Public Relations

An approach to connect PR and corporate communication to organization and business outcomes

PR and communication academics have been harping about evaluation for 30 years since Jim Grunig uttered his cri de coeur about lack of evaluation in 1983. Grunig observed then: “just as everyone is against sin, so most public relations people I talk to are for evaluation. People keep on sinning, however, and PR people continue  not to do evaluation research”

When evaluation is done, even today it is largely focussed on measuring outputs, such as the volume and tone of publicity, impressions and Web page views and downloads, with much less identification of outcomes, according to research studies such as the biennial Generally Accepted Practices (GAP) study in the US2 and a six-year longitudinal analysis of PR practitioners’ use of social media by Don Wright and Michelle Hinson3. Most importantly of all, PR outcomes are rarely linked to desired organization or business outcomes. This lack of connection to the ‘bottom line’ – whether financial or otherwise – is the main barrier to further professionalization of PR and corporate communication, according to 75 per cent of 2,200 practitioners surveyed in 2012… This paper presents a logic model approach with a particular twist that has been shown to have some success in identifying and explaining the ultimate value of PR and which, therefore, may make a useful contribution to bridging the gap between communication outcomes and organization and business outcomes.

The measurement and evaluation debate

Much has been written about measurement and evaluation of PR and corporate communication over the past 30 years and this will not be summarized here, as most practitioners and certainly all scholars have heard it many times before.

Recently, a number of important developments have refired and refocussed debate about PR measurement and evaluation.

(Editor’s Note: the author provides details of a range of developments, including the Barcelona Principles.)

However, challenges remain. In addressing one of these, this paper focusses primarily on evaluation, rather than measurement. While noting that the terms are often used interchangeably, most definitions agree that evaluation is the assessment of impact and value – and sometimes effectiveness – of a process or activity in the context of the organization’s overall goals and objectives. Measurement using various instruments is undertaken to inform evaluation…. Linking PR and corporate communication outcomes to organization or business outcomes is part of evaluation and this particular critical stage of evaluation is the challenge addressed in this paper.

Despite their obvious overlap, separating these two processes is useful, not only to provide focus in this analysis, but also because it allows demonstration of the importance of ‘measuring what matters’. What matters to businesses and organizations are the outcomes they seek, particularly priority ones.

The Holy Grail of evaluation

The key premise underlying the argument presented here is the two-fold proposition that (a) evaluation of PR and corporate communication should identify outcomes, not simply describe and count outputs and (b) that the outcomes of PR and corporate communication should be causally linked to achievement of desired organization and business outcomes. The first is now a well-established, albeit still not widely-implemented, principle. Focus on outcomes, rather than outputs, is one of the fundamentals of evaluation adopted in the Barcelona Declaration of Measurement Principles. It is also strongly reflected in most PR evaluation models, including Cutlip, Center and Broom’s PII model, Macnamara’s Pyramid Model of PR Research and Watson and Noble’s Unified Model.

However, the second principle remains relatively new in PR literature, which is curious and concerning. For instance, a search of articles published in PR Week between 1995 and 2010 using a range of key words found 8,000 articles related to ‘pitches’ and ‘pitching’, 5,600 articles related to ‘media relations’ and 5,000 articles related to ‘awareness’. In contrast, the search found only 62 articles related to ‘behavioural change’ and the term ‘business outcome’ appeared in only three articles in the 15-year period.

(Editor’s Note: The author cites the few research papers focussed on organization and business outcomes. He also describes the complexities which impede linking PR outcomes to organization and business outcomes.)

A logic model approach

Logic models are widely used to plan and track major projects, particularly those with multiple inputs and outputs and multiple parallel activities occurring over some time. Thus, logic models have an immediate application to PR and corporate communication and they have been used for this purpose – albeit not to the extent that they could be. Logic models have the added advantage that they are usually illustrated graphically to provide a simple demonstration of interconnections and ‘flow’.

 

(Editor’s Note: Here, the author outlines the theory behind the logic model approach and gives a sample of a logic model from a health services project.)

A humanist metaphor and reverse engineered development

The logic model proposed here for evaluating PR and corporate communication is a particular adaptation in two key respects. First, while it visually represents elements such as inputs and outputs as abstract boxes and interconnecting lines on a chart, as most logic models do, it uses a very familiar metaphor as the language for its structure and logic – the skeletal structure of the human body….

the following words to an old gospel song, sung by children over many generations, expresses the basic principles of this particular logic model.

