Musing on measurement and evaluation led me to some recent conversations around public relations and its purpose. Silly of me not to have revisited the topic in a while but I truly forget that people still paddle around in the tactical shallows and miss the ocean of opportunity right in front of them.
There is still a propensity in western public relations practice to equate PR with mainstream media relations. It's a historical hangover from the time when media coverage was the only visible output and also because of the many journalists who wandered over from newspapers to work in the field - years ago, I made just that journey. Trouble is, those who move into public relations often never move on from journalism and fail to recognise that public relations is a different job entirely. The other problem is that many organisations don't understand (or, quite frankly, have no idea) as to the purpose and value of public relations. It has been variously defined - there's a bit of last century research that is generally trotted out which found hundreds of definitions - but life's moved on and there is plenty of current research that identifies quite correctly that public relations is concerned with relationships. Hardly a surprise when you consider the name of our profession.
The definition I've developed and advised after many years working in the field is this: public relations builds and sustains the relationships needed to maintain a licence to operate. Simple, straightforward and does what it says on the tin. But then you get arguments around communication v. public relations and all points in between. 'No, I do reputation', says one. 'No, I do corporate comms' says another. 'Wait', yells someone from the back, 'it's internal relations we should be highlighting'. The secret is there is no secret - everyone is right. What isn't right is their context - they are only seeing one part of the whole - which is why I developed the PR Atom pictured above to help visualise how it all fits together.
Relationships are at the heart of what we do. Without good relationships, with their components of trust, mutuality, commitment, loyalty, satisfaction and - my addition - reputation, organisations of all types will lose their licence to operate. Additionally, we function (for the moment at least) in a relationship economy. However, good relationships don't just happen, which is where our work is supported by the essential elements of communication, behaviour and understanding. All relationships need good communication, a clear understanding of each party involved plus good and appropriate behaviour from everyone. As relationships have their components, so too do the other elements. Practitioners - and their organisations - have to be adept at written, oral, visual and experiential communication, across channels and cultures. Our organisation or client behaviour must be ethical, fair, contribute value to society and be considerate of our stakeholders - which includes employees, internal relations and the employee experience. All these elements work together, constantly in motion to help fulfil our purpose. Practitioners may specialise in one or more areas of activity, indeed they may focus entirely on a single aspect or channel but if they lose sight of the whole, ignore the bigger picture and don't understand the purpose then they end up bogged down in the tactical, becoming order takers stuck on the hamster wheel of sending stuff out. Critically, working in the shallows leaves practitioners at seriously disadvantaged when crisis strikes or issues evolve as they'll be isolated from the rest of the organisation.
If you've recently joined our profession, a very warm welcome to you. I hope you enjoy this world of work where issues collide and there is something new to learn every day. My advice would be don't get stuck in the past, when practice was (in western countries at least) confined to publicity, media relations or lesser activities. Be curious. Be an evolved practitioner. See the whole. There are all sorts of places to find out more - there's a 'What is PR' page on this site for your reference and, last year, the Global Alliance published the Global Capabilities Framework which identifies the competencies we should seek to develop. Check it out and see the real scope of your work, escape the shallows and make a real difference to the communities and societies we serve.
There's been much talk this week about evaluation in public relations and communication management and, for me, the most surprising part of the conversation has been the consideration that evaluation is something new, the beginning of a step change in the approach to this essential part of our work. Surprising because research, measurement and evaluation has always been a crucial part of what we do and I'm always flabbergasted when I realise a lot of people either don't do it or don't know where to start.
Yes, for many years people got bogged down counting media clippings, hits on websites and stuff they sent out as well as other made-up measurements that were either vanity metrics or conjured from thin air in a bid to hint at success. Sadly, organisations still fall for this - mainly because they're not told or taught otherwise by those who are supposed to be their professional advisors.
Much of the problem is caused by a lack of understanding as to what we do - and I think it's probably time I wrote another post on the purpose and functions of PR - but for now here's a quick refresher on the process of public relations research, measurement and evaluation.
First up - what is your organisation hoping to achieve? What is your outcome? The end game, the place you want to get to? And, most importantly from a PR perspective, who do you need with you? Who are the people who hold your licence to operate (the permission you are given as an organisation to do the things you do) and what how healthy are your relationships? So, stage one - understand your organisational outcomes, identify your licence holders and stakeholder communities.
Next - research. Who are you, where are you, what do you do, who do you help - either with your product, service or specialism - why do you do it (purpose and values) and who doesn't want you to do it? How's your reputation? What are the risks and issues? Trends and tendencies? What does your data tell you? When was the last time anyone looked? Research the socks off your position, your area of operation (be that public or private sector) and find out all you can. In your formative research stage, benchmark your critical relationships - measure existing relationship components and find out how things are. This will inform your strategy, confirm your outcomes are sound - or need adjusting - and help you ascertain when you set your public relations outcomes whether you are heading in the right direction.
Third - set your public relations outcomes. These support your organisation's outcomes and will focus on the relationship and its components of trust, mutuality, satisfaction, commitment, loyalty, as identified by Grunig and Hon in 1999. I also add understanding and reputation as both are essential in initiating and developing sound relationships. Other outcomes (that organisations often find easier to understand) are behaviour, knowledge and attitude. As part of your formative research, identify where you sit on the scale - for example, we need to improve trust and satisfaction from X to Y, shift attitudes from A to B, change behaviours from E to F.
Once you know what you are hoping to do you can then develop a strategy to get you there, and, in doing so, set your measurable objectives (step four) which will inform your communications planning, act as signposts on the journey (are we on the right track or do we need to take a detour) and, collectively, the measures will help to inform your evaluation. Don't fall into the trap of using measurement and evaluation interchangeably - a measurement is a unit and an evaluation an assessment. For example, I have a piece of string that is a metre long. Great - that's my unit of measurement. The evaluation is an assessment - did the string work as a shoelace? Should it have been shorter or longer? Did it keep my shoe secure so I could run the marathon? Or should I have used actual shoelaces instead of string? What have I learned from this and how will this learning help me manage future marathons?
Then comes the implementation of your programme or campaign and with it, constant listening, monitoring actions, measuring interactions with your stakeholder groups against the measures of success you've identified within your objectives. Oh yes - it's not about mainstream media monitoring either. That might form part of your work to improve/build/sustain relationships, improve knowledge, behaviours and attitudes but that's only part of the story - and one small part. Public relations is not mainstream media relations so don't rely on that as a measure of your worth. There is also no such thing as 'the general public' or 'creating awareness'. You have to be specific. Public relations builds and sustains the relationships necessary to maintain an organisation's licence to operate - that's what you are working towards and that's what you need to measure and evaluate.
Once your programme is complete - and adjusted along the way thanks to your marvellous listening, monitoring and measurement - its time for your evaluation, which includes a repeat of the formative research and measurement of the relationship components so you can discover whether you've achieved your outcomes - that your organisation has, for example, improved trust and loyalty among employees and that knowledge of the organisation has increased to the point where behaviours and attitudes have begun to change. You can find the detailed 'how to' in our research, measurement and evaluation course and there's a video here that breaks this down a little more for you.
In the meantime, remember - it is absolutely possible to measure public relations and its value and impact for the organisation (of any type) undertaking the activity. All public relations work should be supporting the outcomes of the organisation and acting as a guide/change agent for behaviour, inside and outside the organisation. Don't 'settle' for nonsense measures, counting clips, hits, retweets and likes - they prove nothing other than you turned up for work and sent some stuff out. Look deeper, ask the questions, do the mahi and evaluate the results.
About Think Forward
Think Forward ponders PR questions and curates current know-how