David Rockland is our interviewee this month. After receiving his Ph.D. in natural resources economics, he had a widely varied career, working for a trade association, an environmental non-profit, as CCO of a mining company, having his own company, in market research, and in magazine publishing. For the past 17 years, he has been CEO of Ketchum Global Research & Analytics. He retired from that role in the summer of 2017. Along with his wife, Sarah Dutton who retired as head of surveys and polls for CBSNews, they founded a small research and consulting business near their farm in Centreville, Maryland (www.rocklanddutton.com). They service a mix of Ketchum and their own clients, while also enjoying the fruits of their respective retirements.
—The Measurement Standard: Welcome to our Measurement Life interview, David! We are so thrilled to be speaking with you. First, let’s learn a little about you: How did you become interested in measurement and evaluation?
It probably dates back to my doctoral dissertation. That work focused on how you evaluate goods that are not traded in a market and on the basis of that evaluation, make resource allocations among competing stakeholders. Throughout my career, I have always focused on how you make the smartest decisions when it comes to everything from natural resources, to budgets spent on environmental education, to using communications to improve operating conditions for a copper mining company, to making better decisions across the various facets of communications and marketing.
—TMS: You are the primary author of the Barcelona Principles, which are largely regarded as the cornerstone of the movement to ingrain measurement in public relations work. Can you tell us a bit about the history of the Barcelona Principles—what motivated you to push for them?
First, to clear up a couple misconceptions – I often get credit as the author, but the reality is that in both 2010 when they were developed, and 2015 when they were updated, I was more of a convener of the ideas of many including AMEC’s members, some of the IPR Measurement Commission and PRSA members, and others. And, while I would love to take credit for the overall idea, that really belongs to Barry Leggetter, CEO of AMEC. My contribution was really to “herd all the cats,” and produce a set of fundamental guidelines that were intended to answer the question “how do you measure PR.”
Admittedly, when I walked off the stage at the AMEC Summit in Barcelona in 2010, I thought the Principles would be a passing fad. It would make a few of the trade magazines, and basically that would be it. But when they were in mainstream publications such as the Wall St. Journal, I began to feel differently. They filled a niche at that time which was to establish some foundational approaches. The problem then, and even to an extent now, was that you had so many individuals and companies claiming that they had the magic sauce of PR measurement, which was just confusing practitioners. The Barcelona Principles provided a framework that gave the industry a basic approach from which practitioners could build their own approaches.
—TMS: The Barcelona Principles were introduced in 2010—eight years ago. In your opinion, what are the reasons it has taken so long for measurement to be fully adopted into PR work?
Several things come to mind. First, you have to ask yourself whether all PR practitioners want to be measured. After all, if you have a good job with good pay and little accountability, why would you want to bring in measurement? Second, the PR field is dynamic and new approaches come up all the time. Third, there has been (although now faded), a view that PR was much different than marketing, and the Principles have a huge marketing dimension to them. And finally, things take time. But I do see regular progress and delight particularly when I see so many Fortune 500 companies adopt them as their framework, or when UNICEF or the UK government build them into their communications programs.
—TMS: The Barcelona Principles were promoted as set of voluntary guidelines. What do you think of efforts underway to force the eradication of AVEs, such as penalizing awards entries that include AVEs?
Frankly, I am not sure why we even talk about AVEs any more. I think it has been pretty clear that the cost of advertising is not the value of PR for a long time. As for penalizing award entries or other punitive actions, of course this is a good idea, because it shows that the applicant did a bad job much like thinking that getting a placement in Field & Stream is really great when you are trying to pitch lipstick; your AVE would be huge, but your effect would be non-existent (at least based on what I know about everyone I hunt and fish with).
—TMS: It’s difficult to get a large and fragmented profession unified behind a focused objective, like measurement—there are so many PR and communications professionals who rarely if ever interact with some of the professional organizations that have long been advocating for measurement. How can we reach those PR pros—and, if we can’t get every communications professional on board, how should the profession define success with respect to the level of adoption of measurement?
We measurement types have screwed up and undersold the value of measurement. It is often presented as a CYA approach to make sure your boss or client knows how valuable you are. The reality is that measurement is much more about continuous improvement and getting smarter and more predictive in terms of how a communications program will deliver in the future. If we could change the conversation on measurement from “proving your value” to getting better results, measurement would be more widely adopted.
—TMS: Public relations work has changed dramatically over the last decade. For students interested in communications or PR work, what courses would you recommend they take?
Well, if the reason they are interested in communications or PR is because they are terrible at math, find a new career. You really have to have some basic level of math or quantitative thinking to be good at PR and communications, so a couple of stats or quantitative methods courses will serve the student well. They don’t need to be experts, but need to be able to work with and understand those who are increasingly part of what makes PR effective. The saying I often heard in a PR agency that would make my eyes spin around in my head was “I’m a creative and don’t have to know about numbers.” That’s just pure BS.
—TMS: Our editorial focus for this month is the role of primary research in communications and PR work. During your time at Ketchum, you led the Global Research & Analytics program—what do you see as the role of primary research in PR? What are the benefits of incorporating primary research into a communications or PR campaign?
The answers to this question are many and varied as is primary research. From focus groups, to biometric testing, to IDIs, to quick publicity surveys to large-scale brand and reputation studies, primary research is way too broad to define in the context of a single role. Instead, however, one might consider a best practice which is to avoid being data rich and analysis poor. Way too many organizations do primary research where they don’t have uses for all the data they collect, or they underuse it by not creating the causal and other linkages that make for better communications and marketing programs. Before you go do primary research, first look at what you might do with what you already have, and then make sure every question in a survey, every creative test, etc. is going to produce information on which you can take action.
—TMS: PR practitioners seem to struggle with how to convey the value of measuring their work to clients—can you give us an example of a case wherein measurement or evaluation significantly improved a client program?
Sure. This happened with so many clients I had the pleasure of working with at Ketchum, and many that we now work with, including FedEx, Cleveland Clinic, the beef industry, Hyundai, UNICEF and many others. The key is not what the measurement or evaluation necessarily did, but wherein those working on the project on both the agency and client side saw measurement as a way to make improvement, versus to simply document past performance.
—TMS: Where are measurement and evaluation going? What great strides do you see in your crystal ball?
A few years ago, I would have answered this by saying we’d figure out how to measure digital and social communications. Or, that we would figure out how to jointly manage paid, earned, shared and owned media. Well, both of those are done. Looking forward, I would think using artificial intelligence and biometric testing are areas with lots of upside.
—TMS: If you could invent one magical measurement or evaluation tool to accomplish anything, what would it be?
Suddenly, PR practitioners would not be scared of their own shadow and what the client might say if the results are not perfect. Instead, they’d instead embrace measurement as just something you do as part of any communications and marketing program to both know where you’ve been and more importantly know where you are going, and we measurement types would be Sherpas in helping them in that journey.