BLOG: Setting PR plan objectives and measuring impact

Polaris MD Ben Pinnington right with China representative Chen Liming at Marintec trade fair in ShanghaiBLOG by Polaris MD Ben Pinnington

In my forthcoming book ‘Making Waves: PR and comms in the maritime industry’ I examine the structure of a communications strategy. A ‘comms plan’ is critical to the success of a PR campaign. That plan should be understood by all the team internal and external who are involved with the marketing and communications of your business. Whether you are a large or small business or organisation you need this road map to crystalize your objectives, how you are going to achieve them and how you will evaluate impact and progress.


In this blog I examine two core elements of comms plan – setting objectives and measuring the impact of the campaign.

Setting objectives

When beginning building your strategy allow your PR advisers to read your business plan and understand what the board is trying to achieve. Your comms advisers should have a firm grasp of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of the company from your SWOT analysis. It is better to be frank and open on this however sensitive some of the reading and you can also include the SWOT analysis in the comms plan. If you are concerned about confidentiality, particularly with an outside agency, ensure there is a contract in place.

A credible PR firm should be a member of an industry body such as the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR). From here the agency can offer its standard contract, terms and conditions and provide a code of conduct. This clearly sets out confidentiality clauses and prevents unprofessional conduct. But do beware PR as an industry is badly undermined by people claiming to be marketeers without any formal training or industry body membership. You should look for a National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) qualification or PR or marketing degree as well as membership of the CIPR or the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) without this you are swimming in a pool of dangerously inexperienced unqualified and unregulated so called professionals.  You would not tolerate a church hall amateur as a lawyer or accountant so take the same approach with marketing. Look for their formal qualifications and chartered status and ensure they are bound by a code of conduct.

To cover your company when handling sensitive matters you could also request your PR consultant signs a non-disclosure agreement. We have done this before though often they are generic and not suited to PR or marketing services. Following a CIPR template provides a relevant industry focused framework for a successful relationship covering key areas such as confidentiality, workscope, consultancy and client obligations, approval procedure, payment terms, termination, insurance and use of other marketing agencies.

However, sharing information and building trust with your marketing company is essential. Without understanding the inherent strengths and weaknesses of a business the comms plan is fundamentally flawed. A good adviser needs to hear the heartbeat of your business and be the person you turn to when things go wrong as well as right. You have to be able to share private and commercially sensitive information with them. So building a rapport and trust is very important when developing key building blocks like the comms strategy. You want the strategy to turbo charge your strengths and address your weak points and wherever possible turn them into a strength.

The business end of the comms strategy is the Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timely (SMART) objectives. But when working these out be fair to the process,  be clear where the company is now from a comms perspective. What is your starting position?  Ask yourself these kind of questions: 

  • What is the company’s current profile?
  • How are you known and perceived, what is your reputation?
  • Are your services well understood, are you seen to be growing in popularity and to have momentum? 
  • What do you invest in marketing, what internal and external people support the PR and comms?
  • Do you have a communications strategy?
  • What is your relationship with the media, how much media coverage do you generate each month and year? 
  • What is your presence on social media,  how many social media posts do you issue on what accounts?
  • How well known is your ‘frontperson’ and senior management team? Are they seen as credible, and expert, are they known as people who will make a positive difference to any project they are involved in?  Do they appear in the media or publish thought leadership articles?
  • Is the PR campaign primarily there to raise awareness, manage the media and protect you in a crisis?
  • Do you expect the PR campaign to generate direct sales or create the right awareness and messages to support our sales team? 
  • Are you already undertaking marketing activity that PR can support like trade fairs or sponsorship of events.

Have this conversation with your comms team so you understand your starting position and set SMART objectives accordingly ensuring they align to your business plan objectives. 

Example communications SMART objectives:

  • Improve the perception of the business in the UK and international maritime industry by creating consistent profile in the maritime media showcasing our deals, innovation and thought-leadership. 
  • Improve awareness of the company’s commitment to the shipping industry’s decarbonisation agenda. Align the business publicly to key initiatives such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Getting to Zero Coalition. Show examples of action we are taking in media and social media understanding PR is about what we do not just what we say.
  • Generate greater awareness of how we are helping clients tackle challenges in digitisation. Ensure strong messaging in publicity and marketing materials showing our know-how in autonomous ships and how we are saving clients money.
  • Issue a minimum of one to two press releases a month reaching an audience of 2million a month or around 20million a year online and in-print.
  • Issue eight to 12 social media posts a month reaching an audience of 100,000 impressions.
  • Generate 20 leads for the sales team each year which demonstrably come from promotional activities in the media, social media, awards or trade associations. The sales team should then aim to convert the leads into business worth between £X and £X.
  • Apply for five reputable awards locally and in the maritime sector. Win or be shortlisted for at least one major industry award.  
  • Grow awareness of the latest product range in the Chinese shipbuilding industry. Issue four press releases a year relevant to these markets and send three e-newsletters a year in mandarin to our database of contacts and leads in China.
  • Generate PR before and during our trade fairs each year. Identify interesting partnerships or announcements we can trail and announce at each fair creating a buzz in trade press and social media around the show.  Ensure we have profile in ‘bumper’ editions of trade titles published at key trade shows: SMM, Posidonia, Marintec and Nor Shipping.

Whatever you choose as your objectives remember to keep a fresh dynamic eye on them. Do not become stale or rigid. Ensure you are open minded and flexible to change so the PR campaign can respond to industry events and new opportunities.

