The Fork in the Road to PR Research

Management wants data. How can anybody think otherwise in a business world ruled by six sigma, key performance indicators, balanced scorecards, dashboards and ROI. Yet studies continue to show that many public relations practitioners still do not use research to plan and measure their work. Lack of time and budget are often cited as reasons, despite the availability of low-cost (even no-cost) research methods.

A new paper on the Institute for Public Relations website, originally presented by Dr. Jim Macnamara at our 4th annual Summit on Measurement, puts the blame on something more fundamental: a “fork in the road” in the development of modern public relations and corporate communication practice.

Macnamara reviews a wide variety of modern theories about mass media and communications. These generally arrive at an integrated model where authors and audiences interact in complex, two-way processes.

A no-brainer, you might think. But things didn’t begin that way. Journalism, traditionally pursuing an ideal of providing facts and letting the public decide, assumed that communication had effects and therefore settled for measuring only production. Public relations basically followed suit. Even as PR theory-building moved away from journalism, most practitioners continued to focus on outputs rather than outcomes. Why use research and measurement on something you believe you know intuitively?

Advertising and marketing, on the other hand, began looking for explanations when it was apparent that their efforts often failed. They turned to social sciences such as psychology and cultural studies. They adopted modern academic thinking in media and communication regarding how people learn and make sense of the world around them.

In short, there was a fork in the road that continues to manifest itself today. Too many public relations and corporate communications practitioners do not embrace well-established research about effective communication. Too many universities do not teach public relations this way. Thus the public relations field is populated with many more skilled technicians than valued counselors.

The industry, says Macnamara, needs roadside assistance. To read his proposed solutions, and to propose a few of your own, here’s the paper.

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3 Replies to “The Fork in the Road to PR Research

  1. Jim Macnamarra’s bang on in my view. I had the pleasure of hearing him present the paper last October.

    While I certainly appreciate that clients are hesitant to spend a portion of their budget or monthly retainer on measurement (I’d argue Brian that measurement is as much about lookingg forward as it is looking back…it’s as much a strategic forethought as a tactical afterthought), it’s important that we have those awkward discussions with clients. It’s important that we challenge them. It’s important that we sit down with them and have a higher-level, longer-term, more strategic, less tactical discussion about, at the very least, starting somewhere with measurement and, over time, moving them up the levels of sophistication of what is / can be / should be measured.

    Frankly, with some noteable exceptions, the agency world has been among the last to embrace measurement. Government, NGOs, corporations have been on board the SS Measurement for decades.

    Let’s get serious about accountability. We’re not Barnham and Bailey publicists anymore, we’re full on strategists, corporate counsellors and we are a bona fide management function. Let’s make sure measurement reflects and validates that and let’s not shrug off our responsibility not only to the clients we serve but the industry we work in and represent.

  2. Brian,
    how fresh and candid…your description is so very close to the day to day experience of many of us.
    Thank you.
    But…so what?
    As one of the very first readers and contributors to this blog (and I am thrilled by having been able to capture at least some of your attention since the beginning) you will remember that the Macnamara first draft paper was published and commented here following its presentation at the IPR measurement summit in New Hampshire last September (almost a year ago)…long before it went ’round and round’…
    And when a paper goes ’round and round’it means that it strikes a bell for many. So has this one.
    Then, in my view, the question one needs to ask (and you should try to respond..) is: if the real life situation is more than often the one you so vividly describe, why then does a paper like Macnamara’s attract so much attention and consensus?
    This is the conversation we should have…
    1) agencies, corporations are aware that they are constantly under pressure to be more accountable. Yes? No? If you listen to many the answer is a resounding yes. However others, like for example my good friend Jon White who interviewed a group of british ceo’s on this, say no. Your opinion?
    2) academics are very keen to show to their students that the profession thay have chosen to perform, despite what many say, is a serious one and most reasonable people would agree that if you ask to be payed by someone for a job, you should be able to account for the results you make possible. You might say but the results are in the clippings I produce or in the number of people who come to the events I organise for you. Come on…Brian! You know better than I do that this is a non answer. Who tells you that the clipping is actually read by someone and that its contents actually improve rather than damage your client’s product or service reputation? Who tells you that the event your organised has actually changed someone’s mind?
    This is as banal as you can get…but you asked for it!
    Now it’s your turn to be nasty….:))

  3. Professor Doctor Macnamara quotes some other reseacher as saying our explanations of not doing much post-program research — lack of time and lack of budget — are not reasons, as we who don’t do much research might say, but excuses, as those who want to sell us research do say.

    Yeah, maybe, but if I had more time, I’d read the whole paper. But I’m behind on updating my web site and reading the IABC web site, and reading the two magazines I bought this week for business purposes…

    As for budget, Prof/Doc writes that there is low cost and free research available.

    Well, not in the PR consulting world. He seems to not understand how we get pai

    Here’s PR consulting 101.

    We strainlurselves to convince ignorant clients who think PR and marketing are the same thing to give us a budget of, say, $3000 a month — yeah, I know the Fortune 500 pay tens of thosuands a month, but there are only 500 of them.

    In return for our $3000 a month, we promise to deliver some amount of time, devoted to useful PR activities — we suggest what we in our wisdom think is useful, and they say OK or not.

    And if we charge, say, $150 an hour, we agree to prerform 20 hours or so of work during the month, following the approved / agreed program.

    Clients seem to like us to spend most of these 20 hours writing and distributing releases, or organizing open houses, or reviewing and repairing web sites, or writing an op-ed piece or two, or supervising photos for a photo release, or attending a conference on behalf of the client.

    Only rarely do they say to us, “Use four hours of the 20 this month to look backwards, and tell us whether what you did was any good.”

    Comments welcome.


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