Why it’s important to talk with your client about evaluation

Written by Catherine Mules

This article is based on Catherine's research published on AUT’s open repository, available here.

By their own assessment, public relations agencies deliver campaigns that support their clients’ objectives.

But when it comes to managing public relations programmes, experienced practitioners also argue they must advise on or even challenge their client’s objectives. This is, at least partly, because assessments of public relations’ value are commonly high on outputs of media coverage and low on verified outcomes. Measuring outputs without evaluating outcomes adds to a misconception of the PR industry as preoccupied with spin over substance.

Social media’s tidal wave of connectivity makes credibility a more acute issue for PR. Too often, online clicks, counts and connections are the go-to currency for measuring a campaign’s success. This is problematic because while these outputs suggest buzz, what, if any, difference they make to behaviour change remains unclear. When thinking strategically about the impact of our campaigns, we may wonder whether we made a tangible difference or were little more than a passing scroll or click in a sea of images.

This dilemma intrigued me as a PR newcomer, and is ultimately why I sought an in-depth understanding of practitioners’ views on evaluation. Between 2016 and 2018, I interviewed nine senior PR practitioners in New Zealand, and presented the findings in my Masters of Communication Studies thesis. The analysis identified three significant points to the practitioners’ stories of evaluation.

The first: clients were often unwilling to fund evaluation, instead preferring measurement of outputs or even just conversations with PR practitioners. “I’m going to ring up the client and go are you happy? That part of the evaluation will be much more insightful for the both of us,” an Account Director described. Immediate output results appeared to more easily make an impression on clients.

The second: evaluation is tangled up in technology changes. A Marketing Manager commented: “In the past that’s been a big tendency that companies were happy to bury their heads in the sand and think, ‘Oh well, that’s not going to damage us,’ but now when you see a Tweet can go viral... companies can’t be complacent about that kind of thing anymore.” The practitioners saw clients are increasingly aware of the importance of evaluation, as consumers expect more transparency in business. They also saw opportunities in online access to data sources and tools for analysis.

The third: evaluation matters professionally, but the Barcelona Principles – global guidelines for a structured approach to evaluation - must be more relevant to the day-to-day needs of professional practice. “The outcomes at the end of the day are going to be much more closely related with what the organisation is looking for”, an independent PR consultant told me. Practitioners agreed that while their clients sometimes preferred clicks and anecdote, they generally saw evaluation as adding rigour and accuracy. Clients mainly valued PR results that are quantified and clearly contribute to the bottom-line.

My key learning? Conversations with clients about the strategic importance of evaluation outcomes is a professional priority, providing the opportunity for building awareness of the why and how of evaluation, and contributing to the role of the PR practitioner as trusted advisor. Greater use of evaluation to assess the impact of PR on behaviour is long overdue. The practitioners I interviewed here agreed we need to go beyond visibility or reach, to focus on actual difference made. Otherwise we are left with little to base our campaigns on and, as the independent consultant cautioned, left wondering: “How do I know any of this PR is doing any good?”