By Robert Wynne, Contributor

We can measure the distance of the Milky Way. We can determine the size of an electron. But can we calculate the impact of public relations?

Maybe. Unlike physics or astronomy, it’s not an exact science. And if you thought the debate on gun control and the Second Amendment was contentious, welcome to public relations. Measurement matters because in a very competitive marketplace for clients, dollars, internal resources and respect, the industry wants to justify its contributions and impact.

Like charm, reputation or leadership, public relations can be a subjective science. You know when you see it or feel it, but people can’t always quantify every single sales lead, jump in revenue, rise in rankings, gain or loss of market share and link that to a single article in the Wall Street Journal, a fantastic speech at TED or Davos, Switzerland, or a series of Tweets.

There are three main opinions about metrics. The first comes from small agencies or individuals who claim they are the master alchemist. They are the ultimate expert, and only their equation is the truth. The second opinion, with possibly the most members, are followers of the Barcelona Principles, a document created by a large committee of well-meaning PR pros that establishes broad guidelines. The second group believes this is the Bible. The backbone of this theory are seven guidelines that are quite expansive. Narrowing down the inputs and outcomes for all or part of these principles into usable equations and statistics can be very complicated, and in some cases, expensive.

Here’s the 2015 update on the seven principles:

Goal Setting and Measurement are Fundamental to Communication and Public Relations
Measuring Communication Outcomes is Recommended Versus Only Measuring Outputs
The Effect on Organizational Performance Can and Should Be Measured Where PossibleMeasurement and Evaluation Require Both Qualitative and Quantitative Methods
AVEs are not the Value of Communication
Social Media Can and Should be Measured Consistently with Other Media Channels
Measurement and Evaluation Should be Transparent, Consistent and Valid
I’m in the third group. A few months ago I wrote an e-book for Meltwater, “Estimating the Real Value of Public Relations,” where I introduced a simple measurement that anyone can do for a single media placement. PR Dollar Value = Advertising Equivalency (AVE) x Multiplier of 5. This was based, in part, on a six-year study of 72,000 readers of the Los Angeles Times. The multi-million dollar research study, which surveyed 12,000 readers in seven different categories every week annually for six years, determined editorial content was much more valuable than advertisements in terms of awareness, recall and attitudinal impact. The multiplier comes from previous studies with multipliers ranging from 2.5 to 8.0 along with discussions from the author of the LA Times comprehensive project.

Besides that major research, and similar less comprehensive ones, there are three reasons to use AVE. User Experience, Buyer Experience, and The Real World. In a newspaper or magazine, or on the Internet, TV or radio, you cannot divorce the experience of ads and editorial. They are seen or watched or listened to side-by-side. To claim otherwise is simply not realistic. Second, each day businesses large and small decide how to spend their marketing budgets and resources: advertising, public relations, social media, billboards, events, etc. Its already being compared – every day. Third reason, reality. Advertising is a multi-billion business. Look at the Super Bowl. Google Ads. What do PR people want to compare editorial to smoke signals? Olive oil? The foam in their skinny mocha lattes?

Reasonable people can disagree. The adherents of the Barcelona Principles do not use AVE. That’s fine. Although we disagree on AVE, there’s a lot of good information – and good intentions – contained in The Barcelona Principles. They deserve serious scrutiny. The document comes from very smart people who want to increase the reputation of the PR industry.

To find out more, I spent interviewed the main author, David Rockland, Ketchum Partner, Immediate Past Chairman, the International Association for Measurement and Evaluation of Communication, via email. Here’s what Rockland had to say.

Robert Wynne: Can you measure PR?

David Rockland:  Yes.  You measure PR by answering one or more of the following questions: Outputs: Did you reach or engage your target audience with the messages or content you intended? Outcomes: As a result of reaching or engaging that audience, did they change in the sense of their awareness, comprehension, attitude, behavior and/or advocacy? Organizational Results: What were the effects on the organizations as a result of the changes in the audience, often measured in sales, market share, employee engagement, advocacy, donations, etc.

Wynne: If so, how can you measure PR using the Barcelona Principles?

Rockland: The Barcelona Principles provide the framework for communications measurement and are not specific tools or formulas.  However, by applying them, you wind up with a solid measurement program for communications.  Within each Principle, there are pretty specific directions in terms of how to write measureable goals and then the techniques you apply for each type of measurement, including what are the best ways to apply those techniques.  The Principles reflect the fact that communications takes many different form, and the Principles guide you in terms of how to measure each form.  However, I know many companies and other types of organizations from Southwest Airlines to Cleveland Clinic to the UK government, who use the Principles as the basis for their communications measurement.

Wynne: Is this expensive, do you need to hire a big PR agency, or can you do it yourself?

Rockland: It really depends on the communications program and its goals. Someone can use the Principles themselves to derive the approach.  In many ways, it begins with coming up with good goals at the outset, and then the measurement program is pretty well delineated. Obviously, there are efficiencies in involving a firm or professional who does this kind of work a lot.  However, that may not always be necessary. A reasonable consideration is to spend 3-7% of the total budget on the goal-setting and measurement, but make sure you are using the measurement to not only determine how you did, but also to better the communications effort moving forward in a predictable fashion.

Wynne: Were the principles created by a team of 200 people? In other words, was this a document created by consensus?

Rockland:  The initial Principles in 2010 were created by around 25 people, edited by me and then voted into existence by around 250 people from around 35 countries at a conference in Barcelona. They were then adopted by many companies, associations, etc. In the 2015 update, I convened people from a broader array of organizations — government, academia, corporations, non-profit and trade/membership organizations — to get their input and perspective. In some cases, the various organizations solicited input from their members.  So, in this latest iteration, there were probably as many as 200 people involved.  However, at the end of the day, in 2010 and 2015, the Principles were written on my computer and do reflect my perspective on bringing together the viewpoints and experience of many people who are engaged in the communications profession in many different ways. Fortunately, when they were unveiled both times, everyone involved agreed with them and use them in their organizations.

And the discussion continues…..

Robert Wynne owns a public relations agency in Manhattan Beach, CA. He is a former journalist who wrote for Newsweek and the L.A. Times.

[via Forbes]