How To Measure The Effectiveness Of Your PR Program

Eight Ways to Use External Measurement To Strengthen Your Public Relations Programs

by John J. Barr


Cascadia Communication Associates


For the first fifty years after its birth in the 1920’s, Public Relations struggled for respectability within business, government and not-for-profit organizations. The economic revolution that began to hit North American business in the early to late 1980’s turned this “struggle for respectability” into a “struggle for survival.”

The massive restructuring of business was a ruthless process of “demonstrate your central strategic value to the organization…or look somewhere else for a job.” Many in-house public relations departments were dramatically downsized. Thousands of corporate public relations people, their feeling of security and trust in the organization shattered, found themselves on the street. And the survivors steeled themselves for the challenge of demonstrating how they added value to the organization's core business.

Some PR practitioners yearn for the golden age, when crafting well-honed articles for the glossy company magazine or administer the corporate donations budget were ends in themselves. More realistic PR practitioners see in the “add value or perish” challenge, a priceless opportunity to re-focus their efforts and to start functioning as a vital strategic part of senior management.

Here are eight things that smart public relations managers and consultants have learned about the use of external measurement to demonstrate the value of their programs in this environment:

1. Use strategic public relations planning to “connect” your public relations program to your organization’s central mission. The PR group must have a well-researched and empirically-based business plan, linking every one of its activities to the support of the organization’s key business goals. This forces you to be a leader – to sail close to the wind, to understand the vital mission of the larger organization, and to craft creative communications and relationship-building strategies to help the organization get there. After all, if your activities and dollars aren’t being spent to tangibly advance the organization’s goals, why are you doing them?

2. Ensure that every program has a clear business objective. You can’t measure the effectiveness of something which has no clear purpose. Ruthlessly evaluate your present programs and ensure that they have goals, clear ones that can be tested. If they don’t, either set clear goals for them or get rid of the activity. In this process you’ll often find activities whose purpose is rooted in some executive whim of yesteryear, or which came into being to remedy some problem which no longer exists. This problem is particularly acute in governments, where public relations managers must constantly struggle against the pressures of politicization.

3. Ensure that every objective is measurable. The key test is: if your program succeeds (or fails), how will you know it? If you can’t answer that question, your objective isn’t measurable. This discipline will force you to set objectives which aim at tangible changes like:

 How your organization is regarded by particular groups like employees, investors, or regulators; or,

 Achievement of a desired government policy or regulatory ruling.

How far you push in this direction, obviously, is a matter of practical judgment. If executive management wants to see major shifts in public opinion, for example, it will be up to you to recommend a strategy to get there, and that strategy may be multi-year and composed of layered goals. Just ensure that each is measurable so you’ll know whether you’re making headway or not.

4. Commit to measurement as part of your planning cycle. Get in the measurement habit by baking it into every program you run. Ideally, measure in the second quarter, since you set next year’s budget parameters in the third.

5. Remember the old carpenter’s adage: measure twice, cut once. If measurement shows you’re not reaching your objective, carefully examine why. Was the objective attainable in the first place? Did you have sufficient resources? Did other factors intervene to change public opinion despite your best efforts? If you’re in doubt, use a different measurement tool to test your theory.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you launched a campaign to build employee support for a new benefits plan, but an employee opinion poll shows that employees are less supportive now than when you started. You conduct focus groups to find out why. You learn that rumors of a company restructuring (which management hasn’t responded to adequately) have “poisoned the well”: employees are suddenly suspicious that a new benefits plan is the precursor to income cutbacks.

6. Select the right measurement tool for the purpose. There’s a measurement technique for virtually every purpose. Consider one or more of these:

 Formal polling. Smart polling now has many ways of detecting even subtle changes in opinion and perception, and the best pollsters are very adept at probing beneath people’s surface opinions to detect not just what they’re really feeling, but why.

 Focus groups. A focus group can be convened relatively quickly and can be a useful device for at least establishing the most common grass-roots opinions (for example, towards a new product, or a corporate logo). The opinions of focus groups are not statistically projectible so beware of treating them as a reflection of “public opinion”; remember their limitations when considering their input, and always ensure that the focus group itself is planned and managed by competent researchers who know how to recruit group members and how to manage the discussion fairly and dispassionately.

 Media content analysis (including Internet). You clip and tape the news media (and presumably you’re monitoring the Internet…aren’t you?) What are you doing with the inputs? Media opinion isn’t the same thing as public opinion (at least not always, not right away) but it’s one indicator. Media and Internet coverage should be evaluated for content, which includes message pickup, reach and frequency. And that pattern should be compared to your program objectives. If you sent a message, who heard it? Where, and how often? What other messages did they hear?

 Consultative audits. A new cousin to polling and focus groups, the consultative audit is a highly targeted set of one-on-one “managed conversations” with key opinion leaders, usually carried out by your public relations agency or research house. Its purpose is to uncover how important people feel about your issues and why they feel that way. The consultative audit is especially effective with highly expert but hard-to-reach elite groups like investment analysts, editorialists, and government policy advisors.

7. Ask for sufficient resources to meet your goals. One of the benefits of this kind of clear-thinking public relations is that it forces you, and empowers you, to request enough dollars, people and time to get where you want to go. When you set a goal, ask yourself under what conditions it is achievable; that will tell you what resources you will require.

In the early years of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, when there were only a few thousand American advisors in the country, the Kennedy administration sent General Matthew Ridgeway, the tough old veteran of Korea, to Vietnam to estimate how many troops it would take to achieve the administration’s goal of pacifying the country. His estimate: one million soldiers. Even administration “hawks” paled at his recommendation: the requirement couldn’t possibly be that large! Ridgeway’s assessment went on the shelf. Manpower was increased in incremental steps. At the end of the day there were a million American soldiers in Vietnam, and it proved too few.

Don’t be cajoled into promising a public relations objective you can’t possibly attain with the resources at hand. It’s a recipe for guaranteed failure.

8. Use external referees for objectivity and credibility. It is not enough to employ tough, fair measurement of your programs; you must also seem to do so. That’s why smart managers don’t evaluate their own children, they use external consultants to do so. Reputable third party consultants bring two strengths to the job:

 Your target audiences will usually talk to them more frankly than they will talk to you. This is especially true in situations where target audiences question your organization’s policies or practices. Doing your own surveying is very unwise in this instance.

 External evaluators have no vested interest in defending the status quo, so their evaluations have more credibility with your management.

Appropriate use of these guidelines will radically improve the effectiveness of your public relations program and will demonstrably increase your effectiveness in influencing your executive or client to follow your strategic recommendations in future.



John Barr, a Canadian communication consultant with more than 30 years of experience in media, politics, corporate communication and consulting, works with private and public sector organizations in the following fields: -Financial services (including insurance and banking) -Natural resources and energy -Transportation. He also works closely with not-for-profit organizations, particularly in health care. He provides strategic communication counsel and various kinds of communication trai...

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