Insight: Relationships deliver outcomes and are true measure of effective public relations

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WHY have we not yet mastered the task of mapping the value of public relations? More accurately, why haven’t we mastered articulating its value in a way that is widely understood and adopted? Why is it that the merit of investment in public relations is not something that can be identified and understood by all as being of systemic and sustained value? 

It is because it is being viewed from the wrong place. In the absence of a developed narrative about the value of what we do, we have allowed the effect of public relations to be measured by reference to its process and through the lens of others. 

To state the obvious, money is a universal currency. Almost every organization in society, and not just commercial ones, uses money to quantify what it does. Financial turnover and efficiency in the use of available resources is a proxy for success or failure, whether that is about attracting or accumulating funds – though sales or investment – or in doing more for less as is often the case in non-profit or public sector settings. Consequently, any measurement that maps to money is easy to do.

While the professional practice of public relations as we know it has been in the making for about a century and a half, it only began to adopt the characteristics of ‘an industry’ in the 1960s and 1970s as television changed the way people learned about the world around them. 

It was unheralded and dynamic territory with no playbook, and no frame of reference for success. The medium created a new frontier. Public relations embraced the opportunity to communicate to more people quickly. The media opportunity defined new opportunities and possibilities and public relations found itself bracketed with advertising as seeming bedfellows in the exploitation of this new format.  

With advertising space given a financial value by its owners, the merit of public relations work in the same space attracted the concept of ‘advertising equivalence’, notionally putting figures on the communication efforts shaped by public relations work.

That basis of measurement is long since discredited as a true indicator of value, but in the absence of an alternate of note, it became established because it was easy. The real difficulty for public relations is not just that it was, and in many cases unfortunately still is, using the wrong tool – it is also measuring the wrong things. 

Public relations was never just about media. Its true measure is not just in the packages of information that it transmits or the extent to which that package occupies the means by which it is transmitted. It isn’t entirely either about who has received, understood, and acted on that package.

The ultimate function of public relations is to feed and nurture relationships with the people around us that matter – investors to a business, donors to a charity, customers to a retailer, savers to a bank, voters to a political party, citizens to a State.  

History and practice assure us that it’s easier to sell to existing customers and solicit donations from previous donors than find new ones and that engaged employees are the most productive.

Each has a need to understand the other. Through public relations we provide the means to do so. Too much of public relations has lost sight of this reference point.   

We need to think again, and further, about how we sell and value public relations. The Barcelona Principles correctly center on outcomes as a basis for evaluation but outcomes too can be singular. We need to go further to recognize what will deliver repeated outcomes, elaborated outcomes and added value outcomes. That is relationships. 

The definition of success in public relations is about the depth of mutual understanding and frequency of engagement with the cohorts in society that matter most to those that we represent and advise – the relationships they can build. 

The work of public relations is communication. Effective communication is at the heart of every successful organization with a flow of information to and from those that have a stake or role in what it does.

Success for public relations has to be measured by how those who receive connect with those who transmit, and not just on a one off or transactional basis. It is about relationships. Connections are the basis of relationships and public relations is the business of supporting relationships. 

We need, therefore, to add to the language which we use to describe success in our work. We need new reference points that are more detailed in their articulation of the relationships that matter to success and why.  

We will only then know what is needed for sustained success, what to listen out for and how to shape our work accordingly.  

Padraig McKeon is a specialist senior advisor on strategy, issue and crisis management in communications with over 35 years’ experience across a range of business, public and non-profit sectors in Ireland and overseas. He is a fellow of the Public Relations Institute of Ireland, of which he is currently president, and has been granted chartered practitioner status by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations in the UK.