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Earning Our Seat at the Table

Posted At: November 20, 2012 3:40 P.M.
by Sam Nathews

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The public relations professional is the runt of the corporate litter.

For those of us who stir and generate conversation on behalf of an organization, there has also been, for some time, an internal conversation brewing.

That emerging conversation among the drivers of public dialogue has revolved around establishing a dependable way to show not only that PR professionals deserve a seat at “the table,” but that we bring a lot to it, as well.

The solution to our collective dilemma may lie in the very core of our practice.

Most university PR programs incorporate the four-step public relations process, RPIE, into their curricula. RPIE is an acronym for research, planning, implementation and evaluation. While each step in RPIE is important, the research and evaluation steps provide the only tangible way for PR professionals to demonstrate the value they contribute to an organization.

However, these two steps are often forgotten, hidden in the shadow of soaring ambition and overlooked in the interest of time.

Why is research important?

Pre-campaign research allows us, as PR professionals, to dip our toes into the pool of public perception and gauge the temperature before diving in.

Karla Gower, Ph.D., director of The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations and Behringer Distinguished Professor in The University of Alabama’s advertising and public relations department, emphasized the importance of pre-implementation research in a PR team’s efforts.

“Pre-implementation research allows you to determine what your client is really facing,” Gower said. “Sometimes we, or our clients, think we know how people feel about the client or the situation, but we may well be wrong. Once we know what we are dealing with, we can come up with a creative and strategic solution to the problem.”

However, pre-implementation research does more than provide us a window into the thought and behavioral process of our target audience.

Laura Walton, Ph.D., APR, assistant professor of public relations in the Department of Communication and research fellow and coordinator in the Media Collaboration Laboratory for the Social Science Research Center at Mississippi State University, also noted the value of pre-campaign research.

“Pre-implementation research [allows that familiarization] and also provides a baseline from which we can measure after implementation of a strategy/tactic,” Walton said.

Pre-campaign research is the stone upon which our communication strategy is sharpened and the scale upon which our impact is measured.

Gower stated, “You can’t be strategic if you don’t know what the problem is.”

Why is it important to evaluate?

Gower used a sports analogy to illustrate why it is a mistake for PR professionals to omit the evaluation step. She said that just because the game has ended does not mean players and coaches can stop working to improve.

“The end of a campaign does not mean we don’t have to evaluate whether we were successful,” Gower said. “We still need to know whether we met our objectives and reached the right publics with the right message.”

Not only is evaluation needed to determine whether a single initiative met its predetermined goals, but also it is necessary for determining whether an organization’s PR efforts should change course in the future.

“Post-implementation is a must to continue in the right direction for an organization,” Walton said. “If something’s not working, you need to know. And without evaluation, you can’t make the necessary adjustments.”

Gower said detailed evaluation also helps PR practitioners make the case for our seat at the table.

“Evaluating post-implementation allows public relations professionals to continue to develop and improve, as well as show how we have contributed to the organization’s success,” Gower said.

What are the best practices?

Walton said the industry is starving for a set method of measuring social media engagement. However, she does not believe a “one-size-fits-all” solution is anywhere on the horizon.

“Because every organization has a different objective in mind with its social media, boxing companies into a set metric isn’t going to be effective,” Walton said.

She said that rather than having a single, standard means of measurement, companies will need to cherry-pick which measurement metric best highlights a particular communication objective.

Gower said with the emergence of social media came opportunities, as well as challenges.

“Social media allows us to develop relationships directly with publics in a way that we never could before,” Gower said. “But at the same time, it can be difficult to measure the impact of those relationships on the bottom line for an organization.”

She said that Facebook “Likes” used to be the industry-wide standard-bearer for social media measurement, but now there is more emphasis on influence and actual audience engagement.

“The measurement questions become: Who, how and where are people engaging with our content and to what degree has that engagement influenced perceptions and attitudes and led to action?” Gower said.

Gower also explained that while social media is revolutionary in providing PR professionals insight into the digital conversations surrounding an organization, it has yet to provide us with a process for determining whether that heightened awareness produced a desired modification of behavior.

“You can measure the number of messages and the topics discussed within that conversation,” Gower said. “It can also tell you whether the content (and by extension, the organization) was positively received. It cannot, however, tell you whether that content and the conversation surrounding it produced an attitudinal shift.”

In order to find out whether your efforts produced the desired change in behavior, we can revert back to distributing surveys, analyzing sales increases or other more traditional methods.

What does the future hold?

Walton said we can expect even more emphasis on digital measurement in the future. She also predicted a much more user-friendly interface than what we are privy to today.

Gower also foresees two changes in the near future.

“One is a movement toward uniform standards of measurement that can be applied across the industry. Standards will improve the prestige of the field,” Gower said. “The other is a continued focus on tying public relations efforts to measurable business goals.”

If we as PR professionals aspire to earn our seat at the table, we must take full advantage of the various evaluation methods in order to illustrate our worth to the organization. That is the bottom line.

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