Platform: Evaluation must now show it can have an impact - It’s time to stop measuring PR evaluation methods and to start putting them into practice, says Jon White

As a result of PR Week leading the way in the current debate about evaluation in PR practice, readers should have no doubts that evaluation is an important issue in the acceptance of PR as an essential business discipline.

As a result of PR Week leading the way in the current debate about

evaluation in PR practice, readers should have no doubts that evaluation

is an important issue in the acceptance of PR as an essential business

discipline.



It may therefore seem heretical to suggest that the continuing emphasis

on evaluation is now working against the further development of the

industry.



The debate on evaluation has rumbled on among practitioner circles for

more than 20 years and now seems to have more to do with finding

justification and esteem for the industry than with its progress.



Questions about the value of evaluation have already been answered many

times over. The PRCA, ICO and IPRA all recently produced guidelines and

monographs. Going back further, to 1984, Burson-Marsteller dealt with

questions of evaluation in an excellent paper entitled ’What’s the

Impact?’, Walter Lindenmann, vice-president of research with Ketchum PR

in New York, has also discussed the topic exhaustively over the years.

He is now working on yet another taskforce on evaluation with the Public

Relations Society of America.



Lindenmann recognised over ten years ago - in the December 1988 issue of

the PRSA’s journal - that ’the hunt for the best (evaluation) research

techniques has yielded the cold, hard truth that PR programmes are not

easy to measure’.



Nevertheless, PR can be measured and in the work done at that time and

since, it’s been shown that there are evaluation methods which work.

Content analysis is but one, and the social sciences are rich in methods

which can be applied to PR, which is in essence an applied

psychology.



But evaluation is not easy, as Lindenmann recognised. It depends on

setting precise objectives, which themselves are derived from a thorough

analysis of what is to be achieved and what is possible. This is a

research exercise and doesn’t allow for sloppy thinking which may phrase

objectives in terms of changes to perception, attitudes or

reputation.



Activities have to be thought completely through to their impact, to

what will happen or change as a result of PR work.



At the moment, evaluation tends to focus on intermediate measures, such

as the measurement of media content, or survey assessments of changes to

perceptions and attitudes. Interesting as these may be, they don’t tell

us directly about impact, behavioural change or hard business

results.



Peter Hehir, chairman of Countrywide Porter Novelli, said at the time of

the publication of ICO’s standards for PR evaluation that we need to

focus on the objectives set for PR practice as a key to evaluation.



He’s right, but we need to go further, to concentrate on improving

management of PR activities.



To do this, we have to demystify PR, which is a management task like any

other. In other areas of management, analysis precedes and accompanies

the setting of objectives and adequate measures are applied to measuring

progress towards them.



Managers in other areas, who are perhaps more confident in their

territory, have recognised the difficulty of evaluation and work through

this difficulty.



In PR, the time has come for us to do the same thing. It’s time to move

on from the search for evaluation methods, which already exist, to

applying these in terms of improvements to the quality of management in

public relations.



Jon White is a consultant in management, organisation development and

public affairs.



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