Evaluation is one of the most contentious steps of the public relations process. PR professionals are often pushed to prove that their work is actually increasing their client’s success, and not just to their clients. The issue of the “legitimacy” of public relations work often stems from the fact that practitioner’s effort may not directly relate to monetary objectives (Pieczka 2000, pp. 214). Instead, PR campaigns aim to fulfill communication objectives, which include “concepts from communication theory and psychology such as knowledge, attitude, and behavior” (Pieczka 2000, pp. 213). One of the problems with these objectives when it comes to evaluation is that they are “virtually impossible to measure in a truly meaningful way” (Firefly Communications 2014, pp. 3). Of course, that hasn’t stopped PR pros from trying: from measuring AVE to the Barcelona Principles, finding ways to properly address the value of public relations to business through measurement a major issue facing practitioners today.
One of the best ways to make evaluation easier is to focus on developing strong objectives. By creating goals that are both measurable and meaningful, determining success or failure during the evaluation stage is simplified. Meaningful objectives will align with an organization’s goals (“Statement of best practice…” 2015). Aligning objectives with these goals is important because they “[affect the] methods of measurement and definitions of success” of decision-makers (Friedman 2013, para. 3). Working with a client when developing objectives makes measuring success more straightforward, and can help clarify the value of public relations practice to those who are a bit wary.
However meaningful they are, objectives are useless unless they are also measurable. This is the part where it gets tricky for PR practitioners. According to the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) guidelines, published in 2015, there are four types of measurables in public relations work, listed from least to most important: input, output, out-takes, and outcomes. In evaluation, it is often much easier to measure outputs such as media placements, because there results are quantifiable and “can analyse the degree of exposure and audience reach” (“Statement of best practice…” 2015, para. 6). However, outputs are hardly an accurate measure of how well a campaign has worked to reach a client’s goals. This is why measuring outcomes is so important. Outcomes focus on “awareness, opinions and behavior,” which are more difficult and expensive to quantify effectively (“Statement of best practice…” 2015, para. 10). To add another layer of complexity, changes in a consumer’s opinion or behavior can be difficult to link back to public relations activities: “If a customer or prospect ventures on to an organisation’s website, PRs haven’t been able to prove whether this was due to what they had been doing—either directly or indirectly” (Firefly Communications 2014, pp. 7). For web traffic, the use of Google Analytics can be immensely helpful, but in the brick-and-mortar world, there is nothing quite as advanced.
Combating the problems associated with PR evaluation requires knowing how to evaluate qualitative and quantitative data (Friedman 2013). By using both types of information, PR professionals can demonstrate how different communication practices can contribute to business objectives.
Pieczka, M. (2000). Objectives and evaluation in public relations work: What do they tell us about expertise and professionalism? Journal of Public Relations Research, 12(3), 211-233. DOI: 10.1207/S1532754XJPRR1203_1