Alex Aiken: Learning lessons from German comms measurement

The Germans are now exporting communications measurement. At a conference in London last week the German Public Relations Society (DPRG) and the International Controller Accounting Association (ICV), unveiled their 'Controlling Communications' approach.

Alex Aiken: PROs can draw lessons from Controlling Communications
Alex Aiken: PROs can draw lessons from Controlling Communications

This is designed to allow public relations to fit seamlessly into a general management framework through vigorous evaluation. Their approach has involved universities, companies and PR practitioners across Central Europe and has wide support.

The question is whether this model has the potential to be a communications BMW or a Trabant.

The Controlling Communications approach focuses communications success on building reputation by working to a tightly defined communications plan to deliver 'outflow' goals such as increased asset value and the strategic objectives for the organisation.

Progress is measured through a set of direct outcomes around knowledge of the organisation and its products and indirect outcomes including attitudes to the business.

They are in turn related back to the internal and external communication outputs measured in terms of efficient spending and media analysis. All this is based upon an allocation of inputs - project spend and staffing that is designed to deliver the reputation goals.

In summary, you match resources to desired outcome and then plan specific activities to deliver a desired brand.

What is interesting is less the approach - many practitioners would be familiar with the general input/outcome idea - but more the rigorous analysis and collective approach which gives communications credibility.

It puts PR work on a par with other corporate disciplines such as law and finance and so empowers communicators. Senior leaders in an organisation can see the value communications brings in delivering their corporate strategy, based on a shared management analysis.

It is an indictment of British PR – supposedly world leading – that other countries can get academics, business people and communicators together, address the question of what communications can achieve, design an approach and get it accepted in the management framework across borders while we still debate principles. Perhaps this is the ‘British PR disease’.

Controlling Communications has its flaws. The name would inspire some pretty robust feedback from staff and the British press. The German concept really doesn’t translate – literally it means 'performance management and leading by measureable goals'.

But there is a more substantive criticism made by UK practitioners at the conference. While the model measures inputs and outcomes it does not allow or credit the contribution that communications makes to improving the quality of decision making in an organisation. This is the proper role of communications – to listen, analyse and advise based on what the audience is saying and our judgement of how we should shape and sell the corporate story based on the perceived credibility of our messages.

It is also worth noting that it is a linear model. It assumes that certain inputs create outputs. In the real world ‘stuff happens’ – crisis, competitor actions and government intervention. While the makers of the model claim that they allow for this, it is difficult to see how it works through their calculations.

And it is interesting that is takes a renowned German project to make us consider our approach. Measurement is still pretty much a small business in the UK compared to the apparent industrial might Mitteleuropa. Despite the excellent work of AMEC, exemplified by the Barcelona principles, there are still too many random and sub-optimal methods of evaluation including discredited AVEs in operation – a random flick through the pages of PRWeek awards highlights this every year.

Controlling Communications has some impressive advocates. Deutsche Telecoms measure the progress of their corporate strategy against the framework. Siemens have centralised their communications and saved money across the organisation as a result of analysis based on the approach. Both organisations are clear that it helps the business.

Ultimately Controlling Communications doesn’t fully translate but the rigour and scope of the German model should make British communicators consider whether we have sufficiently credible models to win corporate credibility, and perhaps build our own flexible and nimble ‘Mini’ version as a result.


Alex Aiken is director of comms and strategy at Westminster City Council.

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