Are We Measuring the Right Things?

MAE Skills photoAssigning specific value to work in public relations is never simple. The challenges were under a spotlight at the recent Summit on Measurement organized by the International Association for the Measurement and Evaluation of Communications (AMEC), where delegates from 35 countries shared, discussed and debated strategies to provide meaningful measurement.

As a member of the IPR Measurement Commission and a participant in the movement to create standards in public relations, I wanted to hear what was top of mind for the global communications leaders in PR, government and academia. Not surprisingly, presentations focused on moving from measurement to insights, finding meaningful measures in social media and demonstrating the value of PR. But the most compelling presentation for me was one that asked: Are we measuring the right things?

At its most ambitious, our industry tries to correlate PR activity with sales results. For example, we attempt to show that by garnering media attention in target outlets, our client was able to boost sales by a definable amount. Maybe we even use market mix modeling to tie each element of a marketing campaign to a dollar value in sales. Yet I have suspected, for a long time, that this agenda won’t ever meet all of our expectations.

Kevin Murray, author of The Language of Leaders, and CEO of The Good Relations Group, stressed at the meeting that value isn’t where it used to be. He estimates that, worldwide, $35 trillion in value lies in soft or intangible assets like reputation, relationships, culture, leadership, intellectual property and trust. These assets are increasingly unstable, or in flux, due to 24/7 communications and other legacies of digital and social media.

Building intangible assets like reputation and relationships is essential to growing business value, but how do we measure it? The question is familiar to many PR practitioners, who are often frustrated when asked to measure the ROI of their work.

We see plenty of very large numbers connected to this quest. Reputation Dividend, a reputation and brand research consultancy, estimates that corporate reputations on the S&P500 accounted for $3.7 trillion in value at the start of this year, or 21 percent of the market capitalization. Yet, PR professionals know that the advantages their hard work confers on clients often are intangible – things like stronger corporate reputation, better employee engagement, supportive stakeholder actions, or, perhaps, an improved regulatory environment. These achievements are the outcome of long term investments that will only deliver results over time.

The role of measurement is to alert us to where the reputation and relationship vulnerabilities lie, so we can work to strengthen them and maximize business value. Murray’s firm measures performance against three elements that they call the “Power of Good”; good actions, based on doing the right thing even when no one is looking; good engagement based on personification, or how stakeholders would feel about them if they were a person; and good recommendations, the likelihood to recommend to others.

The approach at Chandler Chicco Companies is called the METRIC Model – for Measuring Engagement and TRacking Influencer Communications. It’s based on the identification and tracking of the desired actions of key stakeholders, such as disseminating information to target audiences through their owned channels, which are assigned a weighted value.

Regardless of approach, and wherever possible, we need to document and standardize the use and value of intangible assets, highlighting how they are integrated into the communications process and how they contribute to business objectives. At the recent meeting, many speakers emphasized that this is an elusive art. One delegate proclaimed that “relationship capital” is an essential part of an organization’s worth, established and sustained through public relations efforts – but extremely difficult to measure.

Perhaps the most important presentation – and certainly the No. 1 reason I wanted to be at this conference – was that of Jim MacNamara, PhD, Professor of Public Communication at the University of Technology, Sydney, Australia. He said that we tend to over-emphasize quantitative data in PR. In doing so, we create one of the most daunting barriers to credible measurement and evaluation. Instead, MacNamara argued, we should recognize that PR outcomes include human interpretations and mental or emotional states, such as awareness, perception, attitude, opinion, trust, loyalty and relationships. While we often try to measure these intangibles in different ways, the value cannot be easily quantified.

Uncovering insights that can inform future strategy requires qualitative as well as quantitative data – and lots of it. MacNamara proposed a new approach called the MAIE Model (for measurement, analysis, insights, evaluation), which effectively de-links measurement and evaluation. It involves in-depth analysis that goes beyond the usual corporate quest for insights based on internally generated, or endogenous, data. It is only after this stage, when insights are drawn from exogenous data (from external sources), that evaluation – making a “judgment about the value of something” – happens.

The focus on relationships, intangibles and qualitative data should remind us that public relations and communications are about people, not media. After all, media are nothing more than channels. In contrast, the real purpose of communications is to influence behavior, attitudes and perceptions. That is the outcome that we need to assess – though the output may not resemble our traditional buckets of dollars and cents.

Marianne Eisenmann leads the research and insights function at Chandler Chicco Companies, part of inVentiv Health. She is a member of the IPR Measurement Commission. 

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5 Comments

  1. Thanks for your excellent post Marianne. Your question, “Are we measuring the right things?,” is spot-on. In my view, we are not, and the reason is rooted profoundly in the industry’s self-regard and self-want. In other words, we measure not what we are paid to do but what we we’d like to think we’re doing.

