Thursday, September 29, 2011

Seeing data

Zabisco Infographic's short video shows why infographics have taken off in the past year or so with PR and media.So much data available -- and graphic representation so much easier than it has ever been. PRNews recently summed up the topic for public relations.

What nobody is struggling with yet, as far as I know, is best practices and guidelines for marketers, PR people, and research companies for understanding and using the potential of infographics. There are as many ways to misrepresent as to communicate. It looks like another instance of the technology getting ahead of the thinking.

Some good observations on best practices in this SlideShare from Nicolas Garcia Belmonte: Principles of Analytical Design.

Still living in the analog world

Don Bartholomew's recent post on Metricsman, "Measurement 2020 and Other Fantasies," is a nice summary of where PR metrics and analytics are likely evolving. I'm glad, however, he's kept things in perspective. He points out that we still live mostly in the analog world and word of mouth is still more pervasive and important than word of mouse.

Making the case for sustainable streets

ASLA's The Dirt blog in a recent post summarizes the many efforts of NYC to improve quality of street life and sustainability. The post leads off with a nice "before" and "future" photo comparison of Times Square before the pedestrian-ization and the planned re-design by Snohetta.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Expect more from PR research: Don't just measure something -- do something

[This post also appears on the PR Cafe blog at, September 14. Join the discussion next Sunday - Tuesday, September 18-20, at the 9th Annual North American Summit on PR Measurement.]

Culture critic and USC Annenberg Fellow, Neal Gabler, wrote in The New York Times on August 15, 2011 in his opinion piece, “The Elusive Big Idea,” that “at a time when we know more than we have ever known, we think about it less.” Gabler’s analysis is disconcerting in many ways, and it should be no less a warning signal for PR.

For documenting the impact of PR work, we may be living in the best of times. The technologies for monitoring media and social media are increasingly improving and more economical. One good result of the digital revolution is a decreasing fear of the algorithm. A decade ago, PR people would confidently assert that you just can’t measure PR. Today, it is clear: you can.

Gabler’s insight also suggests we may be in the worst of PR times: with more information than we ever had before and thinking about it less. A current marketing truism asserts that the problem isn’t information, it’s getting attention. That characterization, however, does not think the situation through even half way. Kim Kardashian can command attention. The challenge is not attracting attention, it is getting people to do something. To buy, to vote, to believe. PR cannot be about getting attention; it has to be about changing the world.

If the goal is changing the world, not getting attention, then the value of public relations to organizations now and in the future is tied to the fate of its often neglected step-child, PR research. But maybe not for the reason you would, at first, suppose. Much depends on how PR research is positioned, and how PR practitioners and researchers approach their work. A lot is being written about, and discussed at conferences recently, relating to the impact and the ROI of PR. Important as ROI is, it is more important to reconsider the aspects of PR research that do not focus on information and attention and help us think more about the future.

Monitoring may be the hardest PR task. That is why it is so often done thoughtlessly and on the cheap. Like most things that are hard to do, we mostly don’t do them. Yet I would assert that the PR enterprise that does its monitoring thoughtlessly and on the cheap is providing its public relations services exactly the same way.

Many practitioners view monitoring as “watching” or “listening”; fair enough. But watching and listening are not the same as generating a list of links and maybe a set of charts off the dashboard. Watching and listening require the hard work of attentive analysis and review. (Think CIA intelligence agents and financial analysts.) Watching entails persistent, sustained analysis. Looking at outlier opinions to understand why they happened and if there is anything significant. If patterns of coverage and attention are not changing, why is that? Don’t you have an intended outcome for the PR program, and shouldn’t the coverage and attention be trending the way you want?

If your monitoring report suggests nothing new to you, then either you are really not thinking about what is monitored or the PR program is failing to have impact. Monitoring is the search for evidence and significance; it is not cutting and pasting this week’s Google Alerts. Every monitoring report should answer questions. How has the communications environment changed as a result of this PR initiative, or because of other external events? What are the newly presented opportunities or obstacles? How should the PR program change? (In Gabler’s perspective, it’s about ideas, not information.)

Monitoring should be done with options in mind. You should be monitoring with an intended intervention at the ready. When your share of voice compared to competitors’ slips below a certain threashold, have an action at hand to implement (or at least to recommend). A doctor does not monitor vital signs out of idle curiosity; vital signs are signals as to when there should be an intervention. The public relations researcher has to be fearless in the organization; the PR researcher has to be able, empowered, and courageous enough to sound an alarm when things are not going well. Thoughtful attention and analytical monitoring check for vital signs and provide context about the implications of any change. (Expect ideas, not just information.)

