“There’s none so blind as those that will not see” goes the old adage, and nowhere is this more true than boardrooms at budget season.

PR is a vital communications tool that must be consistently measured to ensure an effective return on investment. But what happens if the effectiveness of a campaign is hampered by the very people who are doing the measuring: a firm’s own C-suite?

Having worked with hundreds of clients I have witnessed a very powerful selection bias (what I call The Faith Effect) wherein those senior executives who believe in the power of PR often see the greatest results and those who don’t almost always end up with the less positive outcomes they predicted from the start. I am not simply speaking of their perception of the results but of objectively poorer results than those who believed in PR. How do we explain this phenomenon? Is it that the power of faith creates brilliant media coverage? That simply by wishing for it, a CEO can make a journalist write better stories? The answer is, of course, no and the reason has to do with the difference between causation and correlation.

In the book Freakonomics, by University of Chicago economist, Steven Levitt and New York Times journalist, Stephen J. Dubner, the authors point to a study in which having books in the home is shown to improve a child’s educational prospects. What’s surprising about the study is that reading to children is proven to be no more effective than simply having the books lying around the house unread. It’s as if the books’ contents somehow wind up in the child’s head via a process of osmosis while they sleep. The seeming paradox originates in difference between causation – something which directly impacts something else – and correlation – a mutual connection between two things. The kids are not smarter because of the book collection (causation), but because of what the book collection says about their parents and the way their parents raise children (correlation).

In exactly the same way, CEOs who believe in Public Relations often derive better results from it not because of the power of faith but because those CEOs also happen to be taking a series of other actions that help PR programs deliver amazing results. Below is a list of some of things ‘faith-based’ CEO’s often do:

  • They generate content – believers in PR also tend to actively engage their community with dialogue (articles, whitepapers, blogs etc) and through listening (surveys, polls). The most effective CEOs were already doing this long before a ‘formal’ PR process was put in place to leverage it.
  • They perform better – CEOs who want PR to work tend to prepare better for media engagements, listening more intently during media training, offer more value to journalists and invest more of their time for interviews and briefings. Naturally this results in better conversion rates of interviews to coverage and better relationships with key influencers.
  • They favor Closed Loop Marketing – CEO’s that believe in PR also tend to be active believers in marketing and sales, and specifically in the connection between all three. They try to connect the sales team and the marketing team and they feed the results of a PR program directly into a well-oiled sales and marketing machine, hosting great coverage on their website, sharing reprints with sales staff for use in the sales process and at industry events
  • They are positive opportunists – Senior executives that believe in PR are the same executives who have jumped at every opportunity to insert themselves in to the industry conversation in the past. They happily speak at conferences when other drop out, they take a reporter’s call at 5 minutes before deadline, they stay up late to blog about market–moving news.

If it sounds like I’m suggesting CEOs have the power to energize their own PR programs or doom them to failure it’s because that’s exactly what I’m saying. Is it really so surprising that the most influential people within a company have the power to make a program fail or succeed if they believe in it or not?

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once said “If my critics saw me walking over the Thames they would say it was because I couldn’t swim.” Anyone can look at success and perceive failure, and if a CEO or a board walks into an engagement with a negative mindset it is probably an indicator that they undervalue the other, related aspects of their business – like marketing and sales – which might help a PR program succeed. However, if you choose to believe that PR will help raise profile where it matters, improve client relationships and drive recruitment and retention then, more often than not, I have found that this exactly what turns out to be the case.

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