Relevancy is the eternal challenge for the public relations function, and the intellectual discussion always will be split between those who favor more quantitative measures and those who favor more subjective, qualitative-based metrics. In short, is it numbers or is it relationships that matter most?
The answer, of course, is both. As IPR strives to bridge the science and art of our field through research that matters, we consider both personal influence models and data-driven models. If one relies too much on the first, PR’s value will always be subjectively viewed, with access to key stakeholders the foundation. When the person with the contacts moves on, the measure starts over with his or her replacement. A robust database-driven model may identify a more comprehensive universe of stakeholders but doesn’t account for changes in perception that a human being is attuned to.
The 24/7 news cycle and impact of the social media underscores the need for integrated knowledge management. To prove PR’s value every day, we need robust tools that can surface emerging stakeholders who can be engaged in timely fashion by PR practitioners who know how to apply the “art” to the data they receive. That’s all good in theory, but it often breaks down for reasons including the following:
- PR practitioners don’t invest enough in research in the first place, often because they don’t have the budget or seat at the table to make the case for investment.
- The tools produce obsolete or incomplete data.
- PR practitioners don’t have the training or time to fully leverage research.
- Vital information is hoarded by those for whom personal power is measured by knowledge only they can impart.
Despite the clamor for greater transparency throughout the public and private sector, the sorry truth is that too many in the greater communications world, from individual lobbyists to team leaders in hierarchical organizations, resist sharing information because they believe it will diminish their power and influence. And in an age when employment is less stable than ever, who can blame them? Those who have the a seat at a table will do whatever they must to maintain it, even if it means hindering their organizations’ effectiveness by not sharing knowledge. In short, Me-First behavior more often than not may trump Magnanimity, even though the latter builds strong networks and teams and fosters creative thinking.
In a 2002 paper by scholars Linda Hon of the University of Florida and James Grunig of the University of Maryland, four characteristics were identified as especially important for defining the quality of relationships. They included “control mutuality, the degree to which parties in a relationship are satisfied with the amount of control they have over a relationship,” and “trust, the level of confidence that both parties have in each other and their willingness to open themselves to the other party.” Those timeless characteristics favor those in positions of power and their relationships with peers, not those in subordinate positions, which PR often is in hierarchical organizations.
Lest one views the “leverage value” of PR research as limited, conclusions from the 2012 Gap VII study by USC’s Annenberg School offer hope to the contrary. It notes:
- Measurement and evaluation are on the rise, with corporations increasing from 4% to 9% the portions of total budgets to that area.
- In nearly 60% of responding companies, public relations reported directly to the C-Suite. That might help explain the increase in spending for measurement and evaluation.
- The PR field is expanding to include new functions, with growth in areas of internal communications and customer relations. The latter area may be the most important to PR’s ability to get and maintain that seat at the table, as the marketing or sales functions often aspire to control customer relations.
However, author and former international PR agency exec Mary Lee Sachs (also a former IPR Trustee) sees PR as a component of marketing, which will manage the convergence of brand and reputation now being driven by social media, “marshal the creative power around and in support of their brands,” and “define influencer strategies.”
So how do we develop and leverage the best research? It must start with investing in research, both in terms of products and the talent needed to maximize their value. We must value both subjective and objective research. We must hire team players who will aggressively socialize the results with internal and external clients. And we must act on that research in real time. In military terms, that means we must be first to the front, and not in the reinforcement line that follows.
Jim Simon, a consultant, was CCO for several large corporations as well as a partner at KPMG.