Advancing communications measurement and evaluation

PR Is Strategic—So Why Doesn’t PR Measure Its Strategy?


Alan Kelly and David Geddes Debate Strategy, the True Nature of Public Relations, and the Future of  Measurement and Evaluation

Alan Kelly and David Geddes have recently engaged in some good-natured sparring over the fundamental purpose and role of public relations, how public relations strategy can be conceptualized, and how public relations can be measured. (See Alan’s thrust here, and David’s parry and riposte here.) Today they cooperate in a more nuanced discussion; two lively minds examining what PR is and how to evaluate its success from a very different – and, to some, heretical — point of view. This exchange of views is meant to encourage debate; reader comments are welcome. (This just in: Alan Kelly and David Geddes will present this material at next month’s IPR Measurement Summit.)

Alan-Kelly-tight-headAlan Kelly is Founder & Chief Executive of Playmaker Systems, LLC. Alan’s patented Playmaker system is a comprehensive description of the most basic strategies used in politics, business, government, and society. What the periodic table is to chemistry, the Playmaker system is to social persuasion: A complete delineation of the building blocks of influence. Alan calls each fundamental building block an “influence strategy” or “play.” (See an interactive table of all 24 plays here.) He views public relations as a dance of strategies executed by way of these plays, with the goal of gaining advantage with collaborators and against competitors.

David GeddesDavid Geddes, Ph.D., is a consultant specializing in business analytics and research. He is a member and past chair of the Institute for Public Relations (IPR) Commission on PR Measurement & Evaluation, a member of the Association for the Measurement and Evaluation of Communications (AMEC), and an active speaker on research and measurement in public relations.

Part 1: Concerning Strategy and the Competition for Opinion and Share of Mind

The Measurement Standard: Alan, you introduced the Playmaker’s decision system in “The Elements of Influence” (2006). Tell us some of how it applies to public relations.

Alan Kelly: The Playmaker ontology describes 24 discrete strategies, which I call “plays.” These are the fundamental strategems that public relations practitioners use and infuse into their programs. Thus the Playmaker work provides a basis for rational and structured decision-making in public relations, a field that often eschews it.

David Geddes: PR professionals have been pushing to align their work, their research, and their measurement/evaluation with organizational strategies. They see the measurement battlefield as measuring discrete campaigns vs. measuring contributions to organizational objectives, goals, and results.

Like most developing business or organizational functions (marketing, advertising, digital, etc.), the approaches to measuring PR have tracked the work of academia and business. PR measurement has often gravitated to what is easy to measure rather than what should be measured. Outputs are easy through media measurement. Digital and social media are easy to measure. Measuring cognitive change is straightforward through properly executed survey research. We have standards in this area.

There is much glib talk about measuring ROI, while few take the time to understand what ROI actually is. We have, indeed, a standard for when and how to measure ROI. Or measuring PR against sales, though the objective of PR is rarely to boost sales. Or measuring PR against stock price.

So, Alan, I would say that you have a valid point that measurement may not always be tracking what should be measured. And yet I wonder Alan, are plays strategies, or are they tactics within an overall strategy?

PR is fundamentally fooling itself. PR’s real purpose, in my experience, is to create, keep, and expand competitive advantage for the commissioning organization. —Alan Kelly

Alan Kelly: The 24 plays are emphatically strategies, not tactics. I believe they are the most primitive of influence strategies because they are irreducible.

Think of the Red Herring, a diverting play that uses erroneous references to draw discussion or attention away from a player’s own vulnerability. It is not a tactic because it does not describe precisely how to proceed or what instrument or medium to employ. When an organization employs the Red Herring there are myriad ways (i.e., tactics) to throw someone off a scent.

The Measurement Standard: Where has your system received good reception? Where has it not?

Alan Kelly: Playmaker theory is generally well-received in sales, marketing, competitive intelligence, politics, and military information operations—all settings in which competition is keen and critical to success. But its acceptance has been slower in public relations, where debate, competition, and influence are suppressed.

The Measurement Standard: Whoa, Alan, did you just say that PR suppresses debate, competition, and influence?

Alan Kelly: Yes, but that’s not how it started. I’ll give you an example. Early in my career, I had the privilege of meeting with Edward L. Bernays, then approaching the age of 100. We talked about PR and its early development and particularly his continuing belief that the function should be licensed. “Any nut, weirdo, kook, or dope can call themselves a public relations practitioner,” he reminded me with a deadpan glare.

