Measuring public relations – output, outcome, out the door?

(I’m traveling this week, and I’m using my time away as an opportunity to post blog entries from the past two years that drew particularly high interest the first time around. This entry was originally published on Aug. 4, 2009.)

“Communication measurement is a palliative for management and armor for a PR person.”

An online friend of mine, Dora Smith, recently made this observation on Twitter. It’s a brilliant statement.

Tension often marks the relationship between public relations people and more longstanding professional disciplines – accounting, finance, law and engineering, for example. All these professionals have well-accepted tools to measure their effectiveness, and they use the tools to demonstrate the worth of their work. The heavy-hitting tools, of course, provide data on sales generated, costs reduced or costs averted.

It’s right and good for PR people to have such tools as well; increasingly, it’s being demanded of us. Without measurement tools, PR practitioners stand unarmed in the ongoing battle for resources that takes place every day both in for-profit and not-for-profit organizations.

The trick is in finding agreement on the right tools to measure the right thing at the right time.

At present, the discussion among PR people centers on output versus outcome. Traditionally, measurement, if done at all, has been output-based. How many newspaper clips did a campaign generate? How many broadcast stories? More recently, how many hits did a Web site attract? This method provides no bottom-line information. It’s easy to do, however, and it’s been accepted as one form of measurement for years.

Outcome-based measurement has emerged as the holy grail for PR. It seeks to document whether initiatives move people toward specific, defined attitudes, behaviors or action. It tries to go after the heavy-hitter metrics – sales generated, costs reduced, costs averted. The more this can be done, the more respect and influence the profession will have.

I’m all for this, but in an outcome-based environment, PR people have to be sure everyone is on the same page. It’s rarely realistic to believe that spending X dollars on a single communications initiative will result in Y dollars in sales. If senior management expects that, and PR executives do nothing to change the expectation, they probably will find themselves out the door,

Communication is a process, and moving an audience through a process takes time. Each stage along the way has its own particular measurement challenges and tools.

The AIDA model, for example, talks about four stages – getting Attention, developing Interest, inspiring Desire and, only finally, driving Action. Different types of measurement are appropriate for each stage. A measure of output could be appropriate for the first stage; it shows how widely the word has been spread and how likely it might be to get attention. Developing interest might be measured by how long people are lingering on a Web site or how many product inquiries come in.

A well-conceived communications plan will build in measurement at each stage of the process. At the final stage, increased sales can be a fair metric, but it’s not fair during the early stages.

A model like AIDA recognizes that desired transactions won’t take place until appropriate relationships are built. Public relations people are in the business of building genuine relationships; we shouldn’t let the reasonable demand for measuring outcomes stampede us into a simplistic “dollars in, dollars out” approach to our work.

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