When I think back over my career, the norm in public relations shops involved communications staff issuing statements, circulating press releases and ‘sending out stuff’. These outputs were easily measured, and the larger the numbers were, the better. The problem of course was that these results did not account for sentiment, whether the target audience was actually reached, or if the resulting coverage made a difference to profits, sales, behavior or other organizational objectives – in other words, outcomes.

Measuring outputs alone is never going to tell a PR professional how successful a PR campaign has been. PR pros are continually being asked by their bosses to demonstrate the value that their work creates for the organization. For many years, we used PR-specific tools, including Advertising Value Equivalents (AVEs) that no one else in an organization really understood. Often, these scores were largely meaningless and flawed. It’s no wonder that PR measurement tended to confuse and disengage most of time. Consequently, PR has always struggled to prove value successfully.

Having worked in PR for many years, I recognize that outcomes are usually more difficult to measure than outputs. But gone are the days where a PR team can provide a tool or dashboard with no understanding of whether these are useful to inform what we do next, or how the work supports the business.

The Big Picture

Today, the most successful evaluation involves collaborating with clients or senior management — really listening and asking the right questions. Then setting communication objectives together.

Measurement to me looks at the big picture: the objectives, performance of our channels, outcomes achieved, and what we’ve learned from successes and failures along the way.

Unfortunately, many PR pros work for small non-profits where they can’t get approval for any measurement funds in the budget. But one tool exists that all PR pros should be using – no matter the size or budget. It can help you set measurable objectives that can be tied directly or indirectly to outcomes. The SMART tool is important at the beginning of a campaign, at the end and during times of crisis.

SMART

To gain support from upper management, PR pros must develop well-written objectives that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely. Developing measurable objectives requires time, orderly thinking, and a clear picture of the results expected from communication program activities. The more specific your objectives are, the easier it will be to demonstrate success.

Why are SMART objectives important? They make measurement and evaluation more effective. By having these objectives nailed from the start, the investment in communications can demonstrate a well spent campaign.

Leverage other resources

Check with partners in your organization –- such as marketing or sales –- to see what information they have that can serve as a baseline for your objectives. Prior sales or past attendance at fund-raising events can help set the metric to meet business objectives that surpass past efforts. If the organization has conducted research on level of awareness of a health message, or attitudes towards a legislative change, integrate that into your metrics. Having an existing baseline builds a case for investing in follow-up research to see if the campaign has moved the needle towards the organization’s goals.

With measurement tools available today, we have no longer have an excuse. We must demonstrate our value and show how communication contributes toward business goals. And, we need these new evaluation tools that allow us to quickly respond to what works or doesn’t so we can focus efforts on activities that are successful.

I’m a fan of dashboards, but they need to be used in a way that’s appropriate for a campaign. The best measurement occurs when a PR pro recognizes where success is evident against objectives. The next step is to use metrics where success is evident against objectives. The next step uses metrics in a way that informs future campaigns. Once that is present, tools demonstrate their value and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), can be established.

Key Questions

Measurement plays an important role before, during and after campaigns and also during times of crisis. So I assess measurement and evaluation with these questions:

  • What is the business and communication objective?
  • What impact did press releases or social media posts have?
  • Did they drive people to do something?
  • Did the target audience change their behavior?
  • Did our partners, influencers or stakeholders contribute in a positive way?
  • What is the sentiment within the target audience?
  • Is there a mix of qualitative and quantitative metrics that can help identify why the change occurred?

If there are no direct measures, are there indicators or proxies we can use to assess success?

Going forward, using the SMART approach means that the typical communicator must listen and collaborate across organizational functions to learn what the organization seeks to achieve. Modern communicators now need to be multi-skilled in integrated communications and measurement across paid, earned, shared and owned (PESO) media.

In fact, any metrics that communicators use cannot ignore the heart of the measurement issue today. It states that unless compared against goals and objectives set at the beginning of a campaign, those metrics are meaningless.

In short, communications goals must flow directly out of organizational goals to achieve lasting results and demonstrate impact through measurable outcomes.

In my next, I’ll explore various measurement tools, their pros and cons.