Later, in 1991, while researching a speech for a former agency boss, I called him and, among other topics, asked, “Is PR a competitive function?” He replied without hesitating, “Young man, if I’m dealing with bread, and my bread is better than a competitor’s [bread], then I have to emphasize my strengths over the weaknesses of my competitors.”

Despite Bernay’s perspective, most of today’s definitions of PR focus on notions of public service and mutual benefit. They describe a panacea that seems concocted and more for the benefit of practitioners and academics who know better. I can only conclude that PR is fundamentally fooling itself. PR’s real purpose, in my experience, is to create, keep, and expand competitive advantage for the commissioning organization.

Part 2: The True Competitive Nature of Public Relations, and Why PR Doesn’t Accept It. Or: Are You Not Strategic? Is This Not Why You Are Here?

The Measurement Standard: Alan, you contend that PR’s real purpose is to seek competitive advantage. But, as you imply, PR likes to present an image of being nice guys, rather than scheming spin-doctors. Do you think that if PR admitted to doing a little spin now and then it would affect its ability to function or sell its services?

Alan Kelly: PR is spin, a position I debate in this PRWeek op-ed with the former Toyota CCO, Julie Hamp. As it’s practiced today, there’s good reason for PR to tamp-down any appearance of bias, hyperbole, spin, etc. It would otherwise increase suspicion of motive, particularly by media and other intermediaries on whom PR relies to drive ideas, messages, and useful outcomes.

PR, in other words, has an institutional need to appear objective and helpful when, in fact, it is expected to advocate. So, in truth, it is constantly balancing two conflicting motivations:

(a) Stick with the facts: Engage without advocating an employer’s or client’s cause, or

(b) Conceal its advocacy: Engage without transparency of motive.

Would it help if PR were more honest? Not the profession as we know it today. But without this reckoning, we are likely headed toward licensure, as Bernays always hoped. The concealment of our influence agendas and inherently strategic nature will ultimately be recognized as an abuse of the public’s trust — the trust that PR oddly claims to serve.

Reputation is today’s snake oil… It’s a short-cut to corporate homogeneity that kills differentiation, discourages debate, and minimizes the full power of communications.—Alan Kelly

The Measurement Standard: PR is understandably eager to provide itself with a theoretical foundation, rooted in the neuroscience and psychology of how communication happens. Take, for example, Jim Grunig’s hallowed Excellence Theory and his enduring encouragement of two-way symmetrical communication. (You, Alan, have had a conversation with the brilliant, genial, and generous Jim Grunig on this, which readers can watch here.) Isn’t it possible that there is room for both communications theory and strategic theory? That they are different aspects of doing PR?

Alan Kelly: Yes! Jim and I debate the particulars on how PR should comport itself in professional settings. His theory is prescriptive and aspirational. Mine is descriptive and practical. Where we agree, however, is that communications is a function of enormous power and, as such, should be employed with considerable care.

Jim’s research and best advice has been to use it as a collaborative and trust-building function. My research and best advice is to understand ‘all’ the strategies that underlie communications and to practice it openly as a function of influence and advocacy.

The Measurement Standard: What about reputation, Alan? I know you have strong feelings about what that is, or isn’t.

Alan Kelly: Reputation is PR’s most conspicuous proxy for looking business-like and successful. But reputation is subjective and indirectly influenced, and as such, it cannot be measured with any degree of consistency or accuracy. Likewise, we have attempted without success to measure and manage a merry-go-round of concepts, such as trust, authenticity, values, and character. It is a circulating list of euphemisms that sidestep the essence of our purpose — to influence and compete.

David Geddes: But, Alan, why do you dismiss reputation so quickly? And why do you assume reputation cannot be measured? We know that financial markets do value what is sometimes called intangibles, sometimes reputation. Academics such as Baruch Lev of New York University and professionals such as Jon Lowe have shown a real impact of intangibles on business value. Buy-side analysts then translate the value of reputation into stock price. How does the story of intangibles get to be known? Corporate communications is the vehicle that brings the intangible story to the attention of the financial world.

Alan Kelly: If we had reputation figured out then we’d have Donald Trump figured out. Reputation is in the eye of the beholder. While it obviously factors into an organization’s or person’s success equation, it always comes back to the question of “which” reputation is one measuring. The one that investors value? The one that partners respect? The one that customers trust? The one that goes against convention? The one that conforms?

Seriously… reputation is today’s snake oil and, in reality, it is a dog whistle to mitigate risk. It’s a short-cut to corporate homogeneity that kills differentiation, discourages debate, and minimizes the full power of communications.

