May 26, 2011
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PR measurement: what’s not-so-new

When I started my communications career in the late 1980s, public relations was perceived as being an intangible relationship artistry that was notoriously difficult to measure. Expectations of accurate measurement were therefore low, but the anticipated demand for a reliable measurement system was always assumed to be high (should one ever be developed).

During those analogue days, measurement was crude and arbitrary; most PR people felt frustrated that the enormous contribution we all believed our profession was contributing to our clients’ business success went under-reported and was therefore perennially undervalued. Many sought to be the first to find the ‘Holy Grail’ of PR that truly accurate and objective measurement tools would represent.

Now, approaching a quarter century later, the rise of digital is transforming PR into a measurable science of persuasion. Social networks have opened up a whole new world of measurement possibilities. After all, digital is by very definition about data. We suddenly have access to a wealth of information – page views, ‘likes’, click-throughs, comments, re-tweets, downloads and a myriad other ways of tracking how consumers of content interact with and respond to our communications.

But while much has changed during my PR life in the sophistication of tools available to measure results, the underlying imperative has remained basically the same. It is still essential to define real, tangible outcomes from the outset before deciding what your communications activities will look like and how they will be measured.

Experienced PR professionals will always work to build communications programs backward, ‘reverse engineered’ from a clear understanding of the business objectives they are seeking to achieve – typically a measurable change in the attitudes or behavior of a specific target community to a product or an organization.

Return on investment in digital communication is measured in the same way as in every other discipline – it is simply the ratio between the tangible results obtained and the expense of securing those results.

Having a massive online presence is not, in itself, a PR result. Online visibility is important, but only insofar as it drives intended behaviours. The challenge for PR pros is to use that presence to facilitate dialogue-driven relationships with targeted groups of stakeholders and track their response to your communications.

That means incorporating clear calls to action in PR – “Download this coupon,” “Sign up for this newsletter,” “Support this proposal” – targeting communications effectively with the audiences most likely to respond to that call, and tracking the way in which they do, in fact, respond.

In this new modern era of “easy metrics,” the imperative is to identify only what is meaningful and measure that. We need to consider not only the volume of information we disseminate, but also the ways in which that information inspires measurable stakeholder activity in favour of a clearly defined business result.

This is the world that PR professionals have always wanted to live in. To take advantage of it, we need to use today’s new measurement instruments to demonstrate why and how our discipline adds real business value. Unlike when I started my career, today’s newcomers to the profession have the digital tools that allow them to build PR’s compelling ‘evidence-based’ case for the marketing budgets our work has always merited.

Thanks to Steve Bowen for his contribution to this post.

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