo PR, emphasizing the efficiency clients can gain when using an agency to structure campaign tactics. “Staying ahead of trends and new technologies is one important value agencies can provide.”

Changing media = changing client goals

Brands aren’t always up-to-speed on current trends and opportunities, and as a result, clients may set campaign objectives that follow a familiar path, but which may not deliver the needed business results.

“I still think that most companies will put improving media footprint and getting coverage in newspaper and magazines at the top of the list,” notes Hoffman. However, his agency is using earned media as the foundation for a powerful digital approach. “We’re very committed to putting together campaigns that combine traditional PR with owned media and bring an organic search component to the campaign. We have five clients doing this presently, but only one hired us to do this. Even though we might get hired for media relations, there’s the opportunity for more. Digital is the door opener to a partner role.”

Stepping back from the tactics and evaluating the business more holistically provides a logical place to start aligning goals with campaign strategy and tactics.

“We start with the business objective and then reverse engineer the PR strategy to get to that result,” notes Duo’s Mosley. “We ask what success looks like for the client, how do we move the needle and how do we measure it. In terms of results, measurement standards were clips or impressions. Today, it’s not one size fits all. Some clients want branding, some want traffic, some are managing reputation and some are in the hunt for media.”

A new set of challenges for clients

The more time audiences spend on digital platforms, the more opportunities brands have to make lasting and important connections. However, this burgeoning media environment also places new challenges upon communicators and the brands they represent. Agencies are asked to help their clients in the following areas with increasing frequency:

  • Content Development. “We’re at a point in communications where everyone understands that content is important but that only takes you so far,” Hoffman commented. “The interpretation of what that content should be is where the model falls apart. Companies get the religion, but publish garbage.”

  • Integrate Communication Components. “All of your marketing should be integrated,” noted Edelen. “Everything should be integrated with the same message across channels—clients and prospects will receive the same message and they’ll be more likely to remember it. The speaking points that the PR team wants to see in print should also be in the marketing messaging.”

  • Authentic Storytelling. Today’s consumers are well informed, and information is increasingly transparent. Authenticity, not spin, is proving most effective, but developing those stories isn’t easy.

“Clients need help with messaging and how to tell their stories,” said Duo PR’s Foley. “They’re asking ‘How do we develop stories that will resonate with our audience?’ If you want to do it right, you have to develop the message and the story, and most companies need to do that work.”

The new agency value set

As the scope and impact of public relations have expanded, the agency remit has also correspondingly grown, as has the value they provide to clients.

“We have a more diversified relationship with our clients,” Hoffman said. “And the more diverse the relationship is, the better we perform. It becomes a virtuous circle.”

These diversified relationships enable agencies to provide value that reaches far beyond episodic campaigns, including:

  • Helping clients achieve goals more effectively and comprehensively by better defining business objectives and building strategies designed to deliver real outcomes. Drawing from experience with other clients, agencies can help clients get beyond the clipbook and create new measurement dashboards that track business impact and return on investment.

  • Understanding of how (and when) to utilize new tools, enabling the client to communicate more efficiently. Says Foley, “Providing counsel to clients to help select the right tools and artfully put everything together into a campaign is a core agency competency.”

  • Developing a more holistic view of the brand within the market.

    “Your agency will bring you objectivity and a fresh perspective,” said Foley. “We have our eyes on trends, we know how they’re evolving. We always have the bigger picture in mind. We’re able to spot ideas and opportunities in advance, and bring that thinking to our clients.”

  • Finding and telling the brand story authentically, and turning that story into a lasting narrative.
    “Historically PR has been the champion of telling the client’s story,” Duo’s Mosley noted. “We’re extremely skilled at storytelling, and paired with content development, you end up with a robust library of content assets. Finding the best ways to get those stories out to your audiences is where agencies excel, especially boutiques that have strong niche expertise.”

  • Providing insight into their customer base. “Our chief value is insight,” commented Foley. “We’re a partner that will always give the client new ideas and insights into their customers and what tools they should be using.”

Benchmarking new agency values

Agencies today are delivering on-going, long lasting value to clients. Expressing that value to the clients effectively requires more than a report. Today, an agency must make itself indispensable, providing savvy insights and strategic recommendations, while also helping clients quantify and measure results.

Understanding the impact PR can have on key performance indicators for the business and illustrating those results is a real challenge for brands, and agencies can help.

Measuring PR’s impact on traffic, leads and search

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re representing a B2B or B2C, at some point your buyer is doing online due diligence,” says Hoffman.

“PR can provide air cover for sales. Search is a big part of that and that’s where we need to be. That’s where we can expand our contribution to what we can do for clients.” Agencies can help clients quantify the effect PR programs have had on search, lead generation and web site traffic by measuring the following:

  • Qualified web traffic: Measure referrals from earned media pick up & blog mentions by tabulating traffic from referred pages.

  • Benchmark (and increase) referrers of quality traffic to the client’s web site, achieved through relevant media and blog placements and influencer interaction.

  • Impact on search rank (“implied links”) for key terms and target web pages generated by earned media mentions.

  • Adoption of target terms by industry players, and subsequent impact in search results for those terms

  • Use of target terms or hashtags on social networks, driving increased visibility for brand messages and qualified traffic to key digital assets.

  • Leads generated, as a function of downloads, registrations or form requests.

  • Sales. “Now, as a practice, we’re able to show the direct results of that long tail placement,” said Mosley. “We can get beyond numbers and link sales to digital placements.”

“Once things are online, the ability to have more granularity and measurement becomes attainable,” noted Hoffman. “PR should not be afraid of sales.”

Responsive reputation management

“What we’re doing on the PR side has longevity,” notes Mosley. “We’re the online caretakers of the brand. We have to be reputation managers for our clients, taking care to tell their brand story as it evolves over time.”

  • Adoption and usage of target terms by industry influencers, in print, on blogs and in social media.

  • Correlation of key trends and related outcomes over time(e.g. earned media mentions with increased numbers of higher-scoring leads). “We need to remember content lives on,” notes Mosley. “The book should not be closed after the campaign closes. You have to capture the long tail. Once a campaign is done, it’s not dead.”

  • Capturing the “halo” effect of PR, by continuing to measure mentions and audience engagement after the close of the campaign, and capturing additional value from the digital asset investment is another important way the agency can demonstrate ongoing and lasting value to clients.

  • Continued iteration and refinement of communications plans. “Once you draft a plan, you’re not done,” said Foley. “You have to be malleable. Our clients value our ability to stay on top of trends and build those into plans.”

Conclusion

The value set today’s public relations agencies provide is well beyond the scope traditional PR engagements, and the metrics that define and measure communications today were unimaginable just a few years ago. However, we can’t overlook the value of traditional PR. Timely information, artful influence and earned media credibility are the engines that drive the social conversations and search engine results that shape audience behaviors and drive business results.

Even though we might get hired for media relations, there’s the opportunity for more. Digital is the door opener to a partner role.

— LOU HOFFMAN
    THE HOFFMAN AGENCY

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