Why PR measurement is broken, and how to fix it

According to this client, PR agencies must look beyond billable hours and use innovative tools to get to the heart of the matter.

In 2010, 225 of the best minds in PR measurement met in Barcelona and brought the Barcelona Principles down from the mountaintop.

These principles recognized the system was broken and established a new, standardized way for communications professionals to measure the efficacy of PR campaigns, shifting the focus of measurement from output to outcome. Other improvements called for the exclusion of advertising value equivalency (AVE) metrics and the recognition of the communications value of social media. The changes were all needed and commendable.

They ignited much discussion in the communications and PR community, yet five years later, there’s been tons of talk and not much action. Sure, they documented clear, basic standards in measurement for the first time ever, but measurement is still inextricably broken. The industry is not sure what to do about it. The flurry of white papers and op-eds on the subject hasn’t changed anything.

The Barcelona Principles are the best thing we have right now, but there’s still a lot we don’t know about measurement.

From my vantage point on the client side, I’d like to share some insights about what clients want from agencies on the measurement and evaluation front:

  • Come to the table with ideas on measurement beyond the one-size-fits-all model. Effective agencies show me they understand the conundrum that quantifying outcomes is difficult because of the human factor. When feelings and attitudes are involved, not all outcomes are created equal, so agencies need to see the bigger picture.
  • Understand that measuring results is very different from evaluating them. Too much focus on quantity without the counterbalance of quality yields inaccurate assessments.
  • Demonstrate you get the changing landscape of digital and social media. As smartphones and tablets become the go-to, it’s increasingly important for us to use monitoring and measurement tools from companies that measure traffic via mobile browsers. Mobile has to be considered a factor, even if we’re still in the early stages and stuck with flawed methodology.
  • Give me what top executives want. Those corner offices don’t fully understand communications, and it’s both our problem and our fault. While CEOs easily grasp marketing, the opaque measurement metrics of PR present an obstacle. I look for agencies that help me communicate effectively to my execs exactly what’s being measured and why those measurements matter. Successful PR needs a direct line to top leaders, and that pathway is built by getting them to understand the data and the value of measurement.

From where I sit, many PR and communications agencies are still measuring the wrong things.

Outcome can’t be confused with output. Billable hours are not the equivalent of results. Current tools for calculating media value can’t fully account for variations based on tone—positive, neutral or negative. There’s still no algorithm that measures the tone of a story, and in a world where content counts, all press is not good press. Let’s face it: The tools for bulletproof tonality measurement have simply not yet been invented.

Agencies that don’t limit themselves to the standard measurement tools are able to come up with new strategies offering new results. I look for value propositions from agencies where they have a point of view that says, “We will determine the success based on this, not that” and where the metrics go beyond hourly value to actual value.

Agencies that innovatively tackle the hurdles of modern measurement with a fresh eye to solutions are the ones I’d like to work with. When we acknowledge what doesn’t work, we take our first steps to finding new answers and methods.

Tonality and digital measurement are tough issues, as yet unresolved across the industry, but the conversation has just begun and we need to keep talking.

While the better approach has yet to fully reveal itself, it’s important to look at ways to “Moneyball” the issue of measurement, and look to new metrics and formulas that might give us an improved (or at least different) perspective on the outcomes we drive every day in PR and communications.

Communicators should put a stake in the ground and not be afraid to tell executives what their expectations for any one campaign should really be. More than that, whatever might happen, we should consciously seek to attach and relate the company financial results to our work as well.

Only through this approach, and with the passage of more time, will we develop the potential to see trends and commonality between the outcomes and the bottom line. This has to be the end goal if communications is truly going to take it’s place at the head of the executive table in 2015 and beyond.

Christopher Bennett is vice president of communications and corporate relations for Guitar Center. Follow him on Twitter @PRTweets.

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