Advancing communications measurement and evaluation

PR Measurement’s Big Obstacle: Expanding Awareness

Barriers to PR measurement adoption such as not having the time or the money to do measurement are tough, but they can at least be challenged head-on by proving the need.

Some barriers, such as lack of training and awareness can be much harder to address, mostly because of the fractured nature of the profession itself.

How do people enter the PR profession?

When you think of the modern-day path to a profession, it typically follows along a reasonably predictable path. A student in college develops an interest in a field of study, focuses on it with the objective of obtaining an undergraduate degree in the field. Internships and entry-level jobs are sought out, or the student—depending on the field—advances to a graduate degree, if required. For those who choose the medical profession, post-graduate work is then followed by a residency program.

Although this type of path is available to communications and public relations professionals, it is not required. In fact, most of the PR professionals I know personally got into the field via entirely different paths, primarily through work experience. Virtually all of my colleagues in the public affairs practice group at the communications firm I worked at arrived there with backgrounds in government and politics—not undergrad degrees in communications or PR.

The same holds true for those who work in communications at corporations—many come up through the ranks of a company, show an aptitude for communicating, and end up in the company’s PR shop. In the last decade or so, many in PR’s ranks have come from journalism as that field shrank and PR grew. A lot of internal communications professionals are housed in Human Resources.

That there are many paths to communications and PR work is one of the profession’s greatest strengths. It means that there are people who understand how to communicate with a variety of audiences and with expertise within specific fields. Public affairs professionals, for example, need to understand government and how the legislative process works—inside and out—as much as they need to know how to communicate with the public. The same holds true for many of the other specialty or practice groups such as healthcare, finance, and food & agriculture.

This range of entry points into the profession also poses a number of challenges, one of which is—oddly enough—the ability to communicate about the profession with those in it.

Professional associations like PRSA, AMEC, and IPR are an obvious starting point. It’s hard to pinpoint an exact percentage of how many communicators are members of these associations, but it’s probably fair to say that it’s only a fraction of those working in the field.

Even narrowing in on how many work in PR and communications jobs in the United States is a challenge. The Bureau of Labor Statistics gathers this type of data, and even their categorizations are confusing. Section 11-2000 is “Advertising, Marketing, Promotions, Public Relations, and Sales Managers” with subsection 11-2030 being “Public Relations and Fundraising Managers.” It’s a jumble—and it excludes anyone who is self-employed within the field. With the lines between marketing, advertising, and PR continuing to blur, there could be thousands of workers who are functionally doing PR and communications work but are not identified as such by title or tidy job description.

With a profession this decentralized, it’s no wonder that even a strong, focused effort advocating for measurement by the leading professional associations has met with limited success.

Even within PR and communications agencies the demand for training in measurement may be limited. Large agencies have practice groups that specialize in measurement, so entry- and mid-level practitioners may not have any more than a cursory introduction to limited measurement—and much of that might be driven by client demand. The more in-depth, focused measurement that relies on baseline assessment, audits, focus groups, and surveys gets handed off to the in-agency data specialists. Mid-sized and smaller or boutique agencies are often faced with the time and money barriers covered previously.

How can measurement be expanded and adopted more broadly?

Of all the barriers to more widespread PR measurement adoption, this could be the toughest to overcome because of the above-mentioned lack of cohesion of the profession. There are, however, some steps that could be taken that could increase awareness of measurement principles outside of the functioning of professional organizations. Getting the word out to the broader communications community will be challenging.

  • On the agency side, measurement adoption could be accelerated a bit by requiring awards submissions to include solid, real, measurement standards across all categories. This will need to be a push industry-wide. PRWeek prohibited the use of AVEs in award submissions back in 2011, yet we still see requests for AVEs. It won’t solve the problem on its own, but incremental steps are important.
  • Those with an interest in measurement can look for opportunities to introduce practical measurement to communicators who do not belong to any of the professional organizations. This means that measurement advocates will need to find them, rather than the other way around. Seeking out speaking opportunities that introduce measurement to industries that have a strong reputational focus (or problems) might be a good entry point.
  • Platforms and software tools will continue to be on the front lines of measurement, and could well be the single best point of introduction to measurement to those who are unfamiliar with changes in the PR and communications industry. Those in communications or PR who have a substantial volume of news coverage to track will likely seek out tools to manage that volume—even if they have no formal PR training and no connection to associations. This means that software tools that enable measurement should also consider providing easy-to-follow instructions on how to use their platforms to provide solid measurement.

The most effective way to advance the measurement cause is through peer-to-peer discussions and, frankly, an element of competition. A company that sees a competitor doing something that they are not—and edging ahead because of it—will typically come up to speed fast. The more that companies use effective measurement that shows real results, the more other companies will investigate and eventually adopt measurement. In some senses we are still, despite years of industry focus, on the front end of the adoption curve when it comes to measuring PR efforts.

Jennifer Zingsheim Phillips

Jennifer Zingsheim Phillips

Jennifer Zingsheim Phillips is the founder of 4L Strategies, and has worked in communications and public affairs for just over 20 years. Her background includes work in politics, government, lobbying, public affairs PR work, content creation, digital and social communications, and media analysis.
Jennifer Zingsheim Phillips
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