In a recent book chapter*, Fraser Likely and Professor Tom Watson discussed public relations measurement and evaluation practices over the past 40 Years. In this extract from the chapter, they look to the future.
The debate over valid methods of measurement and evaluation of public relations has a considerable history. It is characterised by the repetition of themes – such as the desire for a single method of measurement (the so-called ‘silver bullet’), the search for valid financial metrics of value created by public relations, and adoption of business language to demonstrate alignment with management and organisational – that have kept public relations away from the strategic perspective and focused on the narrower measurement of programs. As Anne Gregory and Tom Watson (2008) commented:
The measurement of reputation and the desire of some practitioners to imply an ROI for public relations activity have increased the drive towards the use of business language and ironically, a single-method evaluation, in distinction to business itself, which is looking for a multiplicity of evaluative methods (p.340).
However, more recent development such as Communication Controlling, communication scorecards and alternative metrics such as Benefit-Cost Ratio (BCR) and Cost-Effectiveness Analysis (CEA) bring public relations strategy and its planning, measurement and evaluation back to the tenets of Excellence Theory. They show that Excellence Theory, despite accelerated time pressures upon public relations practice and the uncertain impacts of social media and the internet, has an enduring validity and relevance to public relations practices, especially measurement and evaluation.
In particular, the Excellence Study introduced five levels of analysis for measuring public relations value. Over the last 40 years, the first two levels, those of products, channels and messages, and of programs and campaigns, have seen a considerable quantity of research from academicians and practitioners. We believe problems have been solved at both levels.
Regarding the first level, we think that the current movement to ‘standardize’ (Geddes, 2012; Stacks & Michaelson, 2011) measurement methodologies will erase any confusion with the measurement of communication channels and message dissemination, be they traditional or social media mediated channels.
At the second level, we agree with James E. Grunig’s (2006a) observation regarding programs and campaigns that programme evaluation “did not show the overall value of the public relations function to the organisation” (p. 158). Campaign outcome measurement can be standardized, given the knowledge we now have. We also agree that the financial metric ROI is not appropriate in the measurement of communication campaign effects. The program/campaign measurement wheel need not be re-invented every decade. That is why we find that AMEC’s Validated Metrics approach misses out on the foundation of years and years of program/campaign measurement knowledge.
On the other hand, the three higher levels – function, organization and societal – have not had the attention they require. This involves measurement of the public relations department’s participation in the strategic management of the organization, measurement of relationships and the intangible assets, and perhaps tangible assets, created by those relationships that the organization has with its publics and stakeholders and measurement of the social responsibility that organizations have to the welfare of society (J. Grunig, 2008). There is not the same depth of knowledge available that is offered by the first two levels of analysis. We consider that these three levels should be the target for academic and practitioner measurement research efforts over the next decade.
Encouraging efforts have been made. At the level of the function, as noted in the online dialogue between James E. Grunig, Tom Watson and Ansgar Zerfass (IPR, 2011), ‘Communication Controlling’ or communication performance management has evolved in Germany and Austria since the middle of the first decade. This is a total approach to communication planning and management that aligns corporate and organisational strategy with communication strategy in such a manner as to place communication as a core activity. It is, thus, closely aligned with Excellence Theory because corporate communications directors and the communication strategy are at the heart of the organisation and not a secondary or tertiary level function, distant from the dominant coalition.
Communication Controlling formulates and demonstrates the contribution of value to the organisation by corporate communication and public relations activity: It has …“the purpose of enhancing and demonstrating what communications contribute to corporate value creation makes the alignment of communications activities with the corporate strategy a key deliverable” (DPRG/ICV, 2011, p. 11). It is thus measurable at all stages of communication activity, using a four-stage value link approach that comprises Input-Output-Outcome-Outflow (ibid, p.13).
At the levels of the organization and society, some work has been done on intangible assets or non-financial indicators. David Phillips (2005) has conducted extensive research in these areas. James E. Grunig took on the task on behalf of the IPR’s Commission on Public Relations Measurement and Evaluation. This should be a priority area for measurement research in the coming decade.
While we understand the desire to find a single financial bullet whereby the public relation service sector could measure ‘public relations’, we hope that practitioners will not continue to pursue the unattainable goal of a PR ROI. We suggest that the alternatives of BCR and CEA proposed by Fraser Likely (2012) be studied further and that, with an understanding that the ROI metric only can be measured at the level of the organization, research be conducted on other financial indicators for measuring intangible assets.
Public relations measurement and evaluation will continue to be important practice issues in the next ten years. The developments we have discussed above have real potential to meet the challenges that Gregory & Watson (2008) identified. If public relations measurement and evaluation is like a game of basketball, we need a strong team of practitioners and academics working in the same direction, with the same understanding, with the same goals. One player’s high-scoring game is not enough for the team to win (J. Grunig, 2006b). James E. Grunig worked with both academics and practitioners on measurement and evaluation research. We strongly believe that for public relations measurement to advance, both in scholarship and in practice, then additional events, commissions, task forces and paper and book opportunities that mix academics and practitioners together are a must.
Note: Fraser and Tom’s chapter, Measuring the Edifice: Public Relations Measurement and Evaluation Practice Over the Course of 40 Years (pp. 143-162) comes from a “festschrift” (a celebratory book) for Professors Jim and Lauri Grunig, which was edited by Professors Krishnamurthy Sriramesh and Ansgar Zerfass and Dr Jeong-Nam Kim. The book’s title is Public Relations and Communication Management: Current Trends and Emerging Topics. It is published by Routledge.
The chapter can be found in the research topics section.