Advancing communications measurement and evaluation

What Is the Meaning of Measurement? Part 1

In Part 1 of this series we get expert consensus on the meaning of the term “measurement.” The industry and practitioners, however, use the term in a different, much broader, sense. And that difference gives us a clue as to an important dysfunction in the measurement industry, to be explored in Part 2 next month.

What does the term “measurement” really mean? The Dictionary of Public Relations Measurement and Research, Third Edition, by Don Stacks and Shannon Bowen, defines “measurement” as:

A way of giving an activity a precise dimension, generally by comparison to some standard; usually done in a quantifiable or numerical manner; see also: data, scale

Oddly, although the Dictionary is the standard reference for public relations measurement, this definition does not refer to “measurement” as used in the terms “public relations measurement,” or “the communications measurement industry.” And only in the most abstract respect does it relate to the actual process of communications measurement.

The problem that communications measurement has with the term “measurement” is that it is commonly used with both narrow and broad definitions:

  • In the narrow sense: To gather comparative data on something. As in the Dictionary’s definition, above.
  • In the broad sense: The process of improving a communications program by setting objectives, gathering data, analyzing it, and then refining the program. This is often an iterative process, with the cycle repeated. This broader sense of “measurement” is used by many practitioners as a convenient synonym for “research, measurement, and evaluation” or “the research process of improving a communications program.” It is the definition we typically think of when we refer to “the PR or communications measurement industry.”

In this first part of this series, we ask the experts to help define “measurement.” In Part 2 next month we’ll examine the broader definition, and what the difference between these narrow and broad interpretations reveals about the communications measurement industry.

Let’s ask the experts: What does “measurement” mean?

Tina McCorkindale, President and CEO of the Institute for PR, is quite clear that measurement is just one part of the research and evaluation process:

“…measurement is not for measurement’s sake. Measurement is a specific action that is part of a larger umbrella of research and evaluation. We conduct research to make us smarter and better equipped to make decisions. We collect data (research) throughout a campaign or program to generate insights for decision-making, and then re-calibrate, if necessary, what we do.

…Measurement of efforts is just one aspect of the research component.

…I will add that with measurement, one has to look at the big picture… How do you actually evaluate what you are doing—pre, during, or post? Measurement efforts in the preparation phase help you understand the climate. Measuring throughout the strategy helps you set benchmarks (the first one typically established in the pre-phase) and adjust. Measuring post-process demonstrates the accomplishment of goals or objectives to help organizations improve what they do. All this is part of the research and evaluation process.”

David Geddes, of Geddes Analytics LLC and a member of the Westmeath Netsortium, puts measurement into its place in research with an example from the medical world:

The research, measurement, and evaluation function plays a fundamental role in the strategic and tactical management of public relations. Consider this medical analogy:

Stephanie H. presents herself to a new physician following a relocation. First, the physician gets basic information: height, weight, blood pressure, HDL, LDL, triglycerides, and so forth. This is measurement, the generation of objective data using a standard protocol. The resulting data points are valid, precise, accurate, and reliable, yet, with no context, meaningless.

Second, the physician talks with Stephanie about her personal medical history, family medical history, medications, lifestyle, and personal goals. In this assessment phase, the physician gives meaning to the metrics by putting them into context. How do Stephanie’s metrics compare with those for a woman of her age?

Third, Stephanie and the physician progress to develop a personal health and lifestyle plan to maintain or achieve Stephanie’s goals. In medical terms, this phase might be called prescription. In business terms, this might be called developing a life strategy designed to help Stephanie maintain her desired active lifestyle while working a challenging job.

Jim Macnamara, Professor of Public Communication at the University of Technology, Sydney, agrees with McCorkindale and Geddes:

Measurement is the ‘taking of measures.’ It is a necessary stage of many things—surveying, medicine, management, etc.

However, measurement is only one stage of the research, planning, and implementation  process. Evaluation is crucial. Evaluation takes into account the objectives, the context, etc. and decides what the measure means, it value in terms of decision-making and strategy going forward.

We measure distance, height, weight, money, etc. But what does ‘two metres’ mean? It only means something—translates to value—when you evaluate it. Two metres is an outstanding achievement if you are a human high jumper, but it is impending disaster if you are the pilot of an aircraft who is barely above an airfield!

But the narrow definition is just so… narrow

There are at least a couple of difficulties with the narrow definition:

First off, we don’t just measure much of anything anymore. Back in the day, PR measurement was really just measurement. To gauge their success, people actually used a ruler to measure column inches of coverage, or the thickness of a clip book.

But today our goal is no longer to simply measure (if it ever really was). Our goal is to compare measurements to gain insight to make improvements. For proof of this just visit Google Analytics or your typical comms dashboard. There, for the most part, the data is automatically presented in tables, charts, or graphs that take the data and the user beyond simple measurement.

Secondly, a great many people commonly use the broader sense. As in “The X Steps of Measurement,” or “the IPR Measurement Commission.” Or “The Measurement Standard,” or “the communications measurement industry,” come to think of it. And that’s because most people who do communications measurement do a lot more than just measure something (see the previous paragraph).

In Part 2 next month we’ll explore how the difference between the broad and narrow definitions of measurement relates to what the measurement industry does do, what it doesn’t do, and what it aspires to do.

Thanks to Tink on Pixabay for the image.
Bill Paarlberg
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Bill Paarlberg

Bill Paarlberg co-founded The Measurement Standard in 2002 and has been the editor ever since. He has been writing about public relations measurement for 25 years. 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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