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Proving your worth: survey reveals dichotomy facing public relations.

The marketing and corporate communication we've known in the past is going the way of the dinosaur. But just as the dinosaurs' extinction fueled the world's evolution, so too is it true for our profession, with public relations as a prime beneficiary.

The return on investment (ROI) and credibility of corporate and marketing communication are becoming increasingly difficult to prove. Public relations, in contrast, is enjoying a new beginning within many organizations as more communication-investment decision-makers come to recognize the ability of PR to deliver credible and involving messages relatively inexpensively. As a result, PR professionals are being met with increased levels of accountability and scrutiny, which tasks us with proving our ability to deliver a positive ROI.


In the midst of this time of enormous change, an informal survey of 100 professional communicators attending the IABC/Delahaye Research and Measurement Conference in New York last November yielded interesting findings indicative of the challenges and opportunities PR practitioners now face.

Communicators know that they must contribute a positive ROI, and yet most don't have systems in place to assess ROI. The PR department's internal clients expect and are provided formal objectives, and yet measurement systems have not been broadly implemented to assess the extent to which a particular objective has been achieved.

What follows is an overview of the recent survey, highlighting the reported trends as well as examining why they're happening and what practitioners can do about them.

* Nearly 9 out of 10 strongly agree that: "My company's communications program objectives are tied to business objectives."

Gone are the days when clip books would suffice. Just as every other area within the organization has been required to demonstrate a measurable contribution to business goals, PR is now held to the same standards. This bucks the trend in most organizations that leaves public relations among the last departments to be held accountable. "Business objectives," of course, can mean different things in different organizations, but it almost certainly means delivering results that are meaningful, measurable and, if you're lucky, reasonable. Given the level of the respondents' self-knowledge, isn't it amazing that,..

* Nearly 5 out of 10 use "anecdotal observations" or have "no program in place to measure ROI."

Anecdotes won't cut it, and having no way to measure PR's contribution is professional suicide in the current environment. A systematic and reliable level of accountability becomes paramount. So if we know that objectives are tied to business, then it's curious that...

* Only 5 out of 10 agreed that: "My communications program objectives are measurable."

If you were building a transcontinental railroad, wouldn't you want the tracks in alignment when they meet in the middle? The fact that only half of those surveyed have measurable objectives is the PR equivalent of a train wreck, but it's surprisingly common. Senior executives with an impact on PR spending agree that objectives must be measurable, meaningful and reasonable, or it's back to the drawing board in order to help PR pros align their programs with their company's. Therefore, it comes as a surprise that...

* Ninety-six percent of all respondents agree, "Top management is aware of my communications program objectives."

Each year, Delahaye conducts survey interviews among PR people attending professional development events. Year after year, respondents concur that generating press clipping volume is the most common and most meaningful goal for a successful PR program. And year after year, PR's internal clients say that press clipping volume is the least important measure of all and that top management being aware of communication objectives doesn't mean that they support them. Senior executives would much prefer to see programs that deliver messages to target audiences, raise awareness, change attitudes and, finally, affect behavior.

Where does this disconnect come from? The mini-survey provides an emblematic answer...

* Six out of 10 respondents allocate 3 percent or less of their budget toward measuring their PR programs. Almost 4 out of the 6 spend 1 percent or less (36 percent of total respondents.)

Some respondents recommend that a fixed figure of 10 percent of the total PR budget is appropriate for measurement. Whether it's 10 percent or 2 percent, there should not be any fixed relationship between the PR budget and the research budget. Instead, it should vary with the organization's needs at a given point. For example, a mature brand with a huge PR budget may require only a fraction of 1 percent, whereas a significant new product roll-out may justify spending 10 times as much.

If your organization has no experience with PR research and needs to assess its PR environment, developing a message and media strategy and identifying potential spokespeople within a given year will require a significant investment. But once the initial investment is made, it may require only marginal investment in subsequent years to monitor the program. The biggest obstacle is often not one of dollars but of managerial support...

* Almost 85 percent of all respondents agree that "Lack of internal and budgetary resources is the biggest obstacle when attempting to demonstrate communication's ROI."

How can public relations demonstrate a positive ROI when management and even colleagues lack interest and expertise to support it? The answer may be surprisingly straightforward:

* Advocate ROI-thinking for PR within your organization.

* Speak to internal clients once each year about the PR activities, professional attributes and measures they value.

* Constantly and consistently communicate with internal clients to document success and demonstrate a commitment to improvement.

* Develop learning experiences to equip staff and internal clients with the insight and knowledge they need to understand what public relations ROI means.

* Set the pace in emphasizing the need for good research and evaluation, and others will get the message. Having a practical expert on staff can jump-start the initiative. (See resource box.)

* Take the lead in overcoming fears about "being judged or punished." Department heads protect those people who are willing to take risks by asking and answering tough questions.

* Don't perpetuate the myth that PR can't be measured. CEOs and other senior executives know better,

The profession in genera! and individual practitioners together must confront the issues we face to preserve the future of public relations. Interesting that...

* Four out of 10 respondents believe that "the biggest issue facing PR today is 'credibility/trust.' Almost 3 out of 10 say "proving ROI."

These two challenges are inextricably linked: How can PR engender credibility and trust within the organization if it cannot prove how it delivers?


The people who participated in this mini-study should know: 90 percent have worked in public relations for more than five years and more than half have been active for 10 years or more. Almost 80 percent of respondents would be considered management level and above.

As for the organizations represented, 65 percent were corporate; 17 percent, agency; 13 percent, non-profit; and 4 percent came from government offices.

Clearly, measuring ROI is one of the most critical challenges facing the public relations profession. The need has been identified and methods have been developed, many of which are available to those with even the smallest budgets. Some can even be done yourself.

It's been said that the dinosaurs would still be alive if they could only have predicted the weather. Similarly, those professional communicators who are quick to adapt to the changing PR environment by meeting the ROI challenge will prosper. The luckier ones will learn to follow, and others, sadly, will perish.


IABC Research Foundation

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* Excellence in Public Relations and Communication Management

* Communication Research Primer

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Mark Weiner is chief executive officer of Delahayn Medialink Worldwide in Norwalk, Conn., USA. He can be reached at
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Article Details
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Author:Weiner, Mark
Publication:Communication World
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2003
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