We're approaching the end of the 21st century's first decade. The world is smaller than ever thanks, in no small measure, to the democratization of information engineered by the Internet. Social media and networking platforms enable people who have never met to form close bonds and fruitful relationships; “Facebooking” is just one of the newly coined verbs I've heard to describe this.
So, it bewilders me that a significant proportion of PR programs continue to use 20th century thinking and base success solely, or predominantly, on the seemingly all-powerful “impressions.” Don't get me wrong; PR outputs (of which impressions are one example) are an important part of any communication program, and require much effort and planning to be executed well. But if they don't form just a quarter of your entire PR measurement program, you're doing your organization or clients a gross injustice – not to mention yourself.
In 2002, the Institute for Public Relations' Measurement Commission published updated guidelines for measuring PR programs that explained, very clearly, how to incorporate outputs, outtakes, and outcomes in the planning and measurement of a PR program. These were based on Walter Lindenmann's earlier form of guidelines, which were published in 1997 with input from a task force that reads like a “who's who” of PR whizzes. “Measurable objectives” and outcomes are an integral part of the numerous award programs that PR practitioners eagerly, if somewhat exhaustedly, put in for year after year. Yet, these same practitioners, for the most part, tend to be overly focused only on quantifying their outputs, paying scant regard to the question that the C-suite is going to be most focused on: How did this program make a difference to organizational objectives?
There is certainly no shortage of jargon or acronyms we PR professionals fall back on. One that I think should be in every practitioner's vocabulary, though, is KPIs, the fourth component to your measurement program: key performance indicators. Your CEO might be mildly interested in how great your VNR or SMT was. But if you can show how your efforts actually made a difference to the organization's goals – how they measured up when correlated to the organization's “key performance indicators” that track its progress toward its business goals, you can be sure his or her eyes won't glaze over after a few minutes.
Structuring your PR program with organizational KPIs in mind will actually make for a better program all around. When you are clear about what your company (or nonprofit) is trying to achieve, you'll be able to clearly define communication-related measurable objectives – a fundamental element of classing communication planning. Once you do that, your strategy and tactics will fall into place; certainly more easily than if you have no idea what type of outcomes you expect. And then you'll be able to tell if the millions of impressions you generated had any impact on what your organization is trying to achieve, why your work is valuable to the organization, or why you should keep your job.
Shonali Burke is a Washington, DC-based communication consultant. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.