PR’s Weird Science

For public relations professionals, especially in-house corporate PR departments, there seems to be an ongoing struggle to convince senior management that PR activities legitimately move the company forward.

The problem seems to be the lack of a scientific approach to communications that demonstrates how activities such as media relations are contributing to the success of the company.

Too many public relations professionals seem to think a series of news clippings from newspapers, magazines, even the Internet, are assessments. But as we mentioned in last week’s article, news clips demonstrate what the PR department is doing (outputs), rather than what it’s accomplishing (outcomes).

Glen M. Broom and David M. Dozier, public relations scholars and authors of the book Using Research in Public Relations: Applications to Program Management, developed a guide for practitioners on how to apply a scientific approach to communications activities. It all goes back to research – research before, during, and after a campaign or specific activity. It takes constant evaluation and measurement.

The Institute for Public Relations Research and Education (IPR) has also put together a handy online guide for measuring and evaluating PR effectiveness at With an impressive list of well-respected contributors, it’s worth a visit.

Step 1: Recognize That You Have A Problem

The first phase of research is to assess the market or the situation – or to define a specific issue or problem that needs to be addressed. This could include issues such as a negative public opinion of the company or a lack of name awareness altogether.

This research then gives the PR practitioner an issue or problem which needs solving. But don’t depend on your CEO to make the connection; you have to spell out how this particular problem may affect the company’s bottom line. If people think your company is a bad community citizen, then the likelihood of their patronizing you is greatly reduced.

There are several tools available for PR practitioners to assess opinion or attitudes among key constituents. They include focus groups, interviews, polls, and surveys.

The Institute warns against trying to compare PR effectiveness to advertising effectiveness. While the combination of the two can lead to broader results, an us vs. them approach will not be helpful to anyone involved.

Once the problem or issue is defined, the company puts together a detailed public relations plan. Note that we say THE COMPANY puts together the plan. While the public relations department may provide counsel and leadership in planning and implementation, senior administrators and other key internal players need to feel they’re part of the solution if it’s to be embraced. (This also helps give management a better sense of what the PR department does for a living!)

Will Schmooze For Food

The second phase of research and assessment monitors your activities. If the campaign or PR program is longer-term, you can adjust strategies as you go.

Finally, once your campaign is finished — or at a reasonable time into the campaign — the research will focus on results. There are several standards for measuring PR outcomes, according to IPR. You can measure awareness, top of mind recall, attitudes and preferences, or behavior.

Once the PR department can develop scientific measurements and deliver results to the top of the corporate food chain, we may all be pleasantly surprised how the profession may be regarded.

While it’s great to be responsive to reporters’ requests and develop those media relationships, the PR function in a company won’t be elevated to the senior executive level until there is some serious research, measurement, and evaluation.

As long as you’re just dropping off a stack of news clips on the CEOs desk, you will be falling short of the full PR function.

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