Public Relations: How to sit at the top table - PR agencies have finally accepted the need to offer clients accurate evaluation of results. Danny Rogers looks at the latest moves to set minimum international standards

Since its emergence in the 60s, the public relations profession has been debating fiercely how it should measure up. It is a debate that has been given added urgency by the increasing emphasis that clients place on accountability.

Since its emergence in the 60s, the public relations profession has

been debating fiercely how it should measure up. It is a debate that has

been given added urgency by the increasing emphasis that clients place

on accountability.



PR’s apparent inability to agree on a set formula for evaluating its

effectiveness has arguably been one of the greatest obstacles to gaining

a seat alongside advertising or direct marketing at marketing’s top

table.



But now there are signs that broad agreement is emerging. So, can

marketing directors and in-house communications staff breathe a sigh of

relief that their PR investment will soon be more easily measured? Or is

this another false dawn?



The industry is hailing as a breakthrough an initiative sparked off at a

conference in Frankfurt late last year. The workshop on evaluation - a

get-together of the International Committee of Public Relations

Consultancies Associations (ICO) - brought together evaluators and PR

practitioners from the UK, US, Germany, France, Italy, Denmark and

Sweden for the first time. An international ’task force’ is now

developing minimum standards and a common language for evaluators.



To this end, evaluation specialists, such as Carma, Infopress and Media

Measurement are pooling resources to publish a definitive guide to

evaluation and a clients’ guide to setting objectives. This will include

a standard consultancy briefing form to help clients and their PR

consultants agree reasonable objectives.



The task force’s findings will be presented as a ’white paper’ to the

ICO/IPRA meeting at the time of the PR World Congress in Helsinki in

June.



The first stage of this white paper will be an international guidance

paper on media evaluation compiled by the UK evaluation industry’s new

trade body, the Association of Media Evaluation Companies (AMEC).



Founder member of AMEC and managing director of Infopress

Communications, Dermot McKeone, says: ’Although a number of evaluation

companies have been meeting informally for some years, this is the first

time we have met regularly, and the relationship is working well.’



The association’s chairman, Carma’s Sandra MacLeod, agrees that progress

is being made. ’We have already circulated AMEC’s guidance paper and are

now getting feedback from other countries.’



So what is driving this new-found resolve to work together? These, after

all, are fierce commercial rivals, selling competing technologies and

systems.



McKeone believes it is the overall growth of the evaluation industry,

which in turn comes from a growing demand from PR agencies and clients

to measure the effectiveness of public relations.



’Companies have gradually been moving to the quality standards, such as

ISO 9000, and there has been a noticeable measurement ethic within

industry. There has also been a growing demand for accountability in the

public sector,’ says McKeone.



’The greatest demand over the past ten years has been from clients.

While consultancies are keener on justification - quantifying their own

benefits in the short term - clients want to know how their image stacks

up in the longer term.’



John McAngus, media relations manager at Anglian Water Group, argues:

’The European initiative is a big step forward. The PR industry has got

away with providing little accountability for many years.’ He hopes it

will bring two main benefits: ’A standardised evaluation system would be

a good tool for organisations. It would also bring a level of integrity

to an industry that has often been too instinctive rather than

measurable.’



His only concern is whether standardisation will raise or lower the

quality of evaluation. ’There are some good evaluation companies and

some less good ones,’ he explains. ’This is a good idea as long as it

doesn’t mean levelling down.’



Quentin Bell, chairman of the Quentin Bell Organisation, has more

serious concerns. This long-standing campaigner for standardised

evaluation doubts whether marketing directors are really going to see

tangible benefits from the initiative. ’People in PR are good at

complicating things rather than simplifying them. It could end up as a

talking shop,’ says Bell.



For some time Bell has been working with Raymond Wilson, corporate

affairs director of Norwich Union, and Peter Crowe of the Institute of

Public Relations’ marketing communications committee, to bring in a

basic measure for the coverage generated by media relations.



In conjunction with some evaluation companies, the working party came up

with a common unit of measurement called the media relations point

(MRP), which is designed to dovetail with advertising’s use of the gross

rating point (GRP) and the television rating point (TVR).



But Bell says this work has not been taken on board by the ICO

initiative because it has been misunderstood. Indeed, at the workshop

ICO president Peter Hehir described the PR points as ’PR pointless’.



’We recognise the idea has its faults and doesn’t look at editorial

content,’ says Bell. ’It would nevertheless focus clients’ minds on

evaluation, particularly those who don’t use evaluation at all.’



The Norwich Union’s Wilson agrees: ’I am looking for a planning tool for

campaigns. I discuss advertising, sponsorship and PR budgets with my

finance director and when it comes to measuring PR I find I am putting

my finger in the air.’



Wilson wants a single measurement criterion for media analysis, but is

worried about the difficulty in attaining European agreement. For this

reason he supports the MRP as a step in the right direction.



However, it seems some in-house people have different priorities. Lesley

Allman, external communications manager at Bass Brewers, agrees there

has been a trend in the 90s towards measurability. PR has had to improve

in this area to compete with other marketing disciplines. ’We now use

advanced evaluation of media relations, but this only measures a small

part of our activity,’ she says.



Allman says it is often difficult to compare like with like and that

media relations, sponsorship and staff communications all have different

objectives and therefore different evaluation systems. ’You can only use

the same measurement criteria if objectives are the same,’ he says.



Dr Tom Watson, managing director of Hallmark Public Relations in

Winchester, has a PhD in PR evaluation and wrote a paper for the ICO

workshop. He says: ’Marketing people are better educated in research

techniques than almost anyone and they should recognise the need for

diversity rather than simplification.



’What Quentin Bell is suggesting is a transitional stage in the

debate.



Marketing directors are not the only people who need to understand PR

evaluation. Their board colleagues will want to know what figures really

mean. With simple numerical equivalents you are comparing apples with

oranges and it’s a dead end.’



Carma’s McLeod agrees. Clients get different things out of analysis

because their concerns are different, she believes. But McLeod also

seems keen to build bridges. ’Quentin Bell’s objectives are sound and we

are trying to get our minds round whether the media relations point can

be a form of measurement, but I’m doubtful as to whether there can ever

be a standard.’



Progress is slow and difficult, admits Chris McDowell, executive

director of the Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA). He

thinks the UK industry should get its act together first, but recognises

that the initiative may be pushed forward more internationally. ’The

PRCA does not necessarily support any single group. At the end of the

day we must have something that everyone understands and this means

being client driven,’ he says.



Assuming that basic guidelines can be agreed in Helsinki, what will

happen next? Dr Watson says that the aim is to create awareness of the

breadth of research techniques available. ’I don’t believe one technique

will come out on top. It’s about best practice rather than a narrow

view.’



The key, he believes, is helping marketing directors who have spent

money on PR to evaluate whether they are really meeting their

objectives. ’A client may say ’I want to be in the Financial Times’, but

the question is ’Why?’. Sometimes the idea of who they are actually

trying to influence may go out of the window.’



McLeod agrees that the evaluation industry needs to concentrate on

objective-setting. She argues that client/agency objectives are not

always measurable - in fact they can be fairly woolly. ’Setting

realistic objectives for PR is a pre-cursor of accountability. It is

also a step towards understanding the power of strategic communications

on the bottom line.’



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