This blog post is provided by the IPR Measurement Commission in celebration of Measurement Month in November.
For all the obvious reasons, 2020 feels like ten years rolled into one, so 2010 can seem like a really long time ago. That was when, at the 2nd European Summit on Measurement in Barcelona, AMEC introduced the Barcelona Principles to address “the lack of clear standards to PR measurement results in the profession.” Updated repeatedly since, we are now at version 3.0, and there are continuously refined methodologies that are grounded in the principles, such as the Measurement Maturity Mapper and the Integrated Evaluation Framework. These are critical steps for the industry, and it can seem as if PR measurement and evaluation only started properly in 2010.
We know that is not the case – Isaac Newton’s quote about the shoulders of giants comes to mind – and for everyone curious about the evolution, but also the present and the future of the field, there is no more authoritative source, than Jim Macnamara’s 2018 monograph Evaluating Public Communication. In this brief post, however, I want to look back a lot further than the 1980s, which Jim, Fraser Likely, and others see as the beginning of serious PR evaluation.
Let me take you back almost 100 years, to the first significant publication of the man who is seen both as the father of public relations, as well as its bogeyman – Edward Louis Bernays. The nephew of Sigmund Freud was only 31 years old when he published Crystallizing Public Opinion in 1923. In its Foreword, he declared his intention to outline “the broad principles that govern the new profession of public relations counsel … substantiated by the findings of psychologists, sociologists and newspapermen” and also to “stimulate the scientific attitude towards the study of public relations.”
Reading it today, it has an uncannily contemporary feel to it, from its appeal to lifelong learning (“the public relations counsel is, first of all, a student. His field of study is the public mind”; p.52), to CSR and how a seller ought to “consider … not only the quality of his soap but the working conditions, the hours of labor, even the living conditions of the men who make it” (p.45), all the way to his take on PESO and PR’s central role in making it work (“In considering his objectives and the mediums through which his potential public can be reached the public relations counsel always considers advertising space as among his most important adjuncts.”; p.203).
Most critical for modern public communication, measurement, and evaluation, however, are Bernays’s reflections on, and insights into social psychology: “In order to understand public opinion, one must go back to the individual who makes up the group”; p.61). Somewhat surprisingly, he mentions “Freudian theories” only in passing, but he discusses Wilfred Trotter, Everett Dean Martin, and William McDougall in-depth – three of the leading thinkers in the field.
Distilling their key arguments – Trotter’s work on herd behavior , Martin’s on irrationality and the impact of the media, and McDougall’s on primary instincts – Bernays concludes that the PR counsel “must discover what the stimuli are to which public opinion responds most readily” (p.96), and he advocates media analysis, the “study of the mirrors of the public mind” (ibid.). In doing so, he touches on the field’s most eminent ongoing challenge: to understand the interplay between individual and group, to know which ‘buttons to press’ to achieve a certain outcome and to know what to measure and how to evaluate in order to inform decisions regarding successful PR activities.
For all our focus on standards and frameworks, our expertise with increasingly digital tools, and our belief in the predictive powers of Big Data, we should always bear in mind this almost 100-year-old advice from the ‘father of PR’ to the PR counsel of his day (and ours): “To his understanding of what he actually can measure, he must add a thorough knowledge of the principles which govern individual and group action” (p.96).
Too often still, our knowledge of said principles does not match our technical capabilities. And therein lies our discipline’s conundrum.
 Macnamara, J., 2018. Evaluating Public Communication. Exploring new models, standards, and best practices. London & New York: Routledge.
 Bernays, E. L., 1923. Crystallizing Public Opinion. New York: Horace Liveright.
 Trotter, W., 2005. Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War. New York: Cosimo Classics. (Originally published in 1916).
 Martin, E. D., 2019. The Behavior of Crowds: A Psychological Study. Good Press. (Originally published in 1920).
 McDougall, W., 2001. An Introduction to Social Psychology. 14th edition. Kitchener, Ontario: Batoche Books. (Originally published in 1919).
Thomas Stoeckle is a member of the IPR Measurement Commission, Analytics & Insight Partner at Dot I/O Health, and a lecturer and Ph.D. student at Bournemouth University.