"There's balls, and there's strikes, but they ain't nothin' until I calls 'em," an umpire is famously reported to have said.
I think the PR profession faces the same problem. Companies and firms spend a lot of time and effort in communicating with various key audiences - sometimes we do it brilliantly; sometimes we do not. But without an objective standard of measurement, how can we claim to have succeeded or even to have done better or worse than last time?
Companies also spend a lot of money on PR departments, programs, and agencies. So it is reasonable that communications leaders are regularly asked to show just what their companies got for what they spent. Arguably, some of the greatest creativity ever shown in our profession has been used to convincingly answer these questions without any hard data.
Without a clear, quantifiable standard method to measure our work, PR will always be in danger of being devalued. How many budgets have been cut because no one could point to the consequences of discontinuing a program? How can you look a CFO in the eye and ask for a bigger budget without being able to give that maven of mathematics some numerical justification? Heaven forbid you should be asked to show a clear ROI. But every day more of us are asked to show just that.
If these are clear problems, why has PR been unable to establish a clear set of standards to evaluate its success? I believe it is a combination of factors: fear, comfort, cost, and difficulty.
Many PR pros are clearly afraid of being held to an objective standard. They are more comfortable doing what they do best: They take whatever outcome they have achieved and describe it in the best possible light - far better than someone actually proving that a retainer hasn't been earned or that a department isn't pulling its weight. And yet good work and bad will fall prey to subjective assessments without any measurement rigor to disprove them.
Another obstacle is comfort. Most of us are far more literate than we are numerate. Statistics and quantifiable analysis are not in our comfort zones. There is a legitimate concern that not all that we do can be quantified. It's true that many opinions, tastes, and biases that we influence are probably held unconsciously, but most are not. An event, press release, or interview can be scored with objective criteria, and their ultimate effect on the target audience can be measured. Even an English major can understand that anywhere but the golf course a score of 95 beats a score of 72.
The cost of using research techniques to quantify results can be daunting. It can cost more to do a conventional survey of a key audience than to produce the VNR you used to reach it in the first place. Most firms propose measurement in initial programming, but it often represents such a large percentage of the overall program cost that budget-challenged clients opt out. But technology can be a potent weapon in the battle of cost containment.
With an investment in online systems up front, team performance and media interactions can be measured and, over time, valuable trend data can be established - making the investment more valuable the longer the systems are in place. Internet panel research can be a cost-effective way to continuously evaluate the perceptions of key audiences.
Finally, it is difficult. What and how to measure present the ultimate obstacles to establishing a standard. Until now, most techniques have focused on an analysis of media coverage. Even if it were easy to do that well, it doesn't go far enough if that's all that is measured.
An ideal standard would measure the following four areas:
1. Team performance against communications plans;
2. Team effectiveness in managing incoming media inquiries and issues;
3. The content of media coverage, and the team's effectiveness in shaping it;
4. Audience perceptions.
"Team" could mean the communications department or the firm, but, ideally, the two combined. Of course, any standard has to be adaptable to different businesses and industries, but common enough to enable basic comparisons of companies. A simple numeric score in each category could offer broad comparisons, while the algorithms producing that score could be adapted to individual businesses.
Without a standard, our industry is doomed to increasing marginalization. To establish one, PR firms can have the broadest impact because they work with a range of clients. But corporate PR staffs need to support this effort, too. Standard measurements should be built into every agency engagement and plan.
Working together, we'll be able to tell the "balls" from the "strikes." Then it's not hard to imagine a world where PR department heads could walk into budget discussions armed and dangerous, able to spout evidence that money was well spent and that more might be needed for a better outcome next year.