Back in May 2012, when Aberfield first opened its doors, one or two eyebrows were raised in the PR world when we described our approach as being based on audience insight, and our measurement on the degree to which we had influenced those audiences.
That wasn’t typical language from a PR agency. Five years ago, it was all about coverage volumes, growing Twitter followers, YouTube views and Facebook ‘likes’. Oh, and AVEs of course.
Insight and influence were words you associated with research and ad agencies, not PR outfits.
Five years on, the industry has certainly progressed. Not completely (a lot of agencies still insist on using AVEs, even if they don’t say so publicly, and there’s still too much emphasis on shares, retweets etc as measures of influence), but there’s at least recognition that PR needs to do much more than raise awareness if it’s to justify the investment by clients.
The message is starting to get through, in no small part due to the efforts of the CIPR and PRCA, who have championed better measurement and evaluation, helping move the industry towards a more insight and data-driven approach.
And because the nature of PR has changed – now involving paid and owned media, as well as experiential marketing etc – the need for audience insight and detailed campaign planning is more important than ever before.
But a shift in how agencies approach their work with clients requires a similar shift in how the agencies themselves are organised and managed, which is why I was very interested to read the article by Pete Marcus in PR Week about the role of planning in PR.
Pete is group planning director at Harvard (the Chime-owned PR agency, not the Ivy League university!), and he argues that PR agencies need to adopt ad agency principles when it comes to campaign planning.
Planners use insights and their analytical skills to identify the target audience and develop the overall communications strategy. Not surprisingly, many have a research background.
“Ad agency planners, for example, often base their insights on individual findings, comments in focus groups or anecdotal feedback,” says Pete Marcus, adding that “we need to open our minds to other sources of insight and inspiration, apart from data alone.”
As a planner himself, it’s no wonder that Pete argues PR agencies should be investing in planners. But I think, as an industry, the priority is investment in planning, not planners.
As Pete points out, clients expect insight from their ad agency planners, but that’s because of the way ad agencies are set up, with clear differentiation between planners, creatives and account handlers.
In PR, you’re generally expected to be a planner, creative, media expert and account handler all in one, because of the fluid nature of PR. Now that may not be ideal (it’s a lot to expect one person to have all those skills), but it’s the nature of the beast. Very few PR agencies will have the resources for a separate planning team.
So the key is to make account handlers better campaign planners.
Everyone at Aberfield knows the importance of insight and planning. It starts with in-depth audience research, using a wide range of tools and data sources. Only when we fully understand who our audience is, and where they are, will we start to develop creative campaigns that will achieve the objectives.
Unfortunately, in my experience that approach isn’t commonplace. Too many PR agencies skip the planning and go straight to delivery, focusing on the ‘big idea’ and ignoring the key question: how do we best reach and influence our target audience?
The inevitable consequence is that campaign measurement is limited to media impact, rather than customer or business impact. Did the client get value for money? Who knows?
I’m 100% behind Pete’s suggestion of bringing much more planning rigour into PR, but I think it needs to be part of every PR professional’s development – whether that’s at university, in their day-to-day jobs or within a structured training programme.
Agency owners and senior managers need to champion the planning process. Every creative brainstorm should start with the audience insight, and every client proposal should answer the question ‘why will this work?’.
If we do that we can make insight and campaign planning as valuable a skill in PR as creativity and media handling.