The toe bone connected to the heel bone,

The heel bone connected to the foot bone,

The foot bone connected to the leg bone,

The leg bone connected to the knee bone,

The knee bone connected to the thigh bone,

The thigh bone connected to the back bone,

The back bone connected to the neck bone,

The neck bone connected to the head bone.

 

Using the metaphor of the human body as the structure for the logic model affords easy and quick understanding, unlike many models and evaluation systems that require considerable explanation and close attention by senior management – the latter being an ingredient that cannot be assumed among busy, information-overloaded C-suite executives….

The second equally, or even more, significant adaptation applied to the normal logic model process is that the process of developing it is reversed. Traditionally, logic models are developed by the participants in a process identifying the desired outcome, usually taken from a document such as a strategic plan, and then working through each of the steps and elements required to reach the desired outcome from first to last. However, a vital part of the success of the logic model proposed here is involving senior management in a short consulting session and working backwards with them from the ultimate desired outcome or outcomes at the ‘head’ of the organization (which should not be assumed on the basis of documents, as will be explained later) to identify the neck bone, back bone, thigh bones, knee bones, leg bones, foot bones and even toe bones, as well as joints, sinews and tendons that are necessary to operate effectively and achieve what the [corporate/organizational] body wants to do. While senior management will not know all the elements necessary in their organization or business, particularly at the micro level, most do have a good understanding of the main contributing factors for ultimate success….

 

Applying the ‘toe bone to the head bone’ logic model to PR and corporate communication

It is sometimes difficult to get time with senior management. But it is vital to have access to the ‘dominant coalition’, as noted in PR Excellence theoryand in many widely-used text books and manuals on PR and corporate communication management. When practitioners have access to senior management, it is vital they do not squander the opportunity by doing all the talking. A key part of the success of this model is posing questions to senior management and getting them involved in identifying the various elements, components, milestones, stepping stones and underpinning foundations or sub-outcomes that will ensure success in achieving overall organizational or business outcomes. A well-briefed facilitator can help ensure the right questions are asked, prompt participants and keep discussion on track.

(Editor’s Note: Here, the author gives examples of questions asked and provides a  draft ‘toe bone to the head bone’ logic model and a completed logic model for an anonymous organization. He then goes on to provide a detailed Case Study in which the identity of the organization has been protected, but all details are factual.)

Conclusion

The human body is one of the most intricately interconnected systems in our world. We inherently understand that each small bone, nerve, vein and artery and each piece of sinew, tendon and cartilage plays a part and is vital to our overall functioning and effectiveness. Other ecosystems and ecologies operate in similar ways. It is productive to view PR and corporate communication as part of an ecosystem.

In such a system, PR and corporate communication activities may be used in various ways for various purposes. Some may even be small components of the system. But they may be vitally linked to and contribute to the primary outcomes sought by the host organization, in the same way that the toe bone is connected to the foot bone, to the leg bone and all the way to the head bone in the human body (as celebrated in the old gospel song). Their value derives from that connection. This model can be implemented using business language. The metaphor of the ‘toe bone connected to the foot bone to the leg bone’ and so on is only employed to emphasize the interconnection and interdependency of the key elements in the model. Once the logic of the model is established, its elements can be identified as milestones, stepping stones or sub-outcomes’. Not every PR and corporate communication activity will directly connect to the macro-level outcomes of an organization or business – nor does the work of the accounts department, the IT department or even that of some senior executives. That does not matter and does not prove the activity has no value. But every activity must connect to achievement of some milestone, stepping stone or sub- outcome that is connected to the ultimate outcome of the organisation or business – just as the toe bone is connected to the foot bone, to the leg bone and all the way up to the head bone.

Jim Macnamara PhD, FAMI, CPM, FPRIA, FAMEC is Professor of Public Communication at the University of Technology Sydney and an internationally recognized authority on evaluation of communication campaigns and social media. Before taking up a full-time academic role in 2007, he had a 30-year professional career spanning journalism, public relations and media and communication research, including founding and heading the Asia Pacific office of media analysis firm CARMA International for more than a decade before selling the company to iSentia (formerly Media Monitors) in 2006. He is the author of 12 books including The 21st  Century Media (R)evolution published by Peter Lang, New York in 2010 (2nd edition 2013) and Public Relations Theories, Practices, Critiques published by Pearson Australia in 2012.

 

(Editor’s note: the following is a brief summary of a significant research paper which includes a detailed case study. The original is available at http://amecorg.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/The-Toe-Bone-to-the-Foot-Bone-Logic-Model-to-Link-Outcomes-Jim-McNamara-May-2013.pdf)


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