Measuring the impact of the campaign

Some tips to help this process:

  • Maintain reporting structure. Here the PR consultancy or press office can submit data on how many press releases have been issued and what coverage has been generated.
  • Use a smart reporting tool.  At Polaris we upload all media coverage the CoverageBook software. This crunches the readership of print and online coverage. In addition, it calculates shares on Twitter and Facebook. It can further be accessed in real time via a permanent link as it is updated. Note print readership is calculated by the number of readers per copy. The industry standard is to multiple the circulation by between 2.5 and 4 readers – for each copy sold it is estimated that up to four people will read it.
  • Quality of coverage. Simply looking at the quantity of coverage and the Advertising Value Equivalent (AVE) of cuttings are a blunt instruments for measuring for the impact of the media element of the PR campaign. Coverage can after-all include negative stories, moreover in terms of readership while you may hit high numbers in the maritime press you may actually be reaching many of the same people so called ‘cross reading’. So many people for example who read Tradewinds are also reading Lloyds List. As a result audience figures, while a useful barometer, are an inexact science. 
  • Fundamentally the benefits of PR are not in the AVE – but in what the PR achieves in influencing attitudes, opinion and behaviour. PR has greater value than advertising as it is not bought space, it has the impact of impartiality because a journalist has independently decided to run the story.  It is the quality of the coverage that counts most. Is the company appearing in titles read by our target audiences, is the messaging aligned to how you want to be known in your SMART objectives? Keep in mind that one article or feature interview in say the Financial Times, Ship Repair Journal or Tradewinds could be more valuable to your company than numerous articles in local press if it reaches more of your target audience.
  • A single article in a key title may not generate sales but have a big impact on stakeholder attitudes, media coverage can be that nuanced. Think of the famous Princess Diana, Martin Bashir interview – Diana generated huge volumes of coverage but that one interview had more impact than countless other reports. So it is very important to assess media coverage in the right way and it is not always about volume or high readership rates.
  • In terms of analysis you could start a points based system for marking each piece of coverage starting with the importance of the publication then looking at each piece of coverage and giving marks for inclusion of a product picture or senior person you want to position as a key person of influence. How big is the report, is it on the stronger right hand page in print or is it positioned prominently on a news website or enewsletter. Does it include your key messages around say decarbonisation and any independent commentary on your status in the sector positively or negatively. 
  • Survey attitudes. If a big part of PR is to change attitudes and perceptions simply calculating coverage is not enough.  Some coverage will not generate leads but if it appears in the right title it could influence how target stakeholders think about the company or understand it better. So in this case if there are SMART objectives to grow awareness it is worth finding out what people think. You can undertake surveys via your database or with a professional pollster or trade body to gauge customer knowledge and opinion of you. It is worth considering doing this at the start of the campaign and then at six to 12 month intervals to gauge what impact the PR is having –  in line with the SMART objectives such as how you want to be perceived, what products you want to be known for.  But note PR is a slow burn and the process of changing attitudes and growing understanding and translating that into increasing sales, price point and brand value is different with every business. In our experience you need at least six months to make headway, you will then climb up the ladder of changing attitudes further after 12 months and 18 months and then the key is to maintain awareness and momentum, as without profile you are quickly forgotten.
  • Start monthly social media reports detailing follower numbers, impressions and top posts. It is important to do this for LinkedIn and Twitter which supply good reporting data which can be exported into reports. Check follower numbers against targets.
  • Hit rates to the website. Is this going up with the PR campaign. What are the referral sites. Very important to have Google analytics so you can identify which sites drive traffic to your website so you can target them. 
  • Ensure the sales team ask leads where they heard about the company and feed this back so the publications, awards, trade associations and social media platforms that yield leads can be documented. 
  • Opportunities created. In our experience PR can open a lot of doors especially if your PR consultant is willing and able to open their contacts book. PR driven opportunities can come in many forms from being approached to join a committee or give a talk or simply an approach for a coffee from an influential person which leads to meeting more people and expanding your network. PR moves in mysterious unpredictable ways and often it is about putting yourself out there in the media and finding what tradewinds start catching your sails. But it is important to record these opportunities so you know the source, which article, which press release and which introduction created the domino affect so you can assess the return on investment. 
  • Collect anecdotal evidence. What feedback do you and senior managers receive about the company when networking. What PR stories or social media campaigns had an impact? 
  • Benchmark competitors. To benchmark how you are performing you can  benchmark yourself against competitors by setting up a media monitoring service through cuttings agencies like Gorkana or starting your own in house monitoring using Google News alerts and harvest weekly or monthly reports on their social media activity.  Your PR consultancy can pull all this together say for a two or three month period to give you an idea of the volume of PR competitors are putting out, the amount and quality of media coverage they are generating and what themes they are focusing on.
  • Debrief. Once you have all these measuring tools bring your marketing and PR team together for a debrief each quarter and review the impact in line with the SMART objectives. Seriously consider an annual survey via your database and or an industry body to gain insight into attitudes. Political parties obsess with this kind of polling to gauge how their PR is influencing public opinion and listen very carefully to the results to adapt their campaigns and tone of voice, admittedly with extremely mixed results in the cauldron of adversarial politics. But the principle and value of listening to your audience cannot be underestimated. You can also hold focus groups with clients and contacts with a professional polling body. It may seem like a lot of work but the findings could be invaluable and is a lot easier to organise now thanks to the popularity of Zoom.