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What ROI Should Really Look Like for Your Company's Public Relations Campaigns Many companies see the value of PR and are willing to invest in it. But they want lickety-split results and to see themselves plastered all over the news.

By Emily Reynolds Bergh Edited by Micah Zimmerman

Key Takeaways

  • ROI equates to more than that nowadays — many different steps play an integral role in a comprehensive PR strategy that yields impact.
  • When it comes to your public relations efforts, success is defined as conversion.
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Most businesses have to invest in public relations in one form or another these days. Whether they attempt it themselves or use an outside agency, it's basically de rigueur in today's marketplaces and workspaces to establish an online presence, craft your messaging, publicize your brand and build your customer followership.

Lucky for me, I run my own PR firm, so the services I offer are becoming more essential than optional in an industry that hit the $20 billion mark in 2023 and is seeing year-over-year steady and sustainable growth. But no matter the size of the market or the increase in the number of PR firms nationwide, what really matters to clients — what has and always will matter most — is a return on investment. How much should a business invest in PR, and how is ROI measured to gauge success?

The first question is easy to answer: You should invest as much as your budget allows to get your name out there, capture coverage and solidify your reputation as the best in your industry. Determining whether or not that investment is paying off for you in the ways that you want is a whole different matter.

Related: 5 Ways to Get on the Media's Good Side (and Stay There)

How ROI "success" is defined in PR

When it comes to your public relations efforts, success is defined, at the core, as conversion; that is, seeing the products of your PR budget translate into tangible, measurable results in such terms as increased traffic, increased press mentions and increased sales. But it's important to note that PR conversion really isn't about direct financial returns; in the sphere of publicity, the raison d'être, the real goal post, is media exposure. The more buzz you can create, the more your PR strategy is working.

To create maximum buzz, you need an array of combined marketing and PR services all working in tandem to optimally position and promote your enterprise. When you combine all the components listed below into your PR plan, you create a digital marketing funnel, which should necessarily incorporate calls to action to drive the funnel. It's actually the funnel that creates the conversion that creates the customer relationships that (eventually) turn into direct sales. And it all starts with exposure. So let's start with exposure as one of the principal means to realize ROI.

ROI result #1: Press coverage

For years, I've been screaming from the rooftops that successful PR is about more than press clippings. But you know what? Press clippings are important, not just as a quantifiable reflection of the media hits your PR efforts are generating, but how satisfied a business feels, in qualitative terms, that its efforts are bearing fruit. Clippings aren't the only form of media coverage and media coverage isn't the only barometer of ROI success, but they're still pretty good indicators and will remain so. Who doesn't want to hear that their press release was picked up by 50+ outlets, that their product will be featured in an upcoming gift guide or that there are half a dozen podcast invites waiting in their inbox? No businessperson ever.

ROI result #2: Competition analysis findings

A PR specialist doesn't just concentrate on your business; a savvy pro knows to research what your competitors are doing to outrank or outsell you. When the analysis reveals practical, verifiable findings that can be applied to your own PR campaign (like the most effective media channel for your particular service), it's like unearthing a nugget when panning for gold.

I recall working with a really passionate business owner who couldn't understand why her own marketing efforts were falling flat. To her complete shock, I discovered that a similar company with the same name was also operating in her area. First, we implemented a brand identity shift; once that was established, we launched outreach and PR efforts anew. It worked. By distinguishing herself in her market, her market base began to grow.

Related: 10 Expert Insights for the Optimal (and Most Effective) PR Budget in 2024

ROI result #3: Website optimization and asset accuracy

Most companies already have a website up and running and a good deal of company collateral before they hire a PR agency. But are those tried-and-true marketing vehicles functioning at their highest level and are the assets truly spotlighting the company's distinction?

I once worked with a client whose website was just so, well, blah. Why would visitors engage with a company that can't catch their attention and interest? Another time, I created an eblast for a client, writing the pitch and providing them with the mailing list — all they had to do was attach their spiffy-looking flyer and press send. Only there was a misspelling in the subtitle of the flyer. One of the high-profile outlets it was sent to noticed the typo and emailed me about it. That was the last that outlet would talk to me about that particular client. Point being: Part of a comprehensive PR campaign is a thorough review of your existing assets and informed recommendations of how to elevate them and make them far more effective.

ROI result #4: Social media engagement

Recall what's been said about revenue not being the holy grail of PR. Rather, expanding your online presence contributes to the marketing funnel that trickles down to your company's bottom line bit by bit, and that's why exerting targeted effort on your social media platforms to garner the largest following you can is of paramount importance.

PR professionals have insider intel on what to post and when, what should be a story and what should be a reel, and the ideal frequency and content for your particular market. So when your number of followers and calls to action climb, you can tell that your PR campaign is properly capturing the personality of your business and accessing your intended audience.

ROI result #5: SEO outcomes

SEO isn't always a standard part of a PR package, but if you have the option, take it. With the entire business world online now, commerce is being conducted on screen via the power of search engines, making search engine optimization the key that's driving the whole machine. If you spend thousands on a state-of-the-art website, you want searchers to visit it. If you write a guest blog, you want people to read it. If you're ranking higher, seeing more traffic and getting more click-throughs once your SEO-enhanced PR plan has been put in motion, it's a sure sign that the plan is working.

Related: Does PR Actually Help Increase Sales? Yes — Just Do It Right and Be Patient

ROI result #6: Cumulative effect of a medium- to long-range PR strategy

In my line of work, everyone seems to want immediate gratification; they want to become a superstar overnight, with a guest spot on the Today show and a feature in the New York Times. But that's not the way a calculated PR plan plays out most of the time. Instead, it's more of a long (or at least a medium-term) game in which each deliberate action builds on the one before it and lays the foundation for the one after it.

You want to be proactive, yes, but also patient. You want to see results, sure, but they're not likely to happen at lightning speed. If you give your PR campaign a chance to do its job, it will advance at a manageable pace, and the cumulative buildup will yield consistent, dependable developments. Slow and steady wins the race here, so you'd do well to keep your hopes high but your expectations in check.

Final thoughts

ROI in PR isn't just an abstract concept. There are other ways to evaluate it apart from those discussed above (speaking engagements or great customer reviews, for example), and there's an abundance of measurement tools available now to actually show clients (not just tell them about) ROI statistics (but that's a whole different article for a different day). If you've got a top-notch public relations company in your corner, real results can be actualized and evidenced — the kind of results that take your business to the next level… and then the one on top of that!

Emily Reynolds Bergh

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® Contributor

Founder at R Public Relations Firm

Emily Reynolds Bergh — vintage-shoe hoarder, cycling junkie, & lover of pink drinks — is a marketing & PR pro with 15+ years of experience under her belt. Now the founder & owner of the award-winning R Public Relations based in New York, she’s been featured in numerous publications & podcasts.

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