Get Curious and Embrace Complexity: How To Solve the PR Measurement Dilemma

Humans beings are very complicated.

We’ve never made decisions based on a purely rational, objective assessment of what’s in our self-interest, nor do we behave and react in perfectly predictable ways.

Humans are fickle, mysterious and sometimes outright ridiculous. Consider the dozens of cognitive biases (that we know of!) that make our decisions unpredictable. Not to mention the powerful and important role that emotions play in helping us react and respond quickly to events.

But in a world of wonderfully complex humans, understanding people is quite hard. We can never know truly how another person is thinking, let alone how the 70 million people in the UK or the 7 billion people around the world are thinking. There are simply too many variables to know for sure – we can only try.

This has huge implications for PR and our ability to do measurement.

How PR Deals With Measurement

PR is based on a simple yet challenging proposition: that an organisation’s relationships with the millions (or billions) of people who encounter them can be managed and improved in a systematic way. We know that it works – there are countless case studies of PR helping businesses to grow and achieve their goals.

But PR is a very human profession. We help businesses to interact with stakeholders, but we only have imperfect information on how they think or what determines how they behave.

This makes measurement an especially difficult challenge. If it’s impossible to understand every factor that goes into a person’s opinions or decisions, how do we know if our tactics are working? How do we know how much that boost in sales can be attributed to PR? And how do we prove that PR offers good value for money?

Certainly, a lot of work and effort has been put into improving PR measurement across the industry. We are long past the days of measuring PR purely on Advertising Value Equivalency (AVE). Today, PRs demonstrate their value and ability to provide ROI based on building relationships with key stakeholders. The internet and social media have opened up the range of options for measurement and evaluation, providing fast and accessible data not only on what coverage has been secured, but also the level of engagement, the number of shares, and the interests and demographics of their readers. Even doing an automated sentiment analysis of how readers are reacting to a news story is coming within our reach.

The International Association for Measurement and Evaluation of Communication (AMEC) has been one of the key drivers in establishing industry-wide standards for measurement and evaluation. Through the Barcelona Principles (established 2010 and updated 2015), a number of core expectations have been established – i.e. you can’t just measure AVE and outputs; you need to measure business outcomes, incorporate quantitative and qualitative methods, and be transparent and consistent.

Alongside this, AMEC’s Valid Metrics Framework has helped to structure our thinking. By putting the PR process into a set of matrices and campaign phases, we are guided into thinking about measuring a wider range of factors in the PR process.

And of course a whole host of thought leadership has been put forward on the subject. The website prguidetomeasurement.org is a particularly useful resource on this.

The Crucial Element That PR Measurement Is Missing

These innovations have been hugely important. Going beyond press clippings to analyse engagement, brand awareness, business outcomes, and a host of other factors has done much to enrich PR, prove its value, and enhance evaluation.

But we can go further.

Yes, it is useful to measure the number of likes and comments a LinkedIn post gets as part of measuring engagement. After all, we can compare that data to previous posts and see whether this campaign was more effective at encouraging engagement from more people.

But aren’t you curious about why you got those likes? What part of your PR campaign worked? Why did it work with this stakeholder but not that stakeholder?

Let’s take this curiosity and explore it further. What if instead of focusing our measuring instruments solely on concepts like engagement, we looked behind them? Instead of just measuring engagement, we measure the process that leads a stakeholder towards their decision to engage.

This means asking questions like:

This is much more difficult to do, but so much more rewarding. If we can track the processes behind factors like awareness, decisions to engage, decisions to buy, etc., we get a much more complete picture of what PR is doing.

By embracing complexity, we can see the world in more detail and evaluate our actions and approaches accordingly. We can get closer to the people we are seeking to relate to, and closer to the core of what PR is all about.

Of course we don’t know all the variables that go into human decision making and opinion forming in the areas that PR is interested in. We may never know. But the more we explore and we seek to expand our knowledge, the more we will be able to measure and understand.