Part 3: A New View of the Measurement and Evaluation of Public Relations: “The Dark Side of PR”

David Geddes: All PR campaigns, even the lowliest, should be related to strategy. As I look at Alan’s system, what seems clear is that PR has been happy to measure what Alan recognizes as Standard Factors of Influence. But with the Playmaker system of discrete strategies, PR has a new option: To measure not simply messages and meaning, but the actual strategies that underlie its motives. Which strategies work, and which do not for a given company? How effectively is a company executing on a specific play? We should be measuring Alan’s plays, as part of building organizational knowledge and as part of a continuous improvement process.

Despite all the talk, public relations professionals are risk-averse when it comes to measurement and evaluation. The PR world is still afraid of real metrics and evaluation.—David Geddes

Alan Kelly: You can’t measure if you don’t know what you’re measuring. And you can’t do it accurately if you’re measuring the wrong thing. As I suggest in my book and elsewhere, PR, in its zeal to advance the practice, has neglected to identify the most basic units of its work. It’s as though we are biologists who have chosen to forego the construction of a phylogenetic tree or musicians who want only to play by ear.

Some contend that PR’s basic units are words and stories. Some say it’s reputation. Others focus on outcomes. But none of these are sufficiently “atomic” that they can be codified into a fully reduced and stable framework. The Playmaker ontology delivers an important, additive, and complementary piece to the puzzle by articulating the strategies that influencers (i.e., communicators) apply in their plans and programs.

You’d think that such a thing might already have been done before. But, understanding the reticence of PR folks to reveal their motives or in any way to represent themselves as manipulative is a clue to the slow progress.

My experience and work suggests that PR is a function of influence underlain by a system of 24 plays that constitute the strategic makeup of every tweet, speech, news release, and utterance. Don Stacks, the distinguished University of Miami academic, has called this work “the dark side of PR” because it identifies and details all the unique strategies of PR, not simply the pleasant ones. He might be on to something.

David Geddes: Here’s a point on which Alan and I agree: Despite all the talk, public relations professionals are risk-averse when it comes to measurement and evaluation. The PR world is still afraid of real metrics and evaluation.

Let’s ask the question of where it is more important to measure, a program that you are certain will succeed, or an innovative program that might fail. Measurement efforts should be directed to programs where the risk of failure is highest. But what corporate or agency practitioner will allocate scarce measurement budgets to show that they did not succeed? Until public relations adopts the total quality control mindset launched by the late W. Edwards Deming, I do not see this happening.

Steve Rappaport, Ph.D., is former Knowledge Director of the Advertising Research Foundation and author of several books on measurement and social listening. Steve spoke to the IPR Measurement Commission, and we compared the situation in advertising measurement to that of public relations measurement. Steve contended that measurement in advertising is heavily biased by short term needs for people to justify programs, defend budgets, get promotions, and so on. There is too much measurement to win awards and make ourselves look good—and too little measurement to advance organizational learning.

Alan Kelly: Agreed, instead of looking at what practitioners really do, the public relations measurement industry perpetuates a fantasy. It tries — in my opinion, in vain — to create stable measures for the things that scholars and PR pros prefer to have reported.

The Measurement Standard: Alan wrote in his Measurement Standard article that the Barcelona Principles “…support the myth that PR is a source of good will and mutual benefit. At the same time they ignore PR’s raw ability to navigate markets and position players…” What’s your reaction to that, David?

David Geddes: Invoking the Barcelona Principles to criticize the function of public relations within the modern organization is, well, nothing other than a Red Herring. The Barcelona Principles are a set of general principles—mom-and-apple-pie principles, in fact—that attempt to align the research, measurement, and evaluation function. They do encourage starting with organizational goals, objectives, strategies, and tactics, and then developing metrics.

Standards are the building blocks of research, measurement, and evaluation. Standards consist of definitions, procedures, protocols, and guidelines to ensure replicability of measurement and comparability of results. Standard metrics can be applied to strategy, but standards metrics are themselves not strategy, nor are the Barcelona Principles strategy. Strategy can be sexy and exciting; standards are not and never will be.

The Measurement Standard: So David, how do you see Alan’s system used in measurement and evaluation?

Let’s use Alan’s Red Herring play as an example. I can easily lay out the basic metrics for this play, each metric relying upon measurement standards.

Suppose Company X has four brands, and each brand executed a Red Herring in the past six months. It would be a natural question for the CCO to ask questions such as:

  • Which execution worked best? Why?
  • Which tactics supporting the strategy worked well? Which ones did not?
  • How can we learn from our successes and failures to advance the organization?

The goal of the Red Herring thrown by Company X is to turn attention way from Company X’s own vulnerabilities and towards other topics or players. How might this be measured?