PR monitoring and research shouldn’t be archaeology. PR research should solve problems.
Many organizations today pay PR agencies or assign internal staff to monitor and measure PR programs to justify dollars spent in the past. That is an accounting function. It is not creative, intellectual, nor supportive of sustainable, future business. Several initiatives are underway in the PR profession today to address the issue of ROI (the Council of PR Firms has a task force looking at this issue and the AMEC conference last May identified ROI of PR as a priority). Within the year, productive clarifications about ROI of PR will be articulated – and let’s get that behind us as soon as possible. The PR industry needs to come to grips with the ROI question, but we have to get beyond it. The ROI of PR is a backward-facing enterprise; it will never help answer tomorrow’s questions.

Fox TV’s “Bones” series should be the favorite television show for anyone thinking about PR research. The series’ premise is that a team of archaeologists recruited out of a national historical and scientific institution (based on The Smithsonian) is tasked to work with the FBI to solve the murder of the week. The evidence-based, details-oriented, data-centric orientation of the scientists (brains) contribute at least as much to solving the murder mystery in each episode as does the derring-do of the FBI agent (brawn). The focus of the scientists’ work is never focused back on last week’s mystery to prove how well the previous mystery was solved at so little cost (no drama, no interest there). The scientists focus not on the past but on this week’s corpse (the bones) and reliably tease out through immense knowledge and persistent attention to the tiniest factual detail or the pattern of unanticipated evidence, the clue that solves the mystery. (This is the paradigm for worthwhile PR research.)

If your PR research team is not applying state-of-the-art technologies, evidence-based processes, and objectivity to solving communications problems, you probably do not really have a research team, or you are kidding yourself about the benefits of research you offer. Such PR operates in the worlds of information and attention and does not do the hard work of ideas required for changing the world.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Inner textscape: heartbeat drawing

For over fifteen years, the artist SASAKI, has been extending his Heartbeat Drawing project -- now over 300 art works, including installations and monumental. The "subject" is the heartbeat: "the proof of living in the 'now' and the bond 'shared' by most forms of life." No surprise that I learned about the Heartbeat Drawing project from Last Word / Nonomura Kaoru. SASAKI's project resonates Zen discipline, as Nonomura describes in Eat Sleep Sit (Shinchosha, 1996 and Kodansha International, 2008).

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Perspective from the High Line

To say that the High Line was made possible by Robert Hammond and Joshua David is not hyperbole. While the money -- lots of private and some public -- came from elsewhere, and while it can't be disputed that in some ways Robert and Josh were at the right place at the right time, still Robert and Josh provided the the vision, commitment, and rhetorical force that won over the funders, the regulatory agencies, the property owners, and the neighbors. The High Line was the right place, but Robert and Josh made the right time.

They had no relevant background or professional experience before they took on the creation of the High Line as their personal crusade. Not architects, or landscape designers, or urban developers, just two guys in the neighborhood with an idea and an extraordinary ambition and confidence -- and ability to tell the story of what the High Line could be. Telling that story over and over again, in person, at events, at presentations, at parties -- and telling the story to neighbors (some of which, admittedly, influential in the city and in New York City culture) and anyone else who would listen. They successfully sold their concept over and over again, and the powers that be trusted the administrative and creative process to Robert and David to make it happen. (You can't help but remember that Frederick Law Olmsted had never worked at or designed an urban park before he took on the concept and the creation of Central Park.)

The latest version of Robert's and Josh's story is their just-published history / memoir, High Line: The Inside Story of New York City's Park in the Sky (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2011). Earlier tonight, NPR's All Things Considered profiled Robert and Josh, the High Line, and book in a thoughtful and entertaining profile that won't hurt either the flow of High Line tourists or the book sales.

Like every other successful public space -- and all the great, historical ones including Central Park, the Tuileries Garden, Ueno Park -- the High Line brings together public and private assets and interests. The High Line makes the most cherished urban values physical, lived experience.

Easy as that is to observe, it is just as difficult to know what exactly to learn from the High Line case study. Though it shares common virtues with other successful urban spaces, it is hard to reduce the story to a template. We can identify the conceptual ingredients (the textscapes) within the physical space, but each of those spaces is a distinctive and irreplicable story.

Bigger picture: measuring what matters

Many of us who have interest in public relations measurement and evaluation have been talking in the past year about "measuring what matters." This comes from a realization that the new algorithms and monitoring technologies make it possible to identify, select, and count many actions and features of the communications ecosystem -- coupled with a second realization that just because you can count something doesn't mean that it has significance or meaning. (Baseball metaphor: you can count how many times the pitcher pitches the ball during the course of game. That count is meaningless without factoring in significance: how many of the pitches were strikes, balls, hits, etc.)

Hotelier Chip Conley spoke last year at a TED Talks about counting what's worthwhile. His frame of reference is much bigger than measurement and evaluation of communications, but his talk forces the same kind of re-consideration of purpose in the "measuring what matters" discussion.