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Measurement Myths, Misconceptions & Misfires

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Public relations is a comparatively young, somewhat under (but increasingly) theorized profession that pines for professional legitimacy (at least optically as we already know we deserve it), and pines for securing or maintaining our seat at the C-suite table. Certainly research and measurement is not the only means to achieving this end, but it can and will continue to play a critical role.

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Having researched the topic extensively for a master’s thesis; having been in the research and measurement side of the biz for several years; having sat across the table talking about measurement with senior practitioners; having attended numerous conferences, speaking at several; having observed superiors, mentors and industry gurus — what’s emerged is a series of fairly common challenges, concerns, myths, misconceptions and barriers — both perceived and real — that practitioners most frequently cite as impediments to the adoption of measurement.

15 Most Commonly Cited  Measurement Myths, Misconceptions, Misfires and Barriers
Here are the 15 most commonly cited (but not insurmountable) measurement myths, misconceptions, misfires and barriers (with an inspirational hat tip to Andrew Laing, CEO, Cormex Research) :

  1. Senior management misunderstanding of and/or resistance to measurement.
  2. PR practitioners’ worry that measurement will show the bad as well as the good. Yes it does and yes it should.
  3. Inertia: accommodating, disentangling, reversing legacy methods, reversing momentum.
  4. Territoriality: research is typically the exclusive domain of the marketing department.
  5. Immeasurable and unrealistic objectives and thinking of measurement as something that’s only post campaign evaluative and not pre-campaign formative.
  6. Too simplistic a view of communications theory (and how we think of the ‘audience’) and what is realistically achievable.
  7. Lack of holistic, macro view of the communications function:  It’s not about media; it’s about relationships and reputation.
  8. Sourcing data: format, volume, frequency of and what to do with it once you have it.
  9. Establishing and maintaining an ongoing database.
  10. Standardization across organization(s), among external agencies (and a disturbing call for standardization across the industry) … best practices and guiding principles, absolutely, but standards, no.
  11. Competition for budget with other complementary, overlapping disciplines: marketing, traditional advertising, social media.
  12. Misconceptions to do with cost — it’s rarely as expensive as most think. A car is only expensive the first time you buy one. The second car is only more or less expensive than the first. Zero multiplied by anything is still zero. Can’t afford to? Can you afford not to? Good measurement pays for itself.
  13. Time & expertise: PR practitioners’ research orientations and skill sets. PR pros shouldn’t necessarily be expected to do their own dental work.
  14. Benefits of measurement are generally long term, demand for data and results often short term, and we’re all too often looking at a singular snapshot in time, not trends over time.
  15. Assumptions concerning isolating for PR’s unique contribution to the communications and/or marketing mix in a causal sort of way — we can do this, we just don’t do it enough.  And we’re not even doing enough of one step below that: correlation work. We can do that too. Often that’s a step in the right direction up the measurement staircase.

Few would disagree, I suspect, that the profession has been allowed to stand on the ‘we are about words (and art), not numbers (a management science), for too long. PR is best considered as the right combination of both and not one at the expense of the other.

Public relations is a comparatively young, somewhat under (but increasingly) theorized profession that pines for professional legitimacy (at least optically as we already know we deserve it), and pines for securing or maintaining our seat at the C-suite table. Certainly research and measurement is not the only means to achieving this end, but it can and will continue to play a critical role.

Alan Chumley, senior consultant at CARMA International Inc., Global Media Analysts, has twelve years’ experience in the corporate communication / measurement industry, including senior-level, in-house corporate communications roles for leading blue chip organizations such as Bell Canada, as the director of Measurement for Hill & Knowlton, and vice president at Cormex Media Content Analysis. An advocate of driving science into the art of communications, Alan has extensive experience not only in corporate communications strategy and execution but also in the use of research and measurement to inform and influence traditional and social media content analysis. He specializes in interviews, focus groups, surveys, stakeholder relationship measurement, communication and perception audits, reputation research, employee engagement research, traditional and social media content analysis, and correlating this data with tangible organization outcomes. Connect with Alan and the CARMunity on Twitter and on LinkedIn.

Join Alan along with other members of the PRSA National Capitol Chapter (PRSA-NCC) at the PRSA 2010 International Conference: Powering PRogress, October 16–19 in Washington, D.C.!

About the author

Alan Chumley


  • This is an excellent summary of the challenges (and, in fact, start to allude to some of the answers, too). One thing I’d add is that rarely are those involved with measurement (execs, PR, marketing, sales, etc.) speaking the same language. It’s critical that people within an organization all mean the same thing when they use words like goals, objectives, metrics, ROI, etc.

  • I’m constantly rendered speechless by the protestations from our profession that you have so beautifully enumerated above. They want to be treated with the same respect and authority as we give to accountants and lawyers, but then cheerfully go ahead and buy, do or promote bad research or use bad data. If an accountant had the same nonchalance when it came to accuracy as most PR professionals do (those who use AVE’s and other spurious indecies, for example) they’d be in jail. If a lawyer ignored the law the way most PR pofessionals ignore standards set down by IPR or the Barcelona Principles, he or she would be disbarred — and then go to jail. We can’t have it both ways folks. Either suck it up and be known as a squishy, unmeausurable, unaccoutnable profession that lives by its gut instinct and the next creative shiny object you come across. Or obey the rules, become professional and earn your seat at the table along with the rest of the professions.

  • My learned colleague @kdpaine hits it on the head. Additionally, I’d add that were PRSA and IABC truly professional associations, they’d have the ability to stop someone from practicing PR for ignoring even the code of ethics, let alone a code of professional conduct. Cutlip, Center and Broom write that having an association with that type of clout is one of the hallmarks of professionalism.

    We could conclude that the real reason PR folks are so resistant to measurement is that they just don’t want to do it. They’d rather promulgate the idea that our profession is sorcery, art or outright flim-flam.


  • Agreed. I think the industry (again, I’m a recovering PR practitioner, not a math genius with a research background) has been allowed to stand on the shaky leg of “we’re about words, not numbers, art not science” for too long. 🙂

  • How about recommending some tools to use to measure PR performance. I edit a magazine, Environment:Yale, which is praised anecdotally, but I wonder about its true impact. Got any suggestions on how to measure that impact? Thanks

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