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PR doesn’t care about business outcomes: what PR Week’s internal search function tells you about the industry

PR Week’s web site has a very useful search box that tells you which articles contain certain keyword phrases. It also helpfully breaks out what kind of article the phrase was contained in and the year.  As a result, it provides a useful measure as to how the interests of the PR sector are reflected in the actual words used by PR Week journalists. And perhaps indicates why PR still isn’t taken as seriously as it might be.
For example, the word “pitch” has appeared in nearly 8000 articles since 1995. Unsurprisingly, the number of articles about pitching or pitches rises in line with a recessionary year eg 2001 and 2008.
Phrases such as raising, boosting or building awareness appear in over 5000 articles. The number of articles on this subject peaked in 2004, dropped for a few years and rose again through 2008 and 2009. A total of 83 articles this year have referred to this subject.
The phrase “media relations” appears in nearly 5600 articles. However, having reached a peak in 2004, the term seems to have lost currency in recent times.
The term “Online PR” has 180 articles, with “Digital PR” following closely behind with 168. Interestingly, both of these phrases have been used for nearly 13 years. In fact, a PR Week article from 1997 credits Matthew Ravden, ex-MD of Bite Communications with coming up with term “digital PR” (I’m quoted in the same article saying that “by the end of 1997 the majority of the press will want to receive information in an electronic format.” I was only a decade out).
However, it is curious to note that the phrase “behavioural change” appears in only 62 pieces – and most of those in the last 2 years. Perhaps even more damning, the term “business outcome” appears precisely 3 times in 15 years.
If PR Week is a reflection of the industry, then it shows that the PR sector needs to start using language (and developing services) that better reflects genuine – and quantifiable – business benefits.
Wouldn’t it be nice to see a PR agency talking about how it is helping clients to deliver an improved business outcome rather than simply raising awareness?
Useful links
  • The SBS Interview: Lee Odden – An interview with Lee Odden about how small businesses can take advantage of new opportunities in public relations and social marketing online.

18 replies on “PR doesn’t care about business outcomes: what PR Week’s internal search function tells you about the industry”

I agree Andrew. If we lose sight of the fact that our work has to have a positive effect on sales we need our heads checking.

Thanks. I just think the excuses for copping out of demonstrating a causal link between input and outcome are getting fewer.

Nice piece Andrew thanks. The industry has to move away from its obsession with ‘stuff’ and concentrate on outcomes.

That said, I think the analysis ignores the point that ‘business outcome’ as a phrase is just not good copy, so why would a decent journo write it?


Thanks. How do you define “bad copy’? Maybe “business outcome” is a bit cumbersome, but it is a start. I much rather use it than talk about this nebulous “raising awareness”. I’m aware that there is a turd on the pavement – that doesn’t motivate me to do anything other than perhaps to avoid it.

Sell more of x, more visits to websites, more people going to events, improvements in brand metrics on tracking surveys – all good measurable outcomes. They don’t all make good copy either to be fair

Do you think PR Week journalists enjoy trotting out the line “raising awareness” day in, day out? In fact, why do you need a journalist to produce such copy? Here is the formula for auto-generating the first para of most PR Week news stories:

“Agency x has been hired by client Y to raise awareness for Z.” Repeat 5000 times.

Nice piece A. Ref ‘outcomes’ I don’t think – generally – that PR agencies are in that business. Different kinds of marcoms agencies work to outcomes. Trad PR works nicely for large brands who fund it out of PR depts that aren’t measured by ££ outcomes. Keep up the good sleuth work : ) Cheers, Roger

But shouldn’t PR firms be in the business of outcomes? What is the point of all that PR activity if it doesn’t (measurably) translate into a positive impact for the business concerned?

Often the problem is a lack of clarity upfront, between client and agency, about what the objectives (aka business outcomes) should be.
Consequently there will be activity of some sort, but not necessarily that which is either measurable in a business sense or useful.

And yet there are established methods for measuring outcome, so there should be no excuse for vague objectives.

PR Week launched an eval and measurement campaign more than 10 years ago. I wonder how many in the industry heeded it.

CIPR president Jay O’Connor writes well about why results (a better word for ‘business outcomes’ given that it better represents the wider PR community) and payment based on achieving them is not so simple as many people seem to think it is. Here’s the link

Thanks for the link. I note Jay says: “results such as media coverage or briefings are not the ultimate measures of success, but rather they represent progress towards desired outcomes.” ie when PR people talk about results they really mean inputs eg press coverage rather than an output eg we sold x, we took 25pc more donations, we won an election. Attributing the causal link between input and outcome isn’t easy but it is getting easier. And no question that in the online domain, the tools for helping achieve this are widely and inexpensively available. It does require thinking about things in a different way.

Surly the data is skewed towards the editors using keywords fixed around “business outcome”?

There are many ways to write about results, including “accountable results”, even just “business benefits”

“Business benefits” gets mentioned in 48 articles in 15 years. I think my points still stand.

Andrew, let’s agree that some in the PR world see results and inputs as one and the same, but not all. Here’s an extract from a CIPR members’ guide to planning PR strategy that dates back to 2002, but is just as relevent to PR practitioners today:

“Set measurable objectives. Public relations programmes are effective only if they are developed to meet stated objectives. If, after evaluation, these have been achieved, the programme will be judged a success. There is no place for woolly objectives; state them clearly, begin with the adverb “to”, and follow with an active verb, for example to inform local residents of a change in Council Tax charges. Objectives must always be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Agreed, Realistic and Timely). If they are not, be ruthless. Scrap them, and start again.”

I think the job of PR is to “do” PR, really. If you (the client) don’t have a desired outcome laid out and articulated before you hire a firm, and a way to at least attempt to measure results, then you probably are going to be wasting a lot of your PR firm’s time and your own money. If that happens don’t blame the PR firm.

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