It can be challenging for PR experts to prove that their work is bringing value to the client. Unfortunately, inflating certain PR metrics just for the sake of numbers is still a common practice in the field of public relations.

There is a quote that comes to my mind when debating about this topic:

Politicians use statistics in the same way that a drunk uses lamp-posts—for support rather than illumination.

Alan Lang

Regardless of it being more than 100 years old, it speaks about today’s PR industry as much as it did about politics 100 years ago. Likewise, there are three PR metrics that most frequently get thrown around without proper context:  

  • Total number of mentions 
    E.g. More than 100 media outlets covered the campaign, so it means it’s successful.
  • Social engagement
    E.g. We had more than 10,000 shares on social media.
  • Impressions
    E.g. We reached 1,000,000 people. 

The problem is not the PR tools you use or the numbers themselves, but rather presenting them as campaign results and not simply campaign outcomes.

It happens more often than you think – and judges in industry competitions are not happy about it.

The 3 most commonly misused PR metrics

Reach, engagement, and publicity volume are not goals, but ways to measure activities you did in order to produce the desired outcome.

Think about this: you may score a lot of media coverage for your event, but if nobody shows up, you have failed to achieve your goal of having a sold-out venue. A book full of press clippings won’t satisfy your boss or client.

You might get 30.000 shares of your witty joke on Twitter, but that doesn’t mean you’ve improved your reputation among your target audience.

You get the gist – the context of your PR metrics is essential.

By omitting the context, you can easily fall into the trap of incorrect measurements, thus compromising the accuracy and effectiveness of your efforts. Just take a look at the following three cases of metric misuse:

#1 Number of mentions

The total number of mentions might be one of the most frequently used PR metrics, but it’s relevant only if you know exactly how it contributes to your PR goals

While having big numbers in your report might look pleasing, it doesn’t add much value to the campaign in general if it’s not followed up by the desired outcome.

For instance, you’d like to build awareness of your brand. Great, but if you rely on the number of mentions to measure the progress, keep these things in mind:

  • There is also no magic threshold that says that 60 media placements are a bad thing, but 61 is good. 
  • Depending on your goals, sometimes it makes more sense to have ten journalists writing about you than having a hundred.
  • Placing 99 stories about your truck driving company into health and lifestyle magazines is a complete waste of time 99% of the time.

Strive for relevance and effectiveness, not quantity.

Here’s a real-life example of how deceiving the number of mentions can be.

One of our clients is a non-profit organization that motioned for the implementation of a certain health bill. They did not get a lot of outlets to cover their story but were able to get into all the press that their key decision-makers consume.

If you were one of them, you’d open a newspaper or switch to your favorite TV channel or go to Facebook and you’d be convinced that the whole country is talking about the health bill.

Do their low numbers mean anything?

Or is the implementation of the bill the only goal that matters in this case?

Down the line, their goal was accomplished, regardless of the seemingly low number of mentions that might have thrown them off had they not looked at the bigger picture.

An increase in the number of mentions can indicate that you are doing something right. But, until you go deeper into themes, issues, and messages, you won’t know for sure.

#2 Social Media Engagement Numbers

Similar to mentions, social media engagement numbers should be looked at primarily for market research purposes, or for social intelligence.

You can write a funny tweet will get you 30,000 shares, but it is only successful if that tweet has a place in your PR strategy, and you know what message you want your audience to receive.

And not all engagement has equal value – a like is not an endorsement.

Instead, try to find answers to these questions:

  1. What type of content does my audience prefer? Do they engage more with pictures, videos, or blogs? Why?
  2. What is the ratio of likes to comments?  
  3. Which channels are they using more to talk about my brand – Twitter, or LinkedIn?
  4. What are the messages I am sending with my most popular posts? Do they portray an image of the company I want?
  5. How many people initiate a conversation with my brand?
  6. What are the issues they most frequently discuss?  
  7. How many people are mentioning my brand on social media behind my back, like in comments on other pages or tweets?
  8. What is the sentiment of these mentions?
  9. Who are my top users – people who talk about my brand the most? What issues do they discuss?
  10. What happens as a result of these engagements? Does my website traffic increase? Do I get more leads, do sales numbers increase?

And a bonus one: Does anyone but members of my company use the corporate #hashtag?

Observe what your audience is saying about you, rather than just talking about the number of likes, shares, and retweets.

#3 Impressions

The biggest cause of impressions having a bad reputation is that they are often presented as end results, not only in the PR industry but also in marketing. 

Take influencer marketing for example.

Sometimes having an influencer endorse your brand on social media can generate impressions, but you also want to see the real effect of that collaboration.

If you wanted to simply raise brand awareness, then yes, impressions will play the part. But, if your goal was to increase sales, a million impressions won’t do much if the sales numbers don’t align.

The solution? Turn to media monitoring.

Mediatoolkit has reach (impression) estimates. We have developed an algorithm that includes more than just website visits to predict how many people saw the mention in question. It is based on a lot of other things, such as:

  • social engagement around the mention,
  • the mention’s position in the text,
  • whether the keyword was mentioned more than once,
  • context, and more.

In short, we can give you a good estimate of how many people could have been exposed to a message. However, we are not wizards – we cannot guarantee that these people have actually read and remembered your message.

Even when you can prove that 1,231,453 people saw your story on a website, you can’t guarantee that this story has made an actual impact on them.

The only thing that the number of impressions can guarantee is that a million people could have seen your message, not that they have actually remembered it.

More impressions do increase the chance that your message was seen by more people, but it should be taken as that – just an indicator that there was potential. It is the end result of those one million impressions that count.

To wrap up on PR metrics

The numbers in your PR report are so much more than a vanity figure. PR metrics such as the number of mentions, engagement, and impressions are irreplaceable, but keep in mind they provide the most value when analyzed in a relevant context.

Otherwise, these metrics could completely steer you away from your end-goal by providing a false sense of accomplishment.

To prevent that, remember the key takeaways from this blog:

  1. The total number of mentions is relevant only if you know exactly how it contributes to your PR goals.
  2. Not all social media engagement has equal value – rather than focusing on the numbers, the insights behind them should be your focal point.
  3. Don’t mistake the number of impressions for the number of people who have actually been affected by your message.

That’s all, folks!

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