Why PR agencies should never mark their own homework

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PR agencies have too much control over their clients, and surprisingly enough, it’s not all to their clients’ benefit.

It starts out justifiably, with professional communicators crafting the most compelling, clear and consistent messaging to express clients’ points of view on the issues that matter to their stakeholders in a clearly differentiated way. Journalists may dismiss this as spin and manipulation, but there are more winners than losers in a world of more effective communication.

Having contracted out message and news development, many companies also instruct PR agencies to be their representatives in media and stakeholder relations. When a company speaks – particularly on corporate and financial issues – the person doing the speaking is very often a consultant not an employee. Experienced, senior and well-briefed consultants often do a good job in this role, although this practice is known to ratchet up the frustration among journalists who want a direct line into company thinking.

This trend certainly appears to have increased in recent years, and many companies – and their external PROs – make it very difficult for outsiders to speak to anyone who actually works for the company. This is particularly true of the bigger, listed corporations.

Photo Credit: Domingo informatics

Photo Credit: Domingo informatics

Where I believe PR agencies overstep the mark is when they started measuring and evaluating the impact of the work they do for their clients, when they start to mark their own homework. First they create the messaging, then they communicate it, and finally they assess how well it has landed. For me, there are a pretty un-magnificent seven reasons why this growing stranglehold is not in PR agency clients’ best interests; why media analysis conducted by PR agencies is a false economy.

  1. Media analysis conducted by any organisation of its own work lacks independence and objectivity,
  2. PR agencies often put their most junior (and cheapest) staff, armed with the most basic tools – and often no rigorous methodology – on the media analysis beat. Too often, it’s a menial task farmed out to interns.
  3. PR agencies usually only measure outputs (traditional or social media coverage), not outtakes (how attitudes and beliefs have changed), let alone business outcomes. They’re not looking for business impact, insights or learnings of how the client’s communications outreach – or indeed the agency’s own performance – could improve.
  4. It’s fair to say that there are still a significant number of clients who are not at the cutting edge of communications measurement. Some cling on to outmoded methodologies including the dreaded AVE, so-called Advertising Value Equivalency. By continuing to ask for AVEs, those clients help to perpetuate something that many – progressive agencies, clients and the more sophisticated measurement shops –left behind in Barcelona in 2010.
  5. Sampling is often inadequate. Is there any objective value in analysing a small fraction of total media coverage – just in financial or brand pages, say – and not the full range of content that shapes a client’s reputation? Sampling client coverage in a vacuum – and not client coverage in the context of competitor coverage – gives an incomplete picture. Sampling can be further impaired by selection bias, with those marking their own homework only finding what they’re looking for.
  6. Unlike specialist PR measurement agencies, PR companies very rarely have normative, benchmarking data against which to compare client performance, and as such little sense or understanding of what good performance looks like.
  7. Clients – encouraged by PR agencies – often spend too little on Independent PR measurement agencies. Agencies can encourage them to do so for two reasons: (i) so that they don’t lose too much fee, and (ii) so that the budgets set aside for evaluation – which don’t need to be more than 10% of total spend – won’t stretch to cover meaningful analysis. As a result, many clients use their agencies by default.
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Experience in other practices in our company confirms that it is not appropriate for agencies to audit their own performance. Advertisers choose to work with our Media benchmarking teams to measure the efficiency and competitive performance of their media activity for reasons of impartiality, objectivity, independence, and credibility.

To understand the impact that a company or brand is making through its earned media profile, you really do need objectivity and impartiality. Media analysis is about giving the CEO meaningful intelligence and data-driven insights that he/she can act on, and this should not be undertaken by the very agency charged with generating this critical content.