The case against science

Measurement has its advocates, but others argue PR is an art, not a metric.

Measurement has its advocates, but others argue PR is an art, not a metric.

There are moments when Bill Nielsen sounds more like a social thinker wrestling with the effects of encroaching industrialization than the head of communications at one of the biggest and most respected companies in the US. These are the times when Nielsen, corporate VP of public affairs at Johnson & Johnson, talks about the ever-increasing focus on the measurement of public relations and its effect on his profession. To his mind, putting too much stake in the various means available to translate communications activities into graphs, charts, and PowerPoint presentations not only loses sight of PR's role within an organization, but also sells short the industry as a whole. He put this is no uncertain terms at an address to the Arthur W. Page Society last year when he said, "I reject the assertions of others that if it isn't measurable, it isn't worth doing. Some believe all recommendations and programs must come with measures. But I would submit that if the complicated issues we deal with, and are expected to handle, could be simply placed in a process to be predictably resolved to the satisfaction of management, then I don't think we have a profession. I don't think we have a role." In many ways, this perspective goes against a school of thought whose foundation comes from the support of a range of stakeholders - from agency and corporate chiefs, to industry associations, to this magazine and other trade publications. The common view on measurement, which is informed in part by the recession that led to the slashing of PR programs and widespread layoffs, is that communicators need to speak the language of CEOs and CMOs and put in stark terms the bottom-line value of communications departments. In short, many think PR must stop positioning itself as an art and behave like a science, submitting itself to the scrutiny that other business functions endure, a justification of every penny spent and a demonstration of how those expenditures help a company's margins. The search for a solution To this end, and in response to a growing number of RFPs with evaluation components, measurement companies have developed increasingly sophisticated tools, and many agencies have formed in-house measurement shops. But Nielsen and other prominent industry figures are unconvinced. "I cringe at the idea of return on investment because that sounds like what we do ought to be so predictable when it's not," he says. "That goes against the very definition of public relations, which is advancing one's interest through a third party. The degree to which that third party agrees with what they heard about a company's position and chooses to talk about it, there's a presumption that that adds credibility. If we can control it, it's not public relations." When it comes to finding an adequate measure for PR, he says, "We haven't found the holy grail. And I'm not sure that's possible." To be sure, Nielsen and others aren't wholly against measurement. Rather, if there's a shared thread of thinking among them, it's that measurement hasn't evolved to the point that it accurately and fully reflects the value of public relations and that, in the worse cases, it can actually dilute this value. "There are certainly clients and executives that we work with who get comfort from looking at numbers when making a decision, and there is value in terms of the legitimacy of what we do in providing those numbers," says Charlie Perkins, Ernst & Young's director of PR for the Americas. "I still think they miss the point. Maybe we're better off trying to persuade the people we work for of the importance and the complexity of what we do rather than giving in and providing a measurement that is inadequate in portraying what we do." One of the most common complaints about available measurement tools is that they don't give top communicators within a corporation or organization the data they need to resonate with senior management. "There are some areas where measurement is very important," says John Onoda, senior consultant at Fleishman-Hillard and a veteran of communications departments at GM, Visa, and Charles Schwab. "Sometimes you need to know public opinion; you need to know the feelings of target audiences toward your products and services. But a lot of times you're asked to measure a lot of things just because you're in a left-brain organization where everyone else is measuring. And whether or not measurement is something that adds value, you measure anyway." He continues, "The starting point for measurement is the business impact." For Onoda, that means taking a clear business outcome - say, administrative approval of a new product, a sales spike, or increased market share - and working backward to determine what role media relations and other PR activities played. Too often, the opposite is true and efforts get hung up on the front-end. The most jarring cases of this happen during times of crisis. "We've all seen these crises where everyone seems to dither," Onoda says. "Behind a lot of them are these people calling for measurement and all this data and the PR guy is screaming that you have to be in the same news cycle as the bad guys or the critics and he's stymied by all the calls for data." Crises, moreover, cause problems for measurement endeavors on the back end because it's nearly impossible to account for one of the most important achievements of a crisis communications effort - namely, the stories that are kept out of print and off the airwaves. And, more generally, there's no way to quantify the effects of what the industry regularly advertises as its most valuable service: good strategic counsel. If, however, the nature of public relations makes quantifying its full value impossible, then how can that value be portrayed? This, it seems, has a lot to do with corporate culture. Nielsen, for instance, is hard-pressed to respond, being so accustomed to the environment at Johnson & Johnson where, he says, "I don't ever go to management and try to persuade them what PR has done." He adds, "My relationship with the management group here is built on their trust in my judgment." A matter of trust But not even the culture completely drives a communication department's attitude toward measurement. Perkins is able to maintain his contrarian position from inside one of the biggest accounting firms, doubtless one of those "left-brain organizations." However, he isn't keen to talk about that potential irony. Instead, he offers, "I think it's a very sophisticated corporate culture made up of very smart people, and I think they understand, particularly given the scrutiny of the profession over the past few years, the importance of communications." Onoda recommends a route of establishing "personal credibility and political mojo in a company." That means earning the trust of senior management such that a battery of research isn't necessary to defend your recommendations, especially in a pinch. It also means understanding business objectives and the role PR can play in achieving them, and making sure others in an organization know what PR can do. "You can go to almost any company and talk to the sales force and they will tell you what the media relations group ought to be doing," he says. "Nine times out of ten, they'll tell you that's not happening. They need a reason to pick up the phone and make a call or have the proof points to close the sales - that's what all sales people will tell you. You have to go to the meetings and live in their world. They are rough-and-tumble guys; they are not these effete corporate types. They're where the rubber meets the road. That's where PR's mind ought to be, not on the esoteric things that we tend to get caught up on, these wonderful theoretical models." In the final analysis, it comes down to understanding how and why measurement should be used. Says Onoda, "Be very pragmatic about what measurement can and can't do and about why you're doing it." ----- A measured response PR measurement may have its detractors, but it also has its defenders - some passionate - who believe that the most significant misuses of measuring PR don't have to do with available technology or having too much of a focus on measurement itself, but rather with how findings are applied. "There are research programs that are overly specific or overly detailed, but I wouldn't call them overly researched," says Mark Weiner, CEO of Delahaye Medialink and the new chairman of the Institute of Public Relations' measurement and evaluation commission. Weiner says problems occur when PR people use measurement as a "crutch." He says, "People don't like what research tells them, so they just keep researching." Others in the measurement industry say technology has made great strides in linking up communications activities with business outcomes, but that future advancement in this department rests to a degree on companies' willingness to bridge marketing and sales functions and provide relevant information. "In terms of how PR supports types of business outcomes, it is possible to overlay media content analysis data with sales data, stock performance, ads, etc," says Albert Barr, founder and CEO of CARMA International. "But that data has to be shared from within the company. A number of different departments must start to become involved, and oftentimes they have reservations about sharing that data. We can only correlate our measurement with the data to which we're given access." ROI, viewed by many as a kind of ideal measure of a business activity's effectiveness, provides particular challenges, but not only to communications departments. "Not having an easy ROI can't be the answer because it doesn't stop other very strategic departments within an organization from doing it themselves," said You Mon Tsang, founder and marketing director of Biz360. "The results may not be ROI, but instead the effect I can give you on reach, the effect I can give you on the website coverage. It may be further upstream, but if you didn't even have that, then how would you know the impact you have on the organization?" The repercussions are clear, adds Tsang. "The loss is a long-term lack of credibility because there's no long-term impact that can actually be seen by the communications department."

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