Views: Proving the value of public relations

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I look forward to the time when there is no longer a need to cover this topic in magazines like Strategic, writes Dr Martina Byrne.

To all those working away measuring and evaluating (M&E) their team’s work on an ongoing basis, and using what they learn to brief their clients and inform future strategies, I wish you continued success. You are well placed to prove the value of public relations to anyone.

For those who remain to be convinced that M&E is necessary rather than an optional extra, I hope this article might help.

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In a nutshell, the value of public relations is the contribution it makes towards delivery of an organization’s objectives. Just like every other part of an organization, be it Health & Safety or Human Relations or Finance.

Whether it’s motivating people to stop/start certain behaviors, hold/reject certain attitudes, spend/save, vote for/against, communication is key. So central is it in fact, that it can get taken for granted. Unless something goes wrong. Then, we see a rush to excuse or explain a failed strategy, policy, or action, by blaming ‘poor communication’. Then, everyone becomes an expert on the centrality and value of strategic communication.

The responsibility sits with the profession to educate clients and employing organizations on this value. And that goes beyond the production of media monitoring or website traffic reports. These are reports on outputs. They tell others what you did, not the value of what you did. Not the contribution you’ve made towards the organization’s objectives.

I know from talking to some of our PRII members that such reports are sometimes all that the client or employer may want or expect. If, for example, the brief was ‘Get us lots of publicity for…’ And we’ve all had those kind of briefs!

If, however, the brief is to increase sales by X% year-on-year or improve staff retention rates by X within Y period, then the public relations practitioner can devise a communications strategy that will deliver that organizational objective in the most cost-effective way. And, when they report to their client or manager, they will tell the story of what they did (inputs), what they achieved (outputs), and how that underpinned the increase in sales or the reduction in staff turnover etc. observed in the relevant period.

Those are the organizational objectives public relations should be focused on delivering. Those are the organizational objectives every other management function is focused on.

Another expense?

Good measurement and evaluation practices do not necessarily require significant financial investment. At least, not a significant additional investment to what most professional communicators are already doing. 

The inputs (what you did) are easily recorded by team leaders. The outputs (what you got) are already being recorded in media monitoring reports, attendance figures, online analytics etc. So, what’s left? The outcomes. If your brief was to increase sales of X, find out from your client or sales team how sales of X went over that period. And the client or employing organization has that information. It is, after all, their business or organization objective, their purpose, their raison d’etre. Likewise, HR will have the employee retention figures from before and after your campaign.

That demonstrates the value of what you did. Connecting what you do to how the organization does

AVE’s are dead, long live the Barcelona Principles

The standardization of measurement and evaluation in public relations gained pace over twenty years ago. The Barcelona Principles were agreed as global best practice at the European Summit on Measurement in 2010. Thirty-three countries and five global PR and measurement organizations agreed to that first iteration. A sign the Principles were being implemented is that they were refined in 2015 and again in 2020. One of the most talked about Principles is the rejection of Advertising Value Equivalence (AVEs) as a valid measurement of public relations (or as a valid measurement of anything, in my opinion). AVEs have been the subject of intense criticism for years because they claim to put a financial value equivalence on public relations and communication work. They don’t.

Research shows that fewer public relations professionals around the world are using AVEs nowadays and recent communications graduates don’t even know what it is, but there remains work to do to eliminate its use. For example, our Awards for Excellence in PR in Ireland disregard AVES as a measurement of anything, as do other Awards around the world.

When I talk to practitioners in Ireland, a common reason for continuing to report AVEs is that ‘that is what the client/boss/brand manager is used to and it’s what they like’. I understand that, and no one wants to displease, but I urge people to read twenty-two reasons not to use AVEs by Richard Bagnall, past Chair of AMEC. AVE is a misleading and useless vanity metric. A simple calculation based on figures from an advertising rate card (even they still exist!).

Every professional service, every aspect of how we do things changes over time, and while it takes time and effort, public relations professionals must take on the responsibility of demonstrating that AVEs have no credibility and that best practice is to follow the Barcelona Principles which are, CEOs and CFOs will see, much closer to the reporting needs and discourse of the C-Suite because they start by looking at the organization’s objectives, common to all management functions.

Demonstrating ROI to get a seat at the C Suite

Referring back to my opening remarks, communication with stakeholders is a fundamental part of the management of any organization so, of course, communicators should be at the decision-making and planning table. That way strategies, policies, and actions can be evaluated against the likely impact on the organization before planning has gone too far, costs incurred, reputations damaged, stakeholder relations weakened and investors spooked. 

Public relations should be in the C-suite from the outset, identifying and advising on emergent or contingent issues. The reputational benefit of having communication professionals working with other management functions towards positive Environmental, Social, Governance and Purpose outcomes is obvious. 

Good public relations advice may not be expensive, but it is invaluable.

Last word on evaluation and measurement?

T.I.N.A. There is no alternative. 

If a professional advisor can’t or won’t measure and evaluate what they contribute then really, why would anyone pay them or their fees? 

So, demonstrate the connection between ‘what you do’ and ‘how your client or employing organization does’ on an ongoing basis. Along the way you will learn what works and what doesn’t.

Think of any investment of time and money in measurement and evaluation, as building a sustainable business. Your business.

Dr Martina Byrne is chief executive officer of the Public Relations Institute of Ireland (PRII) and the Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA) in Ireland.