    It is in my opinion folly to measure intangibles such as reputation, trust, credibility, authenticity, values, etc. when these are (1) subjective, (2) indirectly affected and (3) shared responsibilities. None are things for which communications can be held accountable; and, yet, communications has seized them as their management domain.

    As some know, I have worked to define an ontology of irreducibly unique stratagems that are common to all forms and functions of influence. To a great degree, this has been spurred by your very question. You can view this here: http://www.playmakersystems.com/the-playmaker-system/

    What I believe we should be measuring is an entity’s ability to influence. Not to be better liked. Not to be more genuine. Not even to build better relationships. These are means to a more basic end, which I believe is to guide the decisions and preferences of stakeholders. In thanks to the communication scholars like Jim Grunig, we all might prefer to ply our trade with perfect two-way symmetry. But to operate only in that paradigm is exceedingly self-limiting and not worthy of our clients’ and employers’ expectations. Nor of our full professional ability.

    Communications exists to influence and, in the end, advance a person or organization’s competitive advantage. As such, we require more certain knowledge of the specific units of our work (I argue that they are strategies) and definitions that allow us to identify and quantify the presence and effects of those strategy units. Without such frameworks, we are literally like alchemists, mixing what we ‘think’ smells good and might work. By contrast, we should be more like modern biologists, certain of the strata in which we operate and the exact species we study and seek to manipulate.

    For more, please read my recent blog, “Honestly, PR is Dishonest,” here: http://bit.ly/1tZQ5fn

  2. Thanks for the provoking post, Marianne. In particular, I like this breath of fresh air: “The role of measurement is to alert us to where the reputation and relationship vulnerabilities lie, so we can work to strengthen them and maximize business value.”

    In PR’s understandable eagerness to embrace measurement, it seems that many have allowed what can be measured to define PR. The dark side of the mantra “If you can’t measure it you can’t manage it” is that it places limits on our aspirations. As you point out, we measure media because we can, not because it’s what we really want to know; it’s just the flickering shadows on the wall of the cave.

    To your doctor’s visit analogy, David, I’ll point out that your doctor will probably also ask if you’ve recently been divorced, or changed jobs, or had a new baby. That’s because such events can dramatically affect one’s health, albeit in ways very difficult to assess or quantify.

  3. Hi Marianne. I agree with David: Great post!

    One of my main concerns through my career in PR research has been the emphasis on measurement and evaluation at the expense of formative research.

    More to the point, when trying to measure the right things, as David notes, we need to derive communications goals that support or drive business goals. That means understanding what we want stakeholders to do and having some sense of what it will take to get them to do it–corporate actions, messages, appropriate media, etc. This leads us to the objectives that lead us to sales, stronger relationships or a better reputation. Developing that understanding is what the formative research is about.

    After reviewing Professor MacNamara’s MAIE Model in the Measurement Standard Article to which you linked above (MAIE Model), I am a fan. My only challenge with it is that he uses the word “measurement” to describe what I would prefer we call “formative research.” I believe “measurement” is now equated with evaluation. But that’s just me quibbling. Hopefully, the MAIE model will enable us to re-emphasize the contribution of formative research to PR and communications effectiveness. I believe we need to do this for management to understand what PR and communications can do and for us to be able to evaluate it in a meaningful way. The insight into what to measure, should be the same as the insight into what to do.

  4. Great post, Marianne. A team led by Tim Marklein (then at W2O Group) and Allyson Hugley (Weber Shandwick) prepared an excellent resource for the Council of Public Relations Firms on when and how to use return-on-investment. Their conclusions are summarized in the Coalition for Public Relations Research Standard on ROI available at http://www.instituteforpr.org/return-on-investment-roi/. This document contains references to thoughtful articles by Fraser Likely and by Tom Watson & Ansgar Zerfass.

    The first key first of the Marklein/Hugley recommendation is to use return-in-investment ONLY when both the investment and the return can be measured in financial terms. PR professionals are not fooling anyone by playing around with the term ROI to sound smart or quantitative. More important is their second point, namely that ROI probably UNDERESTIMATES the total value of public relations, as public relations builds reputations, brands and so on.

    My approach to “measuring the right things” has always been to identify business goals and objectives, derive communications goals and objectives, and then go through a rigorous process of identifying appropriate metrics or key performance indicators. These metrics should be multi-level, measuring at the levels of (i) activities, (ii) outputs, (iii) engagement, (iv) cognitive change or outtakes, (v) communications results and (vi) business results.
    An excellent white paper on setting measurable objectives is available on the Institute for Public Relations web site. I have expanded upon my views in several places including the following presentation.
    http://www.instituteforpr.org/advancing-public-relations-measurement/

    Jim MacNamara’s approach is very thought-provoking. However, what is evaluation other than comparing results with objectives and determining actin plans? As an analogy, I go to my doctor. He measures my blood pressure and cholesterol. He assesses the results in terms of my age, lifestyle, and overall health; this is the evaluation. He then prescribes appropriate medication; this is the action step.

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