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.