Measuring PR outcome has become more urgent as digital becomes intrinsic to PR and the communications industry diversifies into new areas. Traditional PR measurement models no longer work.

PR agencies and in-house communications professionals constantly struggle with this problem. The Barcelona Principles unveiled in June 2010 called upon the PR industry to move beyond the Advertising Value Equivalents (AVE) and agree upon a minimum new standard of measurement. Since then industry bodies, communications professionals and experts have attempted to experiment with new PR measurement models.

The communications industry finds itself groping in the dark when identifying the outcomes of PR and its value to an organization. The problem stems from the fact that traditional media relations has become only one — and an increasingly narrow — aspect of public relations. The business landscape for the industry has become so vast and diverse that it now covers areas that were previously the domain of marketing and advertising. So it has become that much more difficult to measure and evaluate its contribution.

Breaking the PR measurement and evaluation deadlock: A new approach and model

According to the history of PR measurement, the industry began an intense focus on methods to measure and demonstrate the value of public relations only after the 1970s. A turning point came in 1994 when the International Public Relations Association published a so-called Gold Paper. This galvanized industry leaders to urge communications practitioners to conduct valid and rigorous measurement and evaluation of their activities. In the years that followed, measurement has become the “Holy Grail” of PR. But despite experimenting feverishly with different models, the industry has not really “cracked” the measurement and evaluation “nut.” In fact, renowned academics have concluded that PR practitioners have consistently failed to achieve consensus on what models qualify as basic evaluative measure or how to conduct the underlying research for evaluating and measuring public relations performance.

context for PR Measurement Models

These guidelines help PR pros identify a variety of metrics.

The AMEC (The International Association for Measurement and Evaluation of Communications)

Barriers to PR Measurement Models

Three barriers have been identified that are causing a deadlock in implementing measurement and evaluation of PR. The first is the obsession with numbers. The tag line of the Institute for Public Relations (IPR), for instance, is “the science beneath the art”. This clearly indicates a view that PR should be underpinned by scientific knowledge and quantitative methods of research. But such a view may be flawed.

The communications industry is trying to quantify outcomes that are difficult to quantify. Human interactions, including relationships, feelings, attitudes, loyalties, perceptions and engagement do not yield easily to numeric quantification. Many measurement gurus believe that applying “interpretive” qualitative research is a better way to measure PR outcomes. But qualitative research, which requires in-depth interviews, focus groups studies and ethnography, are usually more difficult to do well than quick self-reporting surveys, ratings and scores that “look good” in marketing meetings.

Second, is the conflation of measurement and evaluation. The two are often conducted in a concurrent or linear process and based on a very narrow range of data. The two are often centered exclusively on metrics determined by the concerned organization. Measurement and evaluation are two distinct processes. Measurement is the taking of measures such as counting items, collecting ratings on a scale, or recording comments in interviews, and analyzing these. Evaluation is determining the effects of the campaign.

The third major barrier to demonstrating PR value is that measurement and evaluation processes look at past activities. So measurement and evaluation often fail to give an organization more than a retrospective performance review of work completed. Sometimes M&E is seen as little more than an exercise in self-justification.

New PR Measurement Models

Emerging new models use Big Data to identify insights that can inform strategy. The communications industry has a tendency to jump to conclusions about findings without adequate data or analysis. Thus new models should collect qualitative as well as quantitative data. But the cost of qualitative information has been a deterrent. Such in-depth analyses — which can draw on contextual information, published research literature, databases and case studies – should be portrayed as an investment in smarter strategy.

Most importantly, rather than simply reporting past achievements, insights are forward-looking, creating potential for to measure added PR value. The business case includes positive communications effects on sales, company reputation and employee loyalty as well as avoiding unnecessary costs and risks. This forward-looking approach helps bridge the gap between PR and outcomes, which has been seen widely as a big hurdle.

Also, there are still some disagreements over the definitions of some key terms that get bandied about in the industry. For instance, there are inconsistencies in the understanding of terms such as ‘reach’ and ‘impressions’. In most advertising and PR literature, engagement is poorly defined and described in superficial ways that regard ‘click throughs’, ‘following’ and ‘likes’ as ‘engagement’ when, in fact, engagement represents a deep psychological concept.

Following are basic PR output and results or outcomes that occur as a result of a campaign. At a minimum, these should be understood and gauged.

This table translates PR outputs, which are easy to measure, with outputs and outcomes, including engagement, impact and ROI.

Outputs for PR Measurement Models

This table translates PR outputs (news releases, speeches) into outcomes and results as a framework for a measurement models.