PR Audits

Public Relations is a costly and important expense for any company. The dollar cost is significant; the program requires the time and attention of senior management; and there is a substantial potential opportunity cost if it’s not being done well, or as well as it might be.

Like any service, the value and effectiveness of Public Relations is difficult to evaluate. Most Public Relations agencies accept that premise, as they are frequently reluctant to have the quality and impact of their work evaluated. Moreover, they may not even know how to accomplish that evaluation.

In short, if your agency didn’t effect a communications audit or inventory at the outset of its engagement, chances are you’re involved with a firm that believes that generating “ink” is more important than advancing its client’s strategic objectives. Indeed, it is a signal that the agency doesn’t understand that Public Relations is critically important because it shapes the client’s image and reputation, which in turn affects everything from sales, vendor relationships and market capitalization to recruitment and merger activity.

Simply defined, a Communications Audit or Inventory is a survey of a company’s key audiences. Among the groups that might be surveyed are journalists, employees, financial analysts, customers, a segment of the general public, professionals and community leaders. An Audit will accurately identify problems or opportunities, and suggest possible solutions or methods. It also enables the company to take maximum advantage of positive prospects, because it is based directly upon interviews with the audiences of special concern to the client.

In the absence of this kind of objective research, senior executives attempting to respond to perceived or actual problems, or simply attempting to target a communications program to a particular audience, frequently rely on their own perceptions, which sometimes are based on flawed or insufficient information.

An Audit is a basic requirement of Strategic Communications, whether the client be large or small, public or private. And therein lies a significant difference in retaining Strategic Communications counsel and a public relations agency. Unless that basis requirement is satisfied, there can be no truly strategic approach to the development and implementation of a communications program or campaign. Moreover, without the baseline information an Audit provides, evaluating the success or failure of a communications program amounts to little more than guesswork.

While there certainly is a cost involved in designing, executing and analyzing the audit, an Audit need not be especially costly. And compared to the costs of a major Public Relations program that fails to achieve its strategic objectives, or fails to identify and correct a negative perception of the client by a key audience, the cost is almost negligible.

Since an Audit is a serious inventory of key audiences, the research and design techniques will vary with each situation. Beware hastily conceived “strategies” or “proposals” that are derived from a single client meeting and are packaged as an “Audit.” They do not gauge your company’s publics.

A true Communications Audit will identify problems and discover opportunities. It will uncover why a communications breakdown has occurred, or where unaddressed opportunities exist. And it will point the way to solutions.

It is critical to keep in mind that an Audit’s information is worthless unless you also receive guidance on how to make its results actionable. Every Audit must conclude with an analysis of findings and concrete recommendations for subsequent action.

Without information derived from a Communications Audit, a company may just be pouring time and money into well-intentioned programs sending the wrong messages. No matter how clearly facts and figures are packaged, without the foundational understanding of the perceptions of a company’s constituencies, it is all virtually for naught.

Stern And Company
Strategic Communications
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