Once you've started a PR campaign, it's vitally important to monitor results carefully to ensure you're fulfilling your objectives and so that you can respond quickly if any coverage is misleading or negative.
First, you'll need to establish a way of monitoring media coverage. If you're planning a modest programme of activity that you can easily keep track of, you could do this yourself simply by keeping your eyes and ears open and buying newspapers and magazines whenever you're expecting coverage.
A more comprehensive method is to set up an account with a media tracking agency, who will monitor assigned media types for any mention of your company name and send you a cutting whenever they find anything. Costs are normally about £100 a month for one keyword search, plus a nominal charge of about £1 per cutting.
There are a lot of firms out there offering similar services, so it's worth shopping around. Many are listed in the back pages of PR Week.
When setting up your account, be sure to check the agency's reading list and make sure your target publications are on there.
Also be specific about the search parameters to minimise irrelevant cuttings being charged to your account. This is particularly important if you share your name with another unrelated organisation - in these instances, you can add instructions to the brief so that the readers flag up coverage in connection only with the hospitality industry.
At regular intervals - or immediately after a big event or product launch - it's worth doing some number-crunching with the coverage you've gathered to establish how well your PR is working.
How far you go with evaluation is entirely up to you, but the main objective is to work out how well your tactics are helping you say the right things (ie, your key messages) to the right people (ie, your target audiences).
Chart each cutting you've achieved in a spreadsheet, flagging up the following points:
Which publication or media channel did the cutting appear in?
Is it in regional, national, trade or consumer media? What tactic prompted the coverage?
What's the circulation of the publication? (The media tracking agency should include this information on the cutting - if not, ring the circulations or advertising department of the publication who will be able to tell you)
How many people have the opportunity to see or hear the coverage (OTS/H) - this figure takes into account that one copy of a given publication is normally read by more than one person. The OTS/H is usually three times the circulation for a national newspaper and glossy magazines and 2.5 times for regional and trade titles.
Is the tone of the coverage positive, neutral or negative?
How big is the cutting: small (less than a quarter of a page), medium (between a quarter- and a half-page) or large (more than a half-page)?
Which of your key messages does the cutting contain?
This spreadsheet (click here to download) with some fictitious data about Hotel Belvedere shows how this might look. You may find the overall figures a sufficient gauge of success, but it's possible to break this down to monitor the success of each tactic and gather learning points for future activity.
For example, from the spreadsheet you can see that the Hotel Belvedere had greatest success with late-offer releases. However, the Detox late offer courted controversy prompting a couple of negative and neutral pieces of coverage, whereas the Tolkien late offer was unanimously positive and very effective at getting across key messages.
As a result, the hotel should consider repeating the Tolkien offer next year, but either shelve the Detox late deal, or at least exercise more caution in how it presents it to the media.
The evaluation can also highlight tactics that aren't proving very successful. For instance, the Hotel Belvedere invested heavily in a programme of press trips for regional papers late in 2004.
Despite this, only one piece of coverage was achieved. It should look at why this tactic is failing. Perhaps journalists weren't supplied with sufficient information about the hotel? Maybe the general manager needs to take a greater role in showing his guests around?
Investigate what lies behind weaknesses in your PR activity to help you develop a stronger programme next time.
Also look carefully at the mix of publication types. Are you reaching the right audiences?
Pay particular attention to your key messages. Are any messages getting neglected? If so, plan activity that will give you a platform to communicate them.
You may also want to set up monitoring coverage for your key competitors, which can be used to analyse your share of voice in important publications, as well as keeping you up to speed on what promotions they're doing. Your monitoring agency will be able to add additional keywords for a reasonably small fee.
Some organisations may encourage you to measure the success of coverage based on advertising value equivalents (AVEs) - in other words, how much it would cost to buy the equivalent advertising space in a given media.
However, our view is that the two are never comparable - after all, a person's response to a placed advert, compared to an article written by a journalist, is markedly different. We therefore question the relevance of this approach.
Other methods of analysis
Coverage tracking is one method of assessing your PR programme. However, perhaps the ultimate proof of the pudding is whether it's hitting home among the people that count - your customers and stakeholders.
Gauging footfall immediately after each campaign can be one measure, though it's best to get specific feedback wherever possible from guests or customers.
In a hotel, for instance, ask them where they heard about the hotel or a specific promotion offer when they're signing in - you can then ascertain precisely how well each campaign is succeeding in driving business.
For restaurants, you could brief your maitre d' and waiting staff to ask diners the same question if an appropriate opportunity emerges. Alternatively, provide feedback forms in the restaurant bar, which can include this question as well as other questions on general customer satisfaction. Offer incentives for customers filling them in - perhaps the opportunity to win a free meal for two or a discount on their next visit.
Collate your results and compare them over time: this will give you cast-iron proof about whether your reputation is on the up - and this should govern not only your ongoing PR efforts, but also your training and customer service efforts.
Neil Coffey is a consultant with travel PR experts BANC Communications. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org