#SummerPRChallenge Week Four

Is it worth it? Are you worth it?

About the author

Richard Bailey FCIPR MPRCA is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

Here’s a paradox. Public relations is often condemned as ‘fluffy’ and ineffective. Yet if that’s the case, then how do you explain why so many organisations pay for public relations and communication advice and support?

Estimates before the pandemic put the numbers employed in UK public relations at around 90,000. These numbers have been growing steadily in recent decades, though job losses are expected this year because of the pandemic and recession. 

Statistics on average salaries vary and are often based on small samples. Yet if we take the lower average from two recent surveys, then 90,000 people earning £45,000 suggests a wage bill of over £4 billion. So, is it worth it? Are we worth it?

Surely hard-headed businesses can’t all be deluded? Surely cash-strapped charities and public sector organisations aren’t all making irrational decisions when they hire people for public relations and communication roles?

In truth, the ‘fluffy’ charge originated from journalists who became frustrated by pitches from PR people – and who had the channels and the motivation to voice their feelings. Added to which was their sense of injustice, that these easy-looking public relations jobs paid more and were more secure than their own work.

In terms of numbers, public relations has been a clear winner in recent decades while journalism has been a clear loser. A 2015 book from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism explored the different business models that applied to the two areas.

But this is no cause for triumphalism from public relations practitioners. In junior roles, the traditional media relations function is being challenged by digital marketers who come armed with much more forensic data to support their campaigns. In consumer agency pitches, a PR team often finds itself in competition with advertising creatives skilled at generating big ideas and justifying large budgets. And in corporate advisory and reputation management work, there’s competition from management consultancies and law firms.

The lesson from this is that if you are expecting big numbers – in terms of salary, fees, budgets – then you need to be adept at backing this up with data. Show me the numbers!

Let’s take three scenarios.

#1 challenge. How do you justify a starting salary of £20,000

That’s a very modest graduate starting salary; you’ll find it hard to live in London for that – but salaries do not necessarily reflect the cost of living; they reflect how highly an employer values the role.

In a junior role, you’re not expected to run the team and make the big decisions. But you should be able to support those in more senior roles, and to free them up to focus on more important work. In junior roles, your focus should be on saving money through efficiency rather than making money directly.

So have a think about the efficiencies you could bring to the team:

  • Could you create shared folders for documents and develop a failsafe process for copy approval?
  • Could you improve the media monitoring process to aid information sharing and improve decision making?
  • Could you develop the process for media evaluation beyond the now-discredited AVEs?
  • Could you introduce a system for tracking calls and contacts, and integrate this with existing CRM (customer relationship marketing) systems?

#2 challenge. How do you secure a £100,000 client project?

Let’s assume you have the best pitch team in the business. You’ve developed a brilliant campaign idea. You’re the clear frontrunner. And then you’re asked how you’ll deliver and demonstrate return on investment (ROI) for this £100,000 campaign. I hope you didn’t focus on the research in order to develop your ‘big idea’, and then leave the rest to chance. The bigger the numbers, the more demanding the call for proof.

Yet you can’t prove the effectiveness of a campaign that hasn’t run. Nor is there any simple, universal metric that can be used to produce a formula for ROI in public relations. But it’s not a trick question: it’s a legitimate and easily-anticipated demand.

Your answer will reveal two things:

  • Your understanding of the client’s challenge. Do you really understand what they want to achieve with this campaign, because that will be your starting point for developing measures of success. If they want to reduce staff turnover and improve retention, then you should explore what the problem costs and how to improve the situation. You will need to measure against this through the campaign: in other words, you should focus on business outcomes, not communication outups. You may have produced four quarterly staff newsletters, but what contribution did these make, if any, to solving the challenge?
  • The systems and competencies in your team. You may have involved researchers, digital experts and account handlers in your pitch team. But do you also have the data expert who can talk the client through your systems for monitoring, measuring and evaluating campaigns? Do you understand industry best practice (such as the AMEC integrated evaluation framework) at least as well as the client? Are you adding value by turning data into insight?

#3 challenge. How do you protect the reputation of a business operating in a controversial area?

Mining, oil extraction, energy generation, biotech and life sciences: these are the mainstays of the stock market, contributing to many people’s pension funds. They are also large employers and major contributors of tax revenue. Stock market fluctuations can result in gains and losses of millions of pounds; licence to operate for these businesses is worth billions.

How do you value the role of public relations and corporate communication? You may be able to demonstrate your value in terms of positive improvements, but it’s most likely that you’ll need to prove how you’ve helped the organisation manage risk, handle issues and resolve crises. In short, how you’ve helped the organisation survive and retain its licence to operate.

The widespread narrative surrounding BP following the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was that this was a clearcut ‘PR disaster’. From the loss of an evidently gaffe-prone chief executive to grovelling apologies to Congress and to compensation running into billions of pounds.

And yet a few solitary voices presented the counter-narrative. Experienced corporate communicator and author of Keeping Shtum Steven Olivant argued that BP succeeded in its wider obligations to all of its stakeholders in that it’s still in business. It still employs thousands of well-paid people. It’s still listed on the London Stock Exchange. There’s still value in the business and its current chief executive is talking bullishly of a greener future, reviving the previous ‘Beyond Petroleum’ narrative from a generation ago.

What value can you place on survival? Well, BP’s market capitalisation (the value the stock market places on the business) was over £57 billion on 24 August. That’s low in historic terms – but so are global oil prices – yet BP is still in business.

Corporate communicators will contribute across ESG (environmental, social and governance) issues in order to manage risk and ensure continued survival and success.

Now, what was that you were saying about public relations being fluffy? It’s far from fluffy if you can show the numbers. Claiming to be a communicator who’s good with words does not excuse you from the need to be adept with data and good with numbers.

#4 challenge: Learn to love numbers.

Start simple with basic web stats and social media follower numbers before progressing to Google Analytics, Google Trends, Google Data Studio and more. And don’t stop with raw data: think how to present it, and how it should lead to insights. There are some excellent sources cited below.

Further resources

#SummerPRChallenge Week One

#SummerPRChallenge Week Two

#SummerPRChallenge Week Three

John Lloyd and Laura Toogood: Journalism and PR (book review)

Tony Langham: Reputation Management (book review)

Sam Knowles: Narrative by Numbers and Cole Nussbaumer Knaflc: Storytelling with Data (book reviews)

Sam Knowles: How to be Insightful (book review

Steven Olivant: Keeping Shtum (book review)

AMEC integrated evaluation framework