What Communicators Need to Know About Measurement Right Now

The importance of research, analysis and evaluation in the communications profession continues to grow due to the pace of change in the marketplace.

To that end, the Institute for Public Relations recently published a research report, “The Communicator’s Guide to Research, Analysis and Evaluation,” which aims to help PR practitioners understand how they can apply data, research and analytics to help with strategic decision-making, improve communication performance and deliver meaningful business contributions.

The guide also features examples and applications, a research and evaluation cadence reporting table and the top-10-plus must-reads on evaluation.

Mark Weiner, a longtime PRSA member and the chief insights officer for Cognito, an international research-based communications consulting firm, is the report’s lead writer.

Here, Weiner, author of the just-published “PR Technology, Data and Insights” (Kogan Page), discusses acting on issues at the speed of business, combating misinformation and taking the first steps to measurement. 

PR measurement book

What is the new guide intended to do for communicators?  

The Institute for Public Relations’ new signature study, “A Communicator’s Guide to Research, Analysis and Evaluation” intends to enable PR professionals and elevate their understanding of the foundations, methods and applications for communications research. I am always surprised at the levels of uncertainty and unwillingness of communicators to adopt from and adapt to best practices in data-informed public relations.

The fact is that, while individuals hesitate, their competitors forge ahead and they are rewarded for it. What is more, the executives to whom PR reports now expect data to inform decisions and evaluation. The Guide provides an accessible introduction for every communicator to begin simply, but simply begin.

How might organizations best adapt to act on emerging issues at the speed of business today?

I appreciate your reference to “the speed of business.” Every PR platform — and there are hundreds — promote “real time.”  But some decisions require serious thought and consideration.  Executives make those decisions at “speed of business.” Put another way, there’s “real time” and there’s “right time.”

The best way to adapt is to learn more about what data enables communicators to do more efficiently and with greater confidence. Real-time tools enable us to execute… that’s their sole function. They are not “turn-key insights engines.” Communicators must bring their sector expertise and their PR experiences and combine them with their natural tendencies for critical thinking.

What’s missing in the portfolios of most PR organizations is statistical acumen. Combine these three elements — technology, sector expertise and statistical acumen — and you have a winning combination. The best place to learn more is, of course, PRSA as well as the Institute for Public Relations.

How can measurement help an organization combat misinformation and disinformation?

Let me begin by describing the hierarchy of data-informed public relations. “Measurement” is the most basic… it’s another word for “counting.” “Research” involves gathering, analyzing and interpreting data about a market, company or brand, and its past, present and future potential. Evaluation requires expert judgment to draw data-informed conclusions about quality, merit or worth. Perhaps I take your question too literally, but measurement alone won’t suffice.

We can, however, evaluate the extent to which a news item or social post is accurate. The trouble is that one person’s “misinformation” is another person’s “truth.” That’s the problem with truth: If I’m powerful enough or sufficiently persuasive, my truth can become your truth. It can be a fuzzy line between hyperbole — which almost everyone has done — and misinformation. In any case,  while there may be an inherent bias that human brings to the research and evaluation process, I don’t think technology can detect accuracy from misinformation or disinformation.

What first steps do you recommend for organizations that might be at the “no data”  stage in their measurement journey?

My mantra is “begin simply. Simply begin.” PR research, analysis and evaluation are more accessible than ever! If someone doesn’t have the human, technological or financial resources to measure, then they can begin using free resources like Google.

Whether management asks for PR measurement or not, it’s a good idea to take the initiative and present a simple dashboard using only the resources available to you. “Measurement” is a good way to begin: Clip-counting is a decent outputs measure using Google. Google Analytics and Google Search take it up a notch to assess PR outcomes. Plus, most people are familiar with Google and it’s free.

Regardless of an organization’s sophistication level in measurement, what are the key questions that communications leaders must be asking?

The essential questions for communications leaders, and for the people to whom PR leaders report, include:

  • What are our objectives? To what degree are they measurable, meaningful and reasonable?
  • To what extent do our PR objectives reflect the priorities of the enterprise?
  • What steps are we taking to ensure an efficient and positive outcome?
  • Did we spend our PR money wisely?
  • How will we improve our performance over time, versus competitors and in light of “best practice?”

Can you share any best practices for communicators in helping break down silos within internal departments to ensure that there’s a united integrated measurement and evaluation system?

It’s always struck me as funny that people with a responsibility to elevate the performance of the organization get bogged down in territorial silos. The key to breaking down these barriers is data.

Data is the language of business and it translates to every function within the organization. Once a communicator can represent their objectives and performance using data, they have the means to integrate with others. But the data is just the beginning. PR people need to take the initiative by reaching out to adjacent departments like advertising, marketing, sales and HR to declare their interest in partnering for greater efficiency and higher performance.

One way to begin is to seek out the group within your organization with a name like “Consumer Insights” or “Business Intelligence.” These people are data scientists who don’t care as much for silos… they’re looking for data to inform their overall understanding of what drives the business forward. And especially since public relations — earned media and social media in particular — are unique in the research and evaluation world because they simultaneously reflect and shape public opinion. It tells these data scientists more than other forms of research. They’ll love you for it.

As the communications profession continues to evolve, what do you see on the horizon in terms of measurement and evaluation?

The future holds great promise. Enormous amounts of investment are flowing into communications technology, and these organizations are the ones who drive innovation and evolution. Artificial intelligence is not here yet but it may soon be common practice. Predictive analytics represent a popular topic but it’s not yet common in practice. I’m very excited to see what the future holds!

John Elsasser is PRSA’s publications director and editor-in-chief of the award-winning Strategies & Tactics. He joined PRSA in 1994.

[Illustration credit: shutterstock]

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