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A survey undertaken late in 2010 implies that public relations is not being used to make money for organisations. Rather, it is being used primarily for reputation, brand and issues management purposes. This raises questions about the utilisation of PR to sell products and services and the willingness of organisations to measure PR’s contribution in terms of financial bottom lines, ostensibly providing an insight into why public relations is hamstrung in gaining increased credibility  and influence within organisations.

PR making money for organisations

As commercial organisations have profit as their main motive – and the survey’s sample was dominated by the banking, finance and insurance industries (a profit-driven coterie if there ever was one) – it is a telling insight emphasised by two different questions in the survey.

When asked what were team KPIs, the focus was on:

  • Issues management (24%)
  • Media coverage (24%)
  • Corporate brand promotion (22%)
  • Greater employee engagement (17%).

Product promotion received a paltry 5%.

When asked what social media is significant for, the priorities were:

  • Corporate brand development (24%)
  • Internal communication (18%)
  • Community relations (15%)
  • Crisis management (13%)
  • Political communication (10%)
  • Product marketing (8%).

The Annual insight Into The Communication Profession 2011, undertaken by the only Australian recruitment consultancy specialising in corporate affairs and communication executives, Salt & Shein, is described by its principals as, “the most comprehensive survey of its kind ever undertaken in Australia.”

Does PR make money for organisations?

When you look at the research’s sample, only about 10% can be considered as coming from a non-profit prioritised industry (i.e. government). And the 460 plus sample is packed with decision makers and senior practitioners, with nearly 90% earning over 100K per annum in AUD. Clearly, this is a credible survey that should be looked at carefully.

So when the people talk and don’t include making money for their organisations as being related to their KPIs, we need to sit up and pay attention.

Why is profit-aligned activity barely in the mix?

What about all this talk of Facebook tactical promotions to win customers and monster market share? Is maybe marketing running all these programs? Or hasn’t a measurement mechanism been developed that allows for PR effort to be effectively evaluated? I would have thought marketing will have evaluation integrated through just about all aspects of their involvement.

But maybe not. Perhaps someone can enlighten me.

To my mind, many public relations professionals should be asking to have profit-aligned KPIs when that looms large in the organisational reason for being. Not to do so seems to be shirking responsibility, missing a large part of the point.

Focusing primarily on brand or reputation dimensions puts PR firmly in the risk management rather than opportunity leveraging category. Certainly, there is plenty of room for both, but the results astounded me with their focus on the former.

A fair chunk of the 24% media coverage focus is going to be on proactive, product-based promotional activity, to be sure. But in the context of the heavy weighting towards issues management and brand promotion, I’m sceptical it’s going to be as much I would have originally thought.

Perhaps survey respondents, being primarily in-house, have outsourced the profit generating-aligned activity to consultants, hence the lack of KPIs relevant to profit/sales/etc. But surely the in-house practitioners would still have responsibility for the achievement of these KPIs, even if they are outsourcing their implementation?

Public relations as image enforcer

On the upside, clearly PR has serious gravitas when it comes to reducing reputation risk and minimising damage that might occur from undesirable incidents. With 24% of KPIs having an issues management dimension, this belies the view that many will have of PR as a featherweight when it comes to the business boxing ring.

The 22% corporate brand promotion stat further underlines the importance of PR to the big picture organisational activity.

There is still a long way to go in Australia when it comes to social media being a significant resource for crisis management, however.  Salt & Shein made the observation that, “It should be noted that practitioners at Director level remain reluctant to utilise it in crisis management.”

This is despite the strident advocacy from PR pros for the use of social media in crisis communication.

PR is not cutting it

The overarching focus on brand and reputation that PR seems to have, based on the insights from this survey, says to me that we are not speaking the primary language many organisations are interested in. If we do not become more cash-literate, with more tactically-aligned (i.e. product/sales/profit) KPIs, I can’t see how we can become more influential and achieve our two-way symmetrical aims.

I understand the argument that we are running interference to cut negative impacts on potential profit raising off at the knees. But it just doesn’t seem enough to me; the balance is wrong.

Or perhaps I am in a fantasy land here. Am I missing out on something? As someone who has long argued for the primacy of PR over marketing because of its relationship-building and holistic organisational-stakeholder strengths, I can also understand criticisms of hypocrisy that might be levelled against me.

But profit, for many organisations, is part of the holistic picture. So why doesn’t it play a bigger part in our vocational focus?

What can you tell us about your KPIs? Are there any that are profit-aligned? What discussions occur in your organisation about the role of PR? What does it exist for? What do you think it SHOULD be doing? Is PR scared to shoulder more profit-generating responsibility? Do you measure PR’s contribution to turning a buck?

PS: I’d welcome you joining my 1,500-strong LinkedIn network (send me an invite!) or interacting with me through Twitter. You can also learn more about my PR and marcomms business through my About page.