Universal Standards to Measure PR Effectiveness: PR Profession Still Struggles
By Mark Weiner, CEO, PRIME Research
In the June, 1995 edition of this publication, I declared that “the time is right to create universal standards for the measurement of PR.” Seventeen years later and in this 25th anniversary year of O’Dwyer’s PR Services Report, we revisit the state of PR research and analysis circa 1995; and assess how far we’ve come in the creation and implementation of universal standards.
At the time, my manifesto, “Universal Standards Needed to Measure PR Effectiveness,” began by calling for a three-part measurement process for “activities, outputs and outcomes.” I concluded that “a template for measurement seemed like the best place to begin even if a universal standard for determining success depended on the objectives of the program.“ At least, I suggested, each program should answer questions about “Was our PR investment spent wisely?”
In 2012, the question goes largely unanswered; the measures and procedures are not standardized and the profession still struggles to quantify value and business impact despite serious efforts to do so. Let’s trace our steps.
Mid-1990s: The State of Play
The landscape for public relations measurement, research and evaluation in 1995 was a simpler place where the most widely-practiced forms of measurement were impressions and ad values. Even though PR’s professional bodies and a handful of professional communications researchers supported more serious forms of research, practitioners preferred variations on the theme of clip counting.
Late 1990s-mid-2000s: Potential Revealed
If the profession were to evolve its attitudes and practices for research, this period provided important catalysts by which it could be accomplished:
- In 1996, the Institute for Public Relations’ Measurement Commission assembled research experts from top universities, research providers, agencies and corporations to create an inter-disciplinary team focused on the elevation of research in PR (the group is active today).
- In the US and UK, PR Week launched its “10% for Research” campaign which urged professional tithing for the purposes of quantifying PR’s value (the campaign lasted one year).
- ATT’s Bruce Jeffries Fox produced the first statistical analysis to quantify the relative revenue-generation and return-on-investment power of public relations. Known as “marketing mix modeling,” the analysis proved that public relations was the most efficient marketing channel across a dozen elements including mass –market advertising, telemarketing, price promotions and direct mail (principles developed here continue to provide a strong foundation).
These events amounted to an unparalleled call-to-action complete with practical and expert guidance, professional advocacy and proof that PR’s unique contribution to business outcomes could be quantified through research. While more PR professionals at large companies adopted from and adapted to higher standards, the vast majority continued to follow the status quo.
The Past Five Years: Momentum for Standardization
Each year for the past three years, the PR research community created and released a series of standard-setting declarations stemming from AMEC Measurement Summits in Barcelona, Lisbon and Dublin. These conferences produced progressive standards for measuring public relations and social media built in collaboration across many of the world’s leading professional associations including the Institute for Public Relations, ICCO, PRSA AMEC and the Council of PR Firms plus individual companies, agencies and research mavens.
Despite consensus across associations and possibly because of the dynamics of consensus-building, the standards were minimal, relatively vague and arguably ineffectual. However, the Barcelona Principles succeeded in giving the profession a position to which it could respond, refine and build a true set of professionally-accepted and widely-practiced standards.
In their 2011 paper “Standardization in Public Relations Measurement and Evaluation,” authors David Michaelson, PhD, and Don W. Stacks, PhD cite the results of an AMEC survey of 141 PR professionals–attendees of the AMEC 2011 measurement summit and PR practitioners. 42% stated that “common terms and definitions for the measurement of PR did not exist at all” although 68% felt that they are necessary. The Michaelson/Stacks paper offers this disappointing conclusion:
For the past several decades, public relations practitioners have been seeking the “holy grail” of measurement for public relations activities… We must meld what we need to know (standards) with the best approaches of how to collect this data (best practices). In order to succeed, the industry has to go beyond soft guidelines and accept specific measures that will be universally applied.
A Way Forward
The past 17 years represent a mix of progress and stagnation in the PR measurement, research and analysis field. While a core group of research mavens and interested parties work hard to elevate the “science beneath the art,” practitioners are slow to respond. Given the amount of measurement-specific resources available to the profession – white-papers, research-providers, agency research departments, associations, educational programs, conferences, newsletters, blogs and more – the challenge is clearly one of “unwillingness” rather than “inability.”
On this we can agree: every PR program must answer the question, “Was our PR investment spent wisely?”
As CEO of PRIME Research, Mark Weiner continues to dedicate his career to providing research-based insight and guidance to help clients make better communications and business decisions.