Going down the rabbit hole – evaluation and measurement in 2020

By Emer McDevitt MSc Public Relations, Manchester Metropolitan University and CIPR Student Representative 2019 -2020.

As communication experts, PR practitioners should find it relatively easy to highlight their contribution towards the organisation’s goals and objectives. Yet unlike other disciplines, PR’s inability to communicate its strategic impact is a contradiction that has enveloped the industry for years.

These questions formed the basis for a research project and culminated in what can only be likened to Alice’s plight in wonderland – if Alice had been chasing an elusive concept rather than a white rabbit.

Academic research is conclusive, if practitioners were to implement a “best-practice” evaluation framework such as AMEC’s IEF (Integrated Evaluation Framework) or follow The Barcelona Principles when beginning a campaign, they would be placing the PR department in a more strategic role by default.

Yet, if implementing these frameworks allowed the public relations department to prove their value more effectively – why were practitioners not using them?

In order to understand and answer these questions, it was necessary to speak with senior practitioners – the interviews yielded some surprising results.

When looking at the topic through the prism of academic research, it was evident that operating to best practice was tantamount to a communication campaign ‘cheat sheet’.

Yet when asked about value and value producing activities, very few practitioners linked it to evaluation or measurement. The interviews with senior practitioners highlighted a lack of real understanding of the benefits of these frameworks and how they could be used to inform communication strategies.

Though there appeared to be a general awareness of AMEC and The Barcelona Principles, the interviews suggested that for some practitioners, the frameworks felt inapplicable to their activities.

This was most evident in the interviews with in-house practitioners, who were presented with more opportunities to access metrics from other departments and demonstrate their value by ‘piggy-backing’ onto Sales or Marketing. As a result of this lack of standardisation, metrics to demonstrate success ranged anywhere from sales, impressions on social, website traffic, lead generation – to AVEs and OTS.

The interviews also highlighted that although senior practitioners and their departments were engaging in strategic behaviours (a common example of this was the frequent mention of ensuring communication objectives met with overall organisational goals), they were not truly operating as a strategic management function.

Nevertheless, there were some beacons of light.

Of the practitioners who were operating to “best practice”, their effectiveness was evident and highlighted through their success. By including these frameworks in their campaigns, the cyclical nature of their monitoring and evaluation allowed them to feedback on what was working and what wasn’t. This echoed the literature, which suggests that successful evaluation can help provide insights to make the communication more effective, thus furthering the overall organisational strategy. One participant noted that:

“Well […] ultimately, if you’re using insights and measurements correctly – you’ll never have a campaign that’s wrong”.

Those senior practitioners not implementing the evaluation frameworks, is best explained by Tom Watson (2012) who suggests that the reluctance to adopt these frameworks can be attributed to an immaturity within the profession and a lack of self-confidence in its own abilities.*

Though the interviews suggested that almost all of the practitioners would agree that they offered strategic value, their opinions and methods on how to demonstrate that value differed widely. While therefore professional qualities are being enacted within the PR industry, the lack of standardisation is damaging to public relation’s move towards professionalism.

Although the reasons for not including a best-practice evaluation framework remained inconclusive, the interviews did suggest that more work must be done to ensure that practitioners of all backgrounds are taken on this evaluation journey – in order to protect the credibility of the industry as a whole.

Emer McDevitt, MSc Public Relations, Manchester Metropolitan University and CIPR Student Representative 2019 -2020. 

* Watson, T. The evolution of public relations measurement and evaluation. Public Relations Review (2012), doi:10.1016/j.pubrev.2011.12.018

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