Can you measure PR’s contribution to society?

Last week’s World PR Festival in London took as its theme: “The public benefit of public relations”.  I wasn’t able to attend (for cost and personal reasons), but caught up with the thoughts of Paul Mylrea (in PRWeek), Toni Muzi Falconi (at PR Conversations) and Liz Lewis-Jones (at PR Voice).

Sadly the papers from the Festival aren’t readily available, but I have requested a copy as I believe they should be a useful resource for my CIPR Diploma and Advanced Certificate students.

It is interesting to reflect on whether PR does provide a public benefit.  Toni recently summarised a US argument regarding media criticisms of the PR “profession” – with a link to a fascinating personal reflection from Harold Burson.  Burson refutes claims that all PR practitioners are liars, but argues “we are the paid advocates of clients who have a point of view that may be questioned by affected parties”.  He presents PR as “a neutral discipline that can be used for what’s good for society and, from time to time, what’s not so good.”

One of the problems with thinking about the public benefit of PR or its role for social good is one of perspective.  Do we need another movie?  Is society happy with the role of government in citizens’ lives or the power of companies simply in exchange for them paying taxes, providing jobs and CSR programmes?  Even when employed by charities, can we always say the motives of PR are for the benefit of all publics? 

Looking at the experience of PR through the eyes of a BBC reporter on the red carpet circuit, the view of PR as supporting advocacy or dialogue is questionable.  Of course, one can argue that in the case of film promotion, PR is simply seen as press agentry where supply and demand of the product (and its human components) are used to enforce a “command and control” approach to achieving positive media coverage.

The Independent noted a Media Evaluation & PR Benchmarking Report by Metrica (full report available on request) claiming that:

In daily national newspapers, 90 per cent of articles are designated “favourable” to the organisation mentioned, rising to 97 per cent for items on local radio and local television stations. On average, a UK organisation will enjoy 492 mentions across national and regional media in a typical month, reaching an audience of 16.6 million (35 per cent of the population). Metrica judges less than 8 per cent of all coverage to be “strongly unfavourable”.

Is this a result of PR’s increasing influence – the Flat Earth News syndrome?  Metrica reports:

the proportion of “unfavourable coverage” has doubled from 4.3 per cent in 2001 to 7.8 per cent in 2007 – a trend that Metrica assigns to “the increasing competitiveness of the media in the last few years”.

It may not really matter whether your view of PR is that it involves achieving positive press coverage, advocating a partisan viewpoint, or acting as a force for public good.  Indeed, to act as a force for public good, may well involve PR professionals in the advocate role seeking favourable reporting.  But not necessarily.

Here the question is one of motive and how PR is being used.  The focus on simply counting media mentions or otherwise assessing coverage does reflect a one-sided view to communications.  Has the PR person been successful in getting a message across?  Whether or not this message is beneficial to society is another matter.

If that is the aim of PR (rather than helping society benefit simply as a consequence of “good business” – see Harold Burson’s thoughts on CSR), then it must be defined as an objective to be measured.

Apparently, the media evaluation companies are (according the Independent article cited above) “challenging the traditional PR measure of advertising value equivalent (AVE), which compared a piece of editorial to the cost of a similarly-sized advertisement”.

That may be good news itself as only this month I’ve been told several times that AVE is a good way of measuring PR (although I don’t follow the logic since you don’t measure the effectiveness of advertising by what it costs).

But then I note that Claire O’Sullivan, Metrica’s associate director, says: “The appropriate way to measure PR is to assemble a dashboard of measures relevant to an organisation’s communications objectives – for example, which key messages are reaching which audience and how many times.”

Reaching people with your message is simply one step – but what do they do with that message, does it affect their knowledge, attitudes, or behaviour even.  Do they believe the message is genuine or self-motivated (and do they feel this matters)?  Are they motivated to engage in the dialogue that some claim is the goal of PR?

Or if we are looking at PR as a force for social good – have we considered measures to reflect this?  If we take Burson’s argument that PR is simply a neutral tool, should we look at a balance sheet of effect and assess if the sum of PR activities makes a positive or negative contribution?  How well are we doing as an industry on this measure and should we take action if we fail to live up to our claim to be a force for good?

Is it enough to focus on the case studies where PR has been shown to reflect the role of a good corporate citizen?  What about those examples where PR plays a role in harming the public or wider society?  Or where its effect is of little social or public value, good or bad?

What about individual PR practitioners?  Can we truly say that our actions contribute to the benefit of society?  And, if they don’t – for example, if we work for legal concerns that may be socially unacceptable (and that may include my colleagues in the motor industry), what does that say for our role in the PR fraternity?

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.

3 thoughts on “Can you measure PR’s contribution to society?”

  1. Thank you Heather for a great pull-together of what went on. On a cost-benefit analysis I gave the event a miss even though the idea of PR’s worth to society is something I’m keenly interested in.
    Does PR have public benefits? If you asked the same question of ‘journalism’ – then the answer is clearly that some journalism is of undoubted benefit to society and some is clearly the reverse.
    The same, sadly, is true of PR. The job of the industry is to communicate and applaud the beneficial and to work to cut down on the other stuff.
    Currently I’d say it’s pretty good at slapping itself on the back but could do better at basing that on solid evidence. I’m not too sure about its ability to self-regulate.

  2. Hi Heather,

    Thanks for the references to Metrica’s report in your post – it’s certainly stimulated some great debate since we released it.

    You’re absolutely right of course. It’s very important when measuring PR to look at both the outputs (e.g. volume, tone, messages etc in the coverage) and then to link this to the outcomes where possible. This is a key focus area for Metrica, and we have been helping our clients to understand the actual effect of their work for a number of years.

    Keep up the good work.

    Best, Claire

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