Measurement Crucial to PR’s Business Value

My learned Australian colleague Geoff Barbaro waxes rant in a post from 17 May (US time), where he inveighs against measurement.  Perhaps not the concept, as much as the practice. He asks:

Do you measure how you look after your family? Do you count the meals, the trips to school, the time spent with children to evaluate effectiveness? When you buy that great new dress or suit that you love, did you then sit down and work through complex metrics to measure what you did?

So why do you think it’s different in business? I’ll tell you why, it’s because you don’t trust people to do the job you employed them to do. You don’t believe they are motivated and care about their work, so you can only make sure they are working by measuring what they do, and then argue that this is the motivational tool. Measuring because “we do what we measure” is a failure of leadership, a failure of motivation, a failure of selection, a failure to define values, a failure of engagement and a failure of communication.

Sorry, Geoff, but this is fuzzy-headed thinking about a vital enhancement to the profession of Public Relations.

I started a comment on Geoff’s blog (a fine and interesting read, btw), but found that it was all too likely that I’d hijack it. And that’s not right. So, here is my reply to Geoff’s shot across the bow. Man the torpedos!


Oh, my. Nothing like an existential rant to get one’s blood up, eh Geoff?

Let’s start by differentiating terms. Measurement isn’t gotcha. It’s not “check-up-on-the-poor-employees.” Neither is it merely about outputs or activities, at least not when it’s strategic.

We in PR have long been the only department in a firm that can say to the C-suite, “trust me” and get away with it. The question on the CEO (and CFO, especially) mind these days, however, is, “What business value do I get for my investment in PR?”

We can take a SWAG (stupid, wild-assed guess) at the answer, but then we sound like witless weasels (um, we build reputation and protect…uh, no, uh, we get media coverage…no, uh, we help the organization communicate effectively, wait, ummmm.)

The fact is that most of us don’t have a clue what the quantifiable business value of PR is, and that’s why PRSA has commissioned a task force to work on that very question. It’s also one of the driving forces in modern PR. It’s created an industry specialty that people are finding value in, even though there is much sophistry and bad measurement out there.

In modern business, every department must contribute to the bottom line. So, direct sales and the support for sales is a winner, as is direct effort to improve efficiency, save money, etc. There’s also credible research about the effect on brand awareness, attitude and disposition of various PR activity. On the internal side, engagement metrics, and employee knowledge and behavioral metrics lend credence to a communicator’s value.

The trick is to a) Measure what matters; and b) Link communication outputs to business outcomes. This is, indeed, a hairy process, filled with risks — bad math the most prevalent, if you ask me.  Correlation is not causation, but frequently it’s a pretty good stand-in for it, if your math is good.  We mustn’t give up on the goal of establishing impact metrics and ROI just because it’s so much easier if we don’t!

I don’t know, Geoff, if I agree that “what gets measured gets done,” but I’m sure that if you can’t measure it you can’t manage it.





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7 Responses to “Measurement Crucial to PR’s Business Value”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Katie Delahaye Paine, Sean Williams. Sean Williams said: Measurement is Crucial in PR, despite what @Geoff_Barbaro said: My response: […]

  2. Sean,
    Nicely written piece, but I wish you’d gone for the burst blood vessel like I did. Let me add a couple of quotes from my post:
    “Organisations should be measuring achievement. Are we reaching our goals, are we moving forward, are we still innovating and meeting market demand.”
    “Yes, you need to have performance evaluation methods in place, but not measurements of what we do. Try some measurements of what we achieve, measurements of what we’ve learnt, measurements of how we’ve grown, measurements that can motivate, recognise and reward.”

    My rant was about a mantra that claims as an absolute that we do what we measure. The we in this case is not PR people, but people. To view it as a piece about PR measurement is a little on the navel gazing side.

    Not only do I reckon people do an awful lot more than what is measured, but also the mantra makes measurement the driver for everything we do, which is absurd.

    Cheers, geoff

  3. Sean says:

    Geoff — thanks for the comment. The deal is that we communicators need to connect the dots for our executive team. They will thank marketing, sales and themselves for all of those achievements and complain to us that they don’t understand what they get from our efforts. The measurement infrastructure, when done correctly, supports that goal.

    As for whether there is a mantra that we do what we measure, I have heard people say that we must do what is measurable — any campaign needs to have its measures/metrics in place.

    Navel gazing? Perhaps, but it’s in my nature to think hard about what we all do!

    Thanks again,

  4. Michelle says:

    Sean – Having worked with engineers for many years, I can assure you that they strongly resist being measured and go further to suggest that their individual activities cannot be measured. As an executive, I look to achievements and client satisfaction to provide any ‘metric’ – a point Geoff’s blog makes well.

    Is it at all possible that if more time were spent working toward the outcome and less time on the measurement, that consultant invoices would be less and these consultants would have time and energy to do more for me and others?

    Geoff says that “We Do What We Measure” is baloney and mounts a good case. You say “Measure what matters” which I believe is actually Geoff’s point. The difference being that what matters is the bigger picture and that achievement must be seen and be heard often in qualitative ways. Allow those who engage professional services to assess if those achievements are consistent with what was promised, our values, and provide a suitable platform for moving forward.

    It occurs to me (not a PR-expert, nevertheless a daily practitioner in life and biz) that an understanding of what is delivered by PR experts is achieved over a long journey involving substantial discourse. Maths can be bad, bodged or simply beautifully spun BS. Nevertheless, I also appreciate that measures and metrics can provide a quantifiable tool through which campaign success is assessed and modifications determined to maximise impact.

    Please know that I, for one, am interested in the ultimate high level achievement and if I like you, trust you and can see ‘results’ for my business (such as Geoff suggests above in his reply) then I really don’t need the invoice justified with data that will tell me whatever it is designed to tell me.


  5. Sean says:

    Hi Michelle — thanks for your thoughtful comment.

    I surmise that the three of us are in violent agreement in several ways. First, that there is a lot of bad measurement consulting out there (see my 2 Vitrue posts for examples); second that measuring for its own sake in isolation is a waste of time; and last that measuring attainment of objectives is the first and best form of measurement we can employ.

    The overall quantification of business leadership (which mirrors the rise of the MBA) has challenged communicators like nothing before. We on the PR side generally come from a, ahem, less quantitative tradition, which places us at a disadvantage. Indeed, we can be quite persuasive people (and should take joy in that), masters of words, but the continuing emphasis on return on investment, the continued shrinking of communication teams and the ever-increasing bottom-line orientation of leadership demands the ability to speak the language of business.

    That language includes measuring goal attainment — including the ability to assign progress metrics for accountability purposes. That’s measurement. We dare not attempt to minimize or dismiss it’s importance, which accounts for my knee-jerk response to the learned Mr. Barbaro.

    Thanks again for taking the time to drop by!

  6. Craig Pearce says:

    A very balanced and interesting discussion, with several nuances, is going on here. Thanks everyone for the stimulating perspectives.

    Perhaps this is simply enhancing a view of Sean’s, Michelle, but one of the reasons the PR industry raves on about measurement and evaluation is that comparatively so little of our resources and, arguably, attention has traditionally focused on this area.

    Certainly, like Geoff says, there can be overkill, but at this stage our profession is not respected enough for the value it offers to brands and the impact it has on commercial (and other) organisational objectives to allow us to stop emphasising the need for this activity.

    In essence, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

  7. Sean says:

    Craig, much appreciated. Indeed, most firms don’t spend a sou on measurement. They ad-hoc some nonsense, or bollix up the data they have. But neither do they spend much on internal communications — one of the first staffs cut in a downturn. That’s why we have to plug on about good measurement!

    Thanks again for your comment.