Why PR professionals need to learn the language of the boardroom

There has been more talk than action on measurement in PR in the past couple of decades. Kate Magee attended the recent AMEC conference to hear the latest proposals.

AMEC conference in Dublin
AMEC conference in Dublin

It is a frustrating thought. In 1998, PRWeek launched a campaign called Proof to encourage PR professionals to dedicate ten per cent of PR budgets to pre-planning research and evaluation of results. Fast-forward 14 years and there is very little evidence this has been adopted in the UK. Worse, Aspect Consulting London MD and former ICCO president Richard Houghton says he believes that across the globe, up to 60 per cent of PR campaigns are not measured at all.

Last month hundreds of international delegates decamped to Dublin for the fourth annual AMEC (International Association for the Measurement and Evaluation of Communication) conference to participate in the latest discussions about proving the value of comms activity.

Inside the room, progress has been made. There are ground rules - the Barcelona Principles, which state that campaigns should have clear objectives and be measured against them, and the Valid Metrics system, which PRWeek has covered previously.

But progress outside the room appears to be slower. The PR landscape varies dramatically across countries. There is no simple replacement for AVEs because influence is complex and cause and effect are hard to measure. Relevant metrics change according to the objective of each campaign; there is no 'one size fits all' approach.

The belief that measurement is expensive also hinders its cause at a time when PR professionals are coming under increasing budgetary pressures. As the Public Relations Institute of Ireland CEO Gerry Davis says: 'Yes, clients will say they are interested in measurement, but they are not willing to pay for it.'

Signs point to this improving. A Q4 2011 survey of 640 senior PR practitioners in the US (USC Annenberg's Generally Accepted Practices for PR) found nine per cent of corporate PR budgets are now being spent on measurement. Another survey by the PRCA found 61 per cent expected evaluation spend to grow in the next five years.

And it would not be a moment too soon. Achieving an agreed standard of measurement is critical for the industry's long-term success. It will be increasingly hampered by the lack of defined measurement standards as it is interrogated by procurement. It will never move up the value chain if it cannot prove its worth to the board. Chris Foster, principal of strategy and organisation at management consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton, says: 'There is a great desire to have measurement data in the C-suite. Here, it is not acceptable to not have measured something.'

Speaking the language of business

Ironically, a major issue to emerge from the conference was that communicators were not communicating their value effectively at board level.

'The way we are talking about what comms can do for a business is not translating into the C-suite. If we reframe it, we'll get a very different reaction,' says Foster.

WCG practice leader, technology & analytics, and co-chair, Council of PR Firms' Measurement Committee, Tim Marklein agrees: 'Too much of measurement is presented in our language, not the language of business. We need to do more data visualisation and bring storytelling around data so it's not just stats.'

Foster's colleague, Booz Allen Hamilton's vice-president Grant McLaughlin, uses an example of a US army Pinterest campaign that was widely seen as successful, but when the team told the general about it, he was unimpressed. This reaction, he argues, occurred because the team did not lead with the general's priorities, which were driving cost-effectiveness and reducing suicides. 'You need to come at a problem from the C-suite's perspective,' he says.

Foster advises PR professionals to change the way they view comms. Start, he says, by identifying the business problem and then fix it. 'I believe in the power of comms to solve some of the biggest business problems that we are trying to solve. It is a strategic and powerful business tool. We have to think about the value of what we do in terms of solving problems for clients, because if you solve a business problem, you won't have a problem with budget,' he says.

Marklein backs this up: 'CEOs know the value of PR because they are on the front line of reputation. They know a bad piece in the FT will affect their audience.' He argues that when faced with heavy-handed procurement departments, PR professionals should ask them to answer their own questions: 'Flip their questions back to them and ask why are you spending money on PR?'

It is also important to recognise that PR is not synonymous with media coverage, argues Philip Sheldrake, chair of the CIPR's measurement and evaluation committee and founding partner of Meanwhile.

Foster says that only ten per cent of his comms engagements have media as a metric of success. 'The reason is that I'm not leading with media as the solution,' says Foster.

Increased literacy

But in order to speak the right language PR professionals need to become more financially literate. One presentation, for example, used the term 'non-financial ROI' when discussing the business benefits of comms.

'There is no such thing as non-financial ROI,' says Sheldrake. 'If you used that term in a board meeting they'd usher you out of the room. It's OK to deal with non-financial metrics.'

He argues that the dominant performance management system in the corporate world is the balance scorecard. 'Three out of four are non-financial metrics. Bridges are being built towards us, we should use them,' he says.


AMEC recognises that there is still work to be done to educate clients and PR professionals about the Barcelona Principles. During the plenary measurement debate at the conference, delegates were asked to identify key priorities for such a campaign.

Delegates said there was a need for more research, including listening to the target audience of any education campaign before launching such an initiative. But after a vote, the following five statements were seen as the most important:

1. Help PR professionals establish appropriate goals and objectives

2. Provide PR professionals with a clear understanding of the differences between outputs, outcomes and business results

3. Promote greater understanding of how executives in the clients' C-suite define business results

4. Create a standard for measurement that can be universally applied

5. Focus on developing case histories that provide concrete examples of best practices


Katie Paine

In November 2011, AMEC's Social Media Task Force reported on its first findings about social media measurement. Initial recommendations were that social media measurement needed to focus on outcomes, not outputs, so basic quantitative measures like number of followers were useful but not particularly valuable, and that the PR industry needed greater transparency from vendors of measurement rather than a mysterious 'black box' approach. At the AMEC conference, the task force published a 'plain speaking glossary' that explains what terms should mean. It can be found on AMEC's website.

WCG's Marklein and KDPaine & Partners CEO Katie Paine have also set up SMMStandards, an initiative to define an industry standard for social media measurement that is backed by 11 organisations (including AMEC, IPR and PRSA) and clients that include Dell, Ford, P&G, Southwest Airlines and Thomson Reuters.

At the conference, the pair argued that all social media measurement reports should include a standard 'content sourcing and methodology' table that helps clients understand what is inside the product for full transparency and easy comparison.

This table answers key questions including -

What content is included?

Which channels? How deep? How is the data captured?

Are multiple languages captured?

How are key metrics calculated for reach, engagement, influence and opinion/advocacy?

How is irrelevant content from bots, spam blogs and aggregators filtered?

How is sentiment coded?

Are search methodologies included and search strings disclosed?

Multipliers should not be used, they said. In fact, dividers are more appropriate because few followers 'read' every tweet; only eight to 12 per cent see Facebook posts.

Value can be calculated in positive returns (sales, reputation) or avoided negative returns (risk mitigated, costs avoided).

The pair are expecting to give the next update in October.

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