The Importance of Measurable Public Relations

Public relations benefits directly from the evolving science of marketing. As time progresses, more communicators recognize PR’s ability to deliver credible and involving messages that are lasting, effective and relatively inexpensive. This combination—lasting, effective and inexpensive—leads to a strong return-on-investment (ROI). And yet, while communicators know they must contribute a positive ROI, many PR pros refuse to assess and measure their PR output and outcomes, not to mention their ROI.

Just as every other area within a company must generate and demonstrate a measurable contribution to business goals, the same is expected of PR. This means that PR practitioners must set measurable objectives and deliver results in light of these objectives to ensure that results are clearly understood.

Even if many in the C-suite lack a full understanding of how PR works, few will object to meeting and beating measurable objectives. This is especially so when performance is gauged over time, versus objectives and in light of competitive performance.

While measurement requires an investment, it need not break the bank. As such, a tight budget is a poor excuse for not measuring…you can always do something. In fact, the simplest and least expensive form of PR evaluations is to simply set measurable objectives and then beat them.

Assuming that your objectives are meaningful, measurable and reasonable, PR research and evaluation may require little or no budget. With measurement as one of the critical challenges facing the PR profession, why don’t more PR practitioners use research and evaluation to set objectives, develop strategy, and improve performance over time? A number of concerns are heard:

  • The costs will outweigh the benefits.
    Sure, research requires a level of investment to undertake a serious and rigorous PR research program. A better question might be, however, what is the cost of not proving and improving your value when your competitors are proving and improving theirs?
  • What could we possibly find that we didn’t already know?
    There is value in validating what you know because even if your PR victory is obvious to you, it may not be to those funding your programs. In addition, you never know what else you might learn that is surprising and transformative.
  • This will be a lot of work for senior management: setting research criteria and measurement definitions, selling it, and so on.
    Yes, instituting a research-based PR program can be time-consuming and should be undertaken at relatively high levels within the organization. The definition process, though, is one that provides an immeasurable learning and prioritizing experience. Once the criteria are defined, they won’t change very often.
  • We have only limited control over the results. Why should we be held accountable for things we cannot control?
    While it’s true that certain aspects of the PR process are not completely controllable, much of it is manageable and, as a result, PR departments should be held accountable for delivering quality results that improve over time within that context. If you believe PR can’t be measured, it almost ensures you will be watching from the sidelines: marginalized, minimized and living in limbo.
  • The results will be used against us.
    Using the results as a scorecard is not the primary driver of PR measurement. Instead, research provides the feedback you need to do an even better job. What’s worse is not having any results at all.
  • Research is too complicated.
    It doesn’t have to be complicated. What you need is a basic set of measures that reflect business objectives and are aligned with your objectives and strategy. The purpose of research and evaluation, after all, is to provide clarity and understanding, not complexity and confusion.
  • It’s too expensive…we can’t afford it.
    Many steps lead to the summit, but all of them begin with a single step: much better to begin simply than to never begin.

Make no mistake, communications professionals must ensure–not just measurePR’s positive return on investment. It’s vital to advocate ROI thinking for PR within your organization as a foundation upon which to consistently communicate your success.

Even if one falls short, a commitment to measurement is a commitment to improvement, to develop learning experiences that equip staff and clients with insight and knowledge they need to understand what PR ROI means. You cannot change the past, but there is still much you can do about the future, and it begins simply…one step a time.

Mark Weiner is CEO of PRIME Research, the 2017 Chairman of the Institute for Public Relations’ Measurement Commission and a member of PR News' Measurement Hall of Fame. Follow him: @weinermark