In PR, Measurement Moves From Fuzzy Math and Social-Media Snake Oil to Actual Metrics

The Profession Is Starting to Find Ways to Calculate the True Worth of a Campaign

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Everywhere you go in business, talk centers on Return on Investment. Who has it? How relevant is it to your campaign? Do clients really care?

A key factor in this discussion is measurement standards. Not exactly the sexiest topic, but one that is getting some serious attention.

Ad Age has written about the progress that marketers have made in developing more stringent standards for calculating a brand's value. In the public relations field as well, measurement is moving beyond mere talk, from a communications perspective. My colleagues are beginning to turn discussion into metrics, debate into new protocols.

At the recent ninth-annual North American Summit on Public Relations Measurement, which I attended, the call-to-action was clear: we must remain keenly focused on developing objective global measurement standards that meet brands' needs for effective communications and reputation management. The age of hyperbole is dead.

The measurement summit, co-hosted last month by the Institute for Public Relations and Public Relations Society of America, followed a groundbreaking meeting in Barcelona in 2010 led by the International Association for Measurement and Evaluation of Communication and the Institute for Public Relations. Delegates from more than a dozen countries endorsed seven Barcelona Principles for global measurement standards. And this past June in Lisbon, the European Summit on Measurement advised on what the industry should focus on in years to come.

The public relations profession has long grappled with how to effectively -- and objectively -- measure value. There is no shortage of immodesty when it comes to reporting the worth of a campaign. I recently heard of an account team claiming that a re-tweet of an article by @CNN was equal to three million "hits" for its client!

The biggest hurdle has been to put to bed the use of Advertising Value Equivalency, which the Barcelona Principles resoundingly denounced. Conceived decades ago as a way of tying PR campaigns back to advertising, AVE measures the value of media space that PR achieves. It is a poor and inaccurate value indicator.

Public relations' value is more than merely getting media coverage. PR doesn't fit within the neat and tidy landscape of advertising rate sheets. Measuring reputation, credibility and trustworthiness isn't that simple.

Feel-good talk doesn't replace results. As an example of the work that remains, look no farther than the CNN Twitter case, or the Australian PR executive who told The Wall Street Journal that the value of the image he sold on behalf of the infamous kissing couple in the Vancouver riots was worth $10 million Australian dollars, which he quantified by "throw[ing] a number out of thin air."

We have a ways to go before clear and demonstrable proof of PR's value becomes the profession's universal standard. This includes the difficult task of finding accurate measures of the effect of social media. But I am confident that the public relations industry is making good progress toward meeting its lofty measurement goals. In doing so, we'll have fused 100 years of industry practice with the practical challenges and demands of the modern business community.

Rosanna M. Fiske is chair and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America.
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