Increased conversation is underway about how to best measure and evaluate public relations. In an industry that is dependent on research, measurement, and evaluation, professionals recognize that thoughtful measurement and evaluation programs can provide valuable insight. Unfortunately, public relations research, industry case studies, and trade journal articles still highlight the profession’s focus on output-level metrics and the difficulty of measuring more telling outcomes. Drawing on literature from Excellence and role theories, the purpose of this research was to explore how employees who possess different roles within communications departments view measurement and evaluation and the extent to which they use measurement and evaluation findings to influence organizational effectiveness.

The study summarized below is the result of in-depth interviews with 16 executive and junior-level communications professionals from agencies, corporations, and nonprofit organizations across the United States about how they measure and evaluate public relations, the challenges they face, and their suggestions for improvement. Interviews with four distinguished measurement and evaluation thought leaders provided additional insights and recommendations for professionals.

How junior-level professionals measure and evaluate public relations

  • Most metrics junior-level professionals mentioned fell into the outtake-level category, many of which had to do with social or digital media, such as clickthroughs, unique visitors, or engagement.
  • Junior-level professionals discussed how they observe which content and messages are performing best on websites and social media platforms and then tailor future content to reflect their observations.
  • When discussing output-level metrics such as reach, impressions, or share of voice in relation to print or digital media placements, junior-level professionals noted that although they think these metrics are valuable in a sense, they are not always sufficient metrics alone and are better paired with other metrics.
  • Several junior-level professionals discussed the emphasis they place on media content analysis to determine the quality, tonality, or sentiment of coverage.
  • Of the seven junior-level professionals interviewed, three said they use AVE at their places of work. However, all junior-level professionals said they do not think AVE is a valid metric.
  • Several junior-level professionals said strong workplace relationships with executive-level professionals lead them to feel more comfortable advocating for public relations measurement.

How executive-level professionals measure and evaluate public relations

  • Executive-level professionals said output-level metrics like impressions, reach, or hits are useful if they align with their clients’ or organizations’ overarching goals.
  • Of the nine executive-level professionals interviewed, four said they use AVE. Yet, like the junior-level professionals, executive-level professionals who reported using AVE said they do not think the metric is valid.
  • Executive-level professionals discussed the need to measure outcomes and demonstrate how public relations efforts contribute to business goals. Common outcomes they discussed included reputation and crisis management, relationships, trust, and advocacy.
  • Some executive-level professionals discussed using UTM codes or funnel metrics to determine whether public relations efforts drove individuals to behavior change.

Measurement and evaluation challenges

Common measurement and evaluation challenges junior-level professionals mentioned included:

  • The need for planning and funding for research at the beginning of programs or campaigns
  • The need to ensure that goal setting occurs up front
  • The need to demonstrate that public relations efforts contribute to bottom-line goals

Common measurement and evaluation challenges executive-level professionals mentioned included:

  • The need for employees trained in data analytics
  • The need to develop more creative ways to measure (beyond outputs)
  •  The need to integrate measurement and evaluation across departments

Professionals’ suggestions for measurement and evaluation improvement

Junior—and executive-level professionals discussed the following suggestions for industry-wide measurement and evaluation improvement:

  • The need for increased transparency across the profession about how professionals are measuring and evaluating their public relations efforts
  • The need to stand up for stronger measures in the workplace
  • The need to for research (i.e. surveys or focus groups) during the evaluation process

Insight from measurement and evaluation thought leaders

After the majority of interviews with professionals were completed, preliminary findings were discussed with four measurement and evaluation thought leaders who are members or members emeriti of the IPR Measurement Commission (Dr. Don Stacks, Dr. David Michaelson, Dr. David Rockland, and Katie Paine). They provided recommendations for the betterment of measurement and evaluation programs:

  • Conduct formative research to understand target audiences
  • Define both objectives and measures (For instance, if you want to measure engagement, define it first.)
  • Measure and evaluate message delivery (Is the message well received? Is it having an impact?)
  • Reframe AVE as ACE (advertising cost equivalency) and adjust that number based on whether intended messages were reflected in media
  • Measurement cannot be conducted in silos; Access to other departments or internal data assists in understanding the relationship between public relations and business outcomes
  • Reframe measurement and evaluation with a focus on interpretation and improvement (rather than on proving the value of public relations)

Additional implications for practice

  • Reference industry standards, learn new tools, and stay up to date on the progression of public relations measurement and evaluation.
  • Strong measurement and evaluation sometimes begin with professionals who advocate for its significance, even if that means abruptly putting an end to AVE, making the effort to learn how to put UTM codes on public relations content, or pushing for evaluation research.
  • Junior-level professionals can stand out in the workplace by relaying the insight they gain about audiences through social listening or analytics and explaining how that insight can inform organizational decision making.
  • Executive-level professionals who are welcoming of junior-level professionals’ suggestions may find that junior level professionals are more willing to share.

Alexis Bajalia is a doctoral student at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications.

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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