What are Standards for Public Relations Research, and Why Do We Need Them?

In my last post, I talked about the process being used by the Coalition for Public Relations Research Standards, a process built upon the recommendations of the International Organization for Standardization. This week, I would like to discuss why we need standards, what a standard is (and is not), the benefits of standards, and the risks of a failure to make visible progress in developing and adopting standards. Let’s start with a story:

Put yourself in the position of the new Chief Communications Officer of a corporation with four business units. Each unit has its own internal public relations group, each with its own external agency and research partners. You are coming up to your quarterly management review with your C-level peers, and you want to demonstrate how public relations contributes to building organizational value. As your team attempts to compile a report, you are frustrated by the multiplicity of definitions and metrics, defeating your efforts to build a complete picture of how public relations helps. Furthermore, you find that you cannot learn from one campaign to the next because you lack comparable data. Why does this problem exist? Because there are neither standard metrics nor standard measurement practices.

We know that the marketplace is demanding standards. As one communications executive expresses it: “I can’t afford the dueling banjos of measurement anymore … We need to develop a position on these standard definitions and metrics now or be left behind.”

So what is a standard? According to the ISO:

An ISO standard is a documented agreement containing technical specifications or other precise criteria to be used consistently as rules, guidelines, or definitions of characteristics to ensure that materials, products, processes and services are fit for their purpose. It is a living agreement that can have a profound influence on things that deserve to be taken seriously – such as the safety, reliability and efficiency of machinery and tools, means of transport, toys, medical devices, and so on. (http://www.iso.org/iso/support/faqs/faqs_standards.htm)

What does this mean for standards in public relations research and measurement?

  • Standards can take many forms, ranging from operational definitions to guidelines to absolute rules. This is especially important for processes such as research and measurement.
  • Standards can apply to processes as well as to nuts and bolts. One of the best known is ISO 9000 and related standards for quality management systems. ISO 2600 guidelines on corporate social responsibility should be directly relevant to the corporate communications function.
  • Standards are an agreement, voluntary, among industry partners to deliver benefits to suppliers, customers, and partners.
  • A standard is a “living agreement,” in other words they take time to grow, develop, and mature, and they change over time.
  • If we take public relations research and measurement seriously, we should work together to develop standards.

So what are the benefits of standards? David Michaelson, Ph.D. and Prof. Don W. Stacks, Ph.D. of the University of Miami answer that question in a recent paper. The single biggest benefit for our profession may well be comparability. Standards enable comparison across programs, brands, business units, and organizations. Standards thus facilitate organizational learning and better public relations practice.

Furthermore, Michaelson and Stacks point out that standards harmonize definitions and methods, thus allowing research professionals to focus on designing measurement and evaluation programs, research design, and delivering insights to clients. Standards will boost innovation and encourage competition based on insights rather than black boxes.

Better research data and better insights will enhance the credibility of the research and measurement function, as well as the importance of public relations in building organizational value.

What are the risks of inaction? Quite simply, if the profession does not develop and make visible progress on research and measurement standards, standards will be imposed by large client organizations and/or by purchasing departments

So where are we today? We’ve seen a lot of action in standards for public relations research in the last nine months.

  • In October 2011, the Institute for Public Relations (IPR), the Council of Public Relations Firms (CPRF), and the Association for the Measurement and Evaluation of Communications (AMEC) formed a group to define, develop and promote industry-leading standards for social media measurement.
  • Also in October 2011, in what has come to be known at “The Conclave,” Katie Paine brought together Coalition members with a broader group of clients (Procter & Gamble, SAS, Thompson Reuters, Dell) and association representatives from the digital space, including WOMMA, Digital Analytical Association (Formerly WAA), the Advertising Research Foundation, IABC, IAB, and SNCR to find out what the entire industry space was doing about measurement standards. This group completely overlaps with the IPR-CPRF-AMEC group described above, and will issue joint deliverables.
  • In February 2012, The Institute brought together several leading organizations—Council of Public Relations Firms (CPRF), the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management, the International Association for Measurement and Evaluation of Communication (AMEC) and the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA)—in the Coalition for Public Relations Research Standards (CPRRS). This Coalition, which will grow globally, will both initiate and coordinate standard development efforts across the industry.
  • This month, several working teams under the CPRRS umbrella published discussion documents and proposed interim standards in areas including traditional media measurement, ethical practices and guidelines, and social media measurement,
  • Several other initiatives are in progress, including the measuring the communications life cycle (awareness, understanding, perception, interest, and advocacy), ROI, and program measurement.
  • The marketplace ultimately drives the adoption of standards. Consequently the CPRSS announced the initial members of a customer panel that will, in essence, provide a final determination that “this looks like a standard we can use.” Initial members include Jackie Matthews, communications research, General Motors, and Molly McKenna Jandrain, external communications manager, McDonald’s USA. Other members will be announced shortly.

Remember that standards development is a multi-year process. We are rolling out the first deliverables over the summer, and look forward to others by the end of the year.

How can you be involved? First, track updates on the Institute web site and standards microsite (live in August), on the social media measurement standards web site, and on Coalition member sites. Second, provide regular feedback on discussion documents and proposed interim standards. Third, share updates on standards with your clients. Finally, participate in Coalition member events to comment, link and share information

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One Comment

  1. Bang On .. David you have dealt with one of the key deterrents that hold back communication professionals from adopting research… the multiplicity of indices overwhelms, the gains from the data are least understood and the relevance of research to business decisions a pipe dream. At CARMA International, ….. that I represent in India, the focus is therefore to understand the PR program at a client company. Then understand the questions and areas of knowledge the media analysis research should address. The twin focus at CARMA International to offer customised research solutions and qualitative insights makes research more credible and relevant. @khannaneelima

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