12 April 2011

Mine is bigger than yours: measuring the impact of public relations

This originally appeared at The Persuasion Business.

Odd as it might sound, public relations professionals spend a chunk of time trying to measure things.

Aside from wondering if what you are doing is actually producing anything other than billings, clients want to see some tangible indication of results for communications programs.

Simple stuff - like saying the story got front page above the fold in a given newspaper - is a bit dated and must inevitably be coupled with other things to give a sense of whether or not the news release got the message across. Then again, just getting a call from a reporter can give a big clue that something is headed off the rails. If the first one appears to have been a success, then there's always the other story that spins off it because your answers to the first set of questions just didn't ring true. There's at least one of those stories working it's way through the news media in St. John's these days.

No one can forget survey research of some kind, but that too doesn't quite capture what some people are looking for. Increasingly, it is fraught with its own challenges, like just getting enough people to participate. Then there's the problem, as in the case of provincial politics in Newfoundland and Labrador where some publicly available polls are frequently goosed in one way or another by one of the clients.

Simply put, though, clients want some reliable indicator of what they get for their money. They want to see a return on investment (ROI) and they need to see that expressed in a way that is meaningful, let alone meaningful to them.

Practitioners have an interest in clients seeing the value of their work, especially in long-term program or in a crisis. There are people whose professional keysters I have pulled from the flames of a controversy and earned their gratitude and their friendship in return. Some people get it.

Yet as strange as it might seem, there are others who strolled over the Credibility Chasm blissfully unaware of how the work done on messaging, interview techniques, or just simply getting their heads focused actually helped them survive a crisis. These are the people who think it's all simple because the practitioner's skill and ability make it look simple.

Just to give an idea of how big an issue measurement is, take a gander at Katie Paine's blog which is dedicated entirely to research and evaluation for communications.

That's on top of KD Paine and Partners' company website.

Katie's written a book, Measuring success. True to the spirit of ecommerce, social marketing and all those other current trends, Katie's distributing the thing free-of-charge.This is definitely not a case of you get what you pay for. Take the time to download it and Katie will reward even the non-practitioner with some insights into what public relations is really all about.

There's also Cymfony, a company that does measurement as its entire book of business.

The Canadian Public Relations Society measurement committee - yes they even have one - developed a method they endorse that measures editorial coverage and ROI. You can find more on it at cprs.ca.

Measurement is just part of research and research is the starting point for any effective plan. Research is itself a speciality within the public relations field and the real treasure is finding people who can not only spit out data but also paint a coherent picture of what the data means. The links above will give you two treasures. Plenty can lay the mosaic individual tiles. Few can then step back and help you see see the profile of Abraham Lincoln.

Bond Papers is the product of research. All the bandwidth devoted to the provincial government positions and how Danny Williams operates comes from observation. Research forms the starting point of what your humble e-scribbler needs to give clients advice on how to approach an issue involving government. Knowing the environment also helps to know how to avoid government's radar screen, but that's a whole story in itself.

What turns up on your computer screen from Bond or at Persuasion Business is just the tip of the over-used iceberg analogy. Virals, poll goosing and all that are the PR equivalent of showing how to lift an ice cube with a piece of string and some salt. The real challenge comes in knowing how to shift the entire freakin' berg of attitudes and behaviour.

And knowing why you want to move the berg in the first place.

Bond Papers has its impact and there are ways to measure that. Does it reach the target audience?

Absolutely. The three separate traffic trackers reveal the size of the Bond daily audience, the number of people subscribing, the computers they run, the browsers they use, screen resolution, language, the pages they visit, the google search terms used and a host of other bits of detail.

In many cases, the trackers identify the Internet service provider handling the visit. I can't tell specifically which individuals are reading, but there is enough demographic information to know that the people who should be reading are reading Bond. There are a lot more who ought to be reading Bond's utterances, but for now the audience is the right size.

Do people like what they see?

Yes and no.

Someone invented e-mail so people can send a note of encouragement or, more often, a rocket taking exception to something. It all goes into the research hopper to guide future development. They must like what they read, though because they keep coming back in steady and larger numbers. By the way, scroll to the bottom of Bond Papers page and you can see at least one set of results from one tracker.

As a last way of telling the impact, consider the number of stories posted here originally or linked here that turn up on the evening news, on radio or in the papers a day or two later. Ask Tom Rideout about Bond Papers and Chief Justice Green's report. The story came up again today on CBC Radio's Crosstalk on Media panel.

After the "oh, gawrsh" moment of modesty, the mention gets tossed into the research hopper.

- srbp -