Long-time Measurement Standard contributor Jim Macnamara calls for more collaboration between industry and academics and points to next steps. He will further outline a new approach and model for PR measurement and evaluation at the upcoming AMEC Summit.
by Jim Macnamara — The ‘march to standards,’ as Tim Marklein and Katie Paine described the international project to develop standards for measurement and evaluation, is no small or brief undertaking. Nor is it an unimportant one. To the contrary, I take my hat off to those who have planned and initiated the ‘march’ and I urge those not yet enjoined in the quest to do so. Your future, and the future of public relations, depends on it.
The PR industry has grappled with measurement and evaluation for a century since Edward Bernays and Arthur Page used public opinion surveys and media monitoring in the early 1900s. Intensive focus has been placed on measurement and evaluation since the 1970s. But, despite 40 years of discussion, studies in Europe, the U.S., and elsewhere show that practitioners still cannot clearly and rigorously establish the impact of their work and the value it contributes to an organization.
While there are some shining lights in measurement, attempts to measure and evaluate mostly demonstrate the extent and reach of outputs such as media publicity, Web pages, and other information materials such as newsletters. As one CEO I know says, “Producing outputs makes you a cost centre; it’s only producing desired outcomes that makes you a value-adding function.” The industry must overcome the century-old output-oriented stasis and make real progress in measurement and evaluation.
“Producing outputs makes you a cost centre;
it’s only producing desired outcomes
that makes you a value-adding function.”
While supporting recent initiatives, I am compelled to point out that industry history shows the pursuit of effective measurement and evaluation is a ‘long march’ and that the history of long marches shows it will require unity, cooperation, and rigor beyond what has been achieved to date.
Two long marches in history tell us something important about great quests and about the strength, commitment, and unity required to succeed:
In the final desperate days of World War II, 300,000 American, British, and Commonwealth soldiers held as prisoners of war in German Stalags in Poland were told to gather their belongings and were marched out of the camps into the snow and ice of a European winter. They marched hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of miles across Poland and were not expected to survive. But large numbers did because of their determination and grit. As the war ended and the POWs were found, the march became known as the Long March to Freedom.
A very different communist Chinese example also tells us something important about dealing with difficult challenges – as well as something about the determination and resilience of modern China. In 1934, one of the great political and military maneuvers of history took place when disparate units of the Red Army of the then emerging Communist Party of China were forced to retreat by the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party. One of these units, the First Front Army, was on the brink of annihilation by General Chiang Kai-Shek’s troops in Jiangxi Province in south-east China. To prevail, the communist forces – among them a young leader by the name of Mao Zedong (also written Mao Tse-tung) – had to do what seemed impossible. They united as a single body and marched 9,000 kilometeres (6,000 miles) in 370 days to the rugged north-west of China. Some 87,000 soldiers traversed mountains, swamps, and deserts where Nationalist Party forces were thin on the ground or non-existent because they did not expect Mao and his compatriots would go there. What became known as The Long March was completed by only 10 per cent of the force that left southern China. But Mao, who is credited with devising the strategy, rose to leadership and, after replenishing his forces, returned. The rest is history, as they say.
The PR industry is engaged in a long march in the pursuit of standards. The lessons of history give us clues on what to do next and how to succeed. Two key learnings in particular inform the next steps and future direction of the march to measurement and evaluation standards:
1. Marshall the troops to ensure all of the available resources are engaged and united.
Many industry leaders and progressive companies and organizations have committed themselves to the ‘march to standards.’ But many others sit on the sidelines content to not measure or to keep using methods such as AVEs because no one has bothered to look too closely or question their validity. Individual PR practitioners and more organizations need to step up and commit to the cause.
One particular area in which resources are under-utilized is the substantial corps of academics with research qualifications and methodological expertise. As commendable as the work of the Coalition for Public Relations Research Standards and the Social Media Measurement Standards Conclave is, it has not engaged to any significant extent the hundreds of academics around the world with expertise in social science research methods, interpretative research, statistics, ‘big data,’ and analysis. In some cases, academic research has been completely ignored.
It is sometimes argued that a gap between industry and academics exists because the latter are focussed on esoteric theory and don’t understand the realities of practice. But there are a significant number of cross-over academics who have both practice and scholarly backgrounds – yours truly included – so there is no excuse for not engaging academics front and centre in the march to standards. On the other hand, in an academic article I published recently, I urged academics to look beyond academic conferences and writing for elite academic journals read by peers and focus on the impact of their work, which requires engagement with industry.
2. Recognize the rigor required to succeed.
In order to have credibility, standards for measurement and evaluation need to have clear consistent definitions and be based on rigorous methods and processes. I am disappointed that my class of Master’s degree students, most of whom are mid-career practitioners and industry leaders of tomorrow, cannot use the standards as they stand because some elements contradict or misinterpret social science research methodology texts by eminent authors that we use.
The lack of engagement of academic researchers has no doubt contributed to gaps, anomalies, and inconsistencies that exist, as well as valuable models and theoretical knowledge that are missing from the standards. Hence this call for greater cooperation and collaboration – and not only standards, but the highest standards.
Jim Macnamara PhD, FPRIA, FAMI, CPM, FAMEC is Professor of Public Communication at the University of Technology Sydney, a post he took up in 2007 after a 30-year career working in journalism, PR and media research which culminated in selling the CARMA Asia Pacific franchise which he founded to iSentia (formerly Media Monitors) in 2006. He is the author of 15 books including The 21st Century Media (R)evolution: Emergent Communication Practices ( Peter Lang, New York, 2010, 2014) and Public Relations Theories, Practices, Critiques (Pearson Australia, 2012).