  • Measure trends in traditional media and in social media of (i) messages about Company X’s vulnerabilities and (ii) erroneous, distracting messages. If the Red Herring is working, the ratio of the latter should increase relative to the former.
  • Measure the engagement of target audiences with the erroneous messages, for example, through visits to a company web page, downloads of position papers, tweets, retweets, blog posts, and comments on blog posts.
  • Measure the cognitive change that is occurring if the Red Herring is successful. This measurement can be conducted through an appropriate polling or survey method, using the Communications Lifecycle standard metrics of awareness, knowledge, understanding, intent, preference, and advocacy.
  • In some circumstances, it may be possible to measure desired communications outcomes of the Red Herring. For example, are citizens writing letters to the editor? Are they writing to their congressperson? The metrics will be specific to the Red Herring itself.

It would be interesting indeed to develop the Playmaker strategies into something that is both actionable and measurable, and indeed, Alan, you recognize this on your web site. Could someone structure a set of metrics around your plays, to determine whether they are being implemented successfully and having the desired results?

Alan Kelly: What I often need to emphasize is that each of the 24 strategy plays are themselves units. Their presence can be identified, counted, and represented in various ways (e.g., maps and signatures) in order to represent (i.e., measure) the presence of influence and the type of influence strategy involved. Top PR researchers have asked me this question and, to me, it’s a bit like asking how I’d measure the rulers in my hand.

The Measurement Standard: And now we’ve run out of time and space. Thank you, gentlemen, for the very enjoyable discussion. This is such a huge topic, I look forward to discussing it again. And of course we’d like to hear from readers in the comments.


Bill Paarlberg
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Bill Paarlberg

Bill Paarlberg co-founded The Measurement Standard in 2002 and was its editor until July 2017. He also edits The Measurement Advisor newsletter. He is editor of the award-winning "Measuring the Networked Nonprofit" by Beth Kanter and Katie Paine, and editor of two other books on measurement by Katie Paine, "Measure What Matters" and "Measuring Public Relationships." Visit Bill Paarlberg's page on LinkedIn.
Bill Paarlberg
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  1. Elliot SchreiberElliot

    an interesting discussion! I completely disagree with Alan regarding reputation. His views are likely based on some wrong concepts he has heard or seen in the PR field. He dismisses reputation because it depends on the person or stakeholder evaluating reputation. Why is that an issue? The problem is not that reputation is stakeholder and perception-based, but rather that too many PR people believe that reputation is normative across stakeholders and industries. The variables that comprise reputation differ greatly from stakeholder to stalker and industry to industry. Reputation is a differentiator. Those with the highest reputations outperform those with lesser reputations in the industry segment on all meaningful financial measures short and longer 5-year averaging) term.

    Reputation is based upon the expectations of value of each stakeholder has toward the organization in question vis-vis peers and competitors (alternative offerings). Companies need to understand the expectations of each stakeholder and meet or exceed those expectations. It is highly differentiating and competive,

    The problem has with reputation management is that he has been listening and hearing from PR people who often misunderstand the concept, thinking that it is normative, based on messaging, good will, or CSR. I’ve heard many PR people talk about reputation and realized that they were mistaking philanthropy for reputation management.

    On the whole, a very interesting discussion. I agree that PR is dielusional in trying to portray itself as working for social good rather than for the benefit of their firm/ organization. Their goal is influence–to separate their truth from that of competitors. Why not be honest about that?

    1. Alan Kelly

      Elliot —

      I am not too sure we disagree on the broader point that reputation matters. Where I see reputation institutionalized is in marketing, comms and public affairs functions of large corporations. You, I think, have a broader board-level view. In my experience, it is mere shorthand for “do nothing wrong,” a kind of watch word for keeping everything patted down. Thus my dogwhistle reference because in that tradition reputation can never, nor is, practiced as a developmental process. When have I heard my corporate clients say, “Hey, let’s go ’em and make our case. It’ll be great for our reputation.” Reputation seems always regarded as monolithic when, in fact, it is inherently diverse. And reputation seems always something to defend and never to prosecute.

      Related, while I will quibble that reputation can be measured, much less managed, I hasten to point out that it is a shared asset in any organization and, as such, should actually never be assigned to comms or any manager whose essential duty is to advocate. Comm’s people in this regard are precisely the wrong ones to “manage” reputation because they have an abiding interest to pump it up, like stock price. And yet we know that the best reputations are never handled.

      Thanks for your comments and interest. It’s always fun and interesting when you’re online


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