Nothing will come of nothing

A jolly interesting assessment of the state of evaluation in the PR industry

Technical PR, Engineering PR, Industrial PR, Manufacturing PR

In King Lear, the eponymous central character asks his three daughters how much they love him. The two nasty pieces of work embark on diatribes on their affection for their father, while the honest Cordelia explains in simple words her modest love for him. When he asks what she can add to her statement, she replies, ‘nothing’. Lear then utters the famous line, ‘nothing will come of nothing.’

Each time I re-read this I am reminded of the process of evaluating the activities of a PR agency. Like most in the PR and marketing industries, evaluation is a subject close to my heart. In PR we can only aspire to the exacting methods of evaluation of the direct marketing industry. However, every agency has a methodology which they apply, and most have a standard apology for its shortcomings.

The biggest problem is that for most clients good evaluation costs serious money. Unfortunately, 90 per cent of PR budgets don’t stretch to good evaluation. I speak from experience on some top ten global companies as well as plenty of SMEs and smaller firms. In this context too many companies expect something to come of nothing.

When faced with the option of allocating ten per cent of a budget to PR evaluation, most companies will baulk at the idea. The fact that they could get ten per cent more outbound activity instead always seems too enticing. And of course, there are also the people who believe that they can buy the evaluation option but expect the ten per cent more outbound PR activity as well.

Which brings us to the crux of the issue – evaluation in PR is so difficult because it is bound up with over servicing. When faced with a formal contract evaluation in four or five month’s time, PR agencies go into overdrive. I’ve seen, and been part of, teams who have delivered up to sixty per cent more than the client pays for in these periods.

Apart from creating serious problems in the agency’s bottom line, this also creates a serious problem with evaluation. How can you measure the efficacy of, for instance, a £100,000 spend if the agency has actually delivered £160,000 worth of work?

Worst still, what if the results are still not satisfactory?

While many agencies will make the client aware of this over servicing, and can even apply a metric to balance it out, the results remain permanently skewed. Quite simply, in PR, some projects are more effective than others. Some fall flat on their faces and some create epidemics of interest in a client’s product. Others perform consistently over the years. If the evaluated period is made up of a mixture of effects, how does one factor this into the metric? In evaluation terms, over servicing always results in nothing coming of too much.

I find it difficult to imagine conducting a direct mail evaluation which begins with the account manager explaining, “I know we only agreed to send out 100,000 pieces but actually we found the job so rewarding that we sent out 160,000! And the results have been great!”

I understand, and comply with, the argument that when a client has invested in a campaign, the onus is on the agency to make that campaign work. As I mentioned above, I’m just as guilty of over servicing as the rest of us. However, in the long term we are better placed to either price the campaign correctly to begin with or ensure our ideas work as well as expected before we put them into practice, at least if we want our evaluation to remain unspoiled by over servicing.

So, the bottom line is that in order to evaluate effectively, the PR industry must curb over servicing. Unfortunately, at the same time it needs to convince those clients where it is genuinely a valuable exercise that they need to allocate budget to evaluation. We have to begin to understand that Lear’s daughter Cordelia offered the best evaluation of her love for her father. She expressed it to him plainly and didn’t add anything more than was true. The irony of Shakespeare’s play is that what Lear describes as ‘nothing’ is the only statement of value that has been made. In evaluation terms, this can too often be true.

Richard Stone - Stone Junction

Stone Junction is a cool technical PR agency based in Stafford. We work for all sorts of businesses, with a particular focus on technology, technical and engineering companies. We like being sent cake and biscuits by clients, journalists and